email a friend iconprinter friendly iconMelt Zone
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Balog photographs ice—and the absence of it. He founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) in 2006 "to create a memory of things that are disappearing," he says. EIS has deployed more than 35 solar-powered, blizzard-proof, time-lapse cameras aimed at glaciers in Alaska, Montana, Iceland, and Greenland—all of them snapping away day in and day out. Programmed to take 4,000 to 12,000 frames a year, they're making a constant record, like "little surrogate eyes out there watching the world for us," Balog says.

We set up camp 45 miles inland from the west coast village of Ilulissat, in a portion of Greenland's melt zone where the weathering of the top layers of the ice sheet exposes what is known as blue ice. This ancient ice is compressed to the point where most air bubbles—which normally refract light to give ice a milky or white appearance—have been squeezed out. With fewer bubbles, the ice absorbs light from the red end of the spectrum, leaving the blue to be reflected. Depending on the tricks sunlight plays, blue ice can also appear white, as it does in many places around us.

The camp stands beside a vast meltwater lake. Tedesco and Steiner study its depth, planning to compare their information with satellite readings of the depths of Greenland's supraglacial lakes. Each morning they launch a small craft to collect data. The vessel is a bait boat retrofitted with remote control, sonar, a laptop-driven spec­trometer, GPS, a thermometer, and an underwater camera.

Greenland's meltwater lakes are prone to draining unexpectedly and quickly (thus Tedes­co's unmanned research vessel). Balog once watched a lake drain overnight. The bottom of a moulin—a vertical shaft in the ice—opened up and sucked the entire lake into oblivion. In 2006 a team led by glaciologists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Washington documented the draining of a two-square-mile supraglacial lake: More than 11 billion gallons of water disappeared into a moulin in 84 minutes, flowing faster than Niagara Falls.

The meltwater lake Tedesco is studying has an outlet river that must lead to a gulping moulin. LeWinter and I are determined to find it. Armed with ice axes, ice screws, and ropes, we set out. We haven't gone a quarter mile before we're stymied by holes in the ice. At first we can thread our way between them, but farther along, the rims are all touching, and we're forced to bound the pools, one knife-edge to the next. It's like playing leapfrog on razor blades.

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