In August/September 2016 I had joined a 14days photo trip to Northwest Greenland that primarily was focused on the scenery and spectacular icebergs but also included some visits of villages and historical sites. According to the original schedule we ought to fly from Ilulissat to Thule to embark our small vessel and sail southbound along the coast back to Illulissat. However, the flights to Thule were cancelled due to the weather conditions so that we were stuck in Ilulissat for several days before we finally could make up arrangements to fly to Upernavik and wait there for the arrival of the ship coming down the coast from Thule. That’s why it became a different voyage than originally planned. Though we unfortunately missed the far north western part of Greenland’s coast between Thule and Upernavik, it nevertheless became a very good trip with lots of impressive motifs and views. In retrospect, the prolongation in Ilulissat was a bonus by offering the chance of an extensive exploration of the town and the famous Ilulissat Isfjord. The map below gives a rough overview of the itinerary and the locations we had visited. Our small vessel “MS Cape Race” with its space for just 12 passengers including our 4 guides offered great possibilities to enter very small fjords not possible for bigger ships. We could also closely approach and circumnavigate the ice formations in order to find the best angle for photography.
On the inbound flight to the international airport of Kangerlussuaq I already became aware of the dramatic decline of West Greenland ‘s icecap in comparison to its extension in 2002 when I had first visited the area. Some images of the previous trip can be viewed here. Between 2002 and 2016 the ice loss of Greenland has amounted to approximately 3478 Gigatons (on average 281 Gigatons per year) causing global sea level to rise 0,8mm (0.03 inches), see https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/30879 These numbers are extremely shocking. The immense decline of the ice sheet was evident on the whole trip along the west coast which has faced the largest mass decreases all over Greenland of up to 11.8 inches (30 centimeters ) per year.
This was especially noticeable at the Jacobshavn glacier (Sermeq Kujalleq) which is the main attraction nearby Ilulissat and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage in 2004. It is the most productive glacier in the Northern Hemisphere and flows at a rate of 20–35 m (66–115 ft) per day, resulting in around 20 billion tonnes of icebergs calving off and passing out into the icefjord every year. On average, the glacier moved nearly three times faster in 2012 than it did in the mid-1990s. Recent researches and evaluations of satellite data have shown that in 2013 the movement had reached a peak of 17 km per year as a result of an unusual warm summer.
The Jacobshavn glacier probably is responsible for unleashing the iceberg that sank the Titanic and alone contributes of more than 6% of Greenland’s ice loss. It is the most important factor for the sea level rise.The calving front has retreated many kilometers since my first visit and helicopter ride in 2002. The graphics below may give an impression of the galloping speeds of the retreat. For the last several years the calving front has retreated about 600 meters (2,000 feet) farther inland than at the end of the summers before. Between August 14 and August 16 2015 the area of ice lost was said to be the largest on record. Regardless of the alarming facts the ice flow still continues to be an amazing natural spectacle. You can watch the huge stream of ice chunks and icebergs passing by with the naked eye and record it live on video without the need of preparing a time lapse movie.
Despite the accelerated and dramatic decline of the ice sheet which is about to cause an irreversible and sad loss of the unique beauty of the Arctic, my voyage along Greenland’s coast still has been an amazing and precious experience. It offered many spectacular views of the icebergs and the mountainous coastline, including picturesque and colorful villages, historical places and inuit life.The gallery and image descriptions may give an impression hereof. From my experience, there’s not so much to expect regarding wildlife on voyages along the coast, though. Apart from gulls and fulmars, frequently following the ship, of course, we just could watch and photograph some hump back whales. During the land excursions, a few snow bountings could be seen, too. With some luck you can encounter arctic hares and foxes. The area near Kangerlussuaq is known for musk oxes, though. But we didn’t go there this time.
As to the equipment for capturing the scenery and icebergs, I mostly used the f2.8/24-70mm L USM and f2.8/70-200mm L IS II USM zooms on the Canon 5DsR and 1DxII bodies. Occasionally the f4.5-5.6/ 100-400mm L IS II USM mounted on the 7d Mark II was useful, too – i.e. for shooting the hump back whales and more distant scenic motifs. I rarely needed the f4.0/200-400mm L IS USM +1,4 Ext, though, that I had brought, too. In preparation of the trip I had not expected any chance of capturing northern lights from the ship and therefore unfortunately didn’t add my fast (f2.8) UW zoom to the gear for Greenland . But surprisingly we could watch strong aurora displays while our ship was anchoring in small fjords. By using my f1.4/35mm II L USM on the 1Dx II set up on the tripod, I could take some photographs of the amazing spectacle,at least. Of course, the focal length was a bit too limited to capture the whole display. .