Povl and I are making the short hop up the west coast of Greenland from Kangerlussuaq to Ilulissat, where we will board the ship to take us to the iceberg. The flight is only forty minutes long, but offers fabulous views of the western edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet. To the east the ice sheet rises up towards the interior plateau; to the west lies Baffin Bay and, eventually, Canada. The magical area is the bit that lies between, where the ice ends, and the exposed land gives way to the sea.
The junction between ice sheets and the ocean has always held a fascination for me – it’s what I’ve spent my career studying in the Antarctic. It offers some of the most stunning scenery, with the grandeur of huge floating ice shelves abruptly ending in the sheer drop of the ice cliffs, with the sea below decorated with a scatter of sea ice. Conditions in all but the far north of Greenland are different though. Here the climate is warm enough for the ice sheet to end short of the ocean and not to go afloat to form ice shelves. But the landscape is equally magnificent.
We fly over a glacier whose off-white surface is incised by hundreds of crevasses, all aligned in swirls, and giving a texture reminiscent of elephant skin. Where the glacier ends we can see the melting ice feeding streams coloured white by their load of rock flour – material from the glacier bed that has been pulverised by the passage of the ice. Between the ice and the ocean the landscape is low and undulating. Inlets from the sea form a filigree of waterways that have a colour ranging from the white of the melt water, through malachite-green and every shade of turquoise, before taking on the dark blue of the ocean.
As we fly closer to the coast we get to see our first icebergs. Small bergy-bits calved from the nearby Jacobshavn Glacier, one of the many Greenland glaciers that does make it all the way to the ocean before ending in a crumbling wall of ice. We decide we wouldn’t want to camp on what we see below, with the larger bergs only a few tens of metres across. From overhead we can easily make out each iceberg’s broad extent below its waterline, blooming out like an eerie jellyfish, the iridescent-green contrasting strongly with the bright white of the exposed ice above.
We fly over Ilulissat. The buildings cling to the steep slope down to the harbour, and are painted in different colours, dramatically extending the palette of the landscape. We have two nights here, before boarding the MV Neptune. Then there will be an intensive period of prepping equipment before we get the first glimpse of “our” iceberg. Exciting times ahead.