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A green and melting land

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
A green and melting land Keith Wilson
01 Apr
Whether it’s the spectacle of a calving iceberg, the fantastic array of wildlife or the sheer vastness of the landscape, Greenland offers a range of unique opportunities for photographers

The naming of Greenland is one of the earliest known examples of misleading advertising and market mis-selling. The story goes that during the tenth century, when the Icelander Erik the Red was exiled for murder, he sailed west and spent three years on this large, unsettled land, which he believed could be colonised. Upon his return to Iceland, Erik deliberately exaggerated the farming potential of this new territory by giving it the appealing descriptive bane Groenland (old Norse for Greenland), hoping to persuade his impoverished countrymen to make the voyage west. So, in 985, the first permanent settlements of Greenland were established in the southwest of the country, close to the modern-day towns of Qaqortoq and Nuuk.

Today, Greenland has a population of about 56,000, nearly 90 per cent of whom are Inuit; the other ten per cent are European, mostly Danes. Greenland became a Danish colony in 1813 and it wasn’t until 1979 that home rule was granted, with more extensive self-governing powers only coming into force as recently as 2008.

Interestingly, climate change was a contributing factor in the demise of the Norse colonisation of Greenland during the 15th century. As well as famine, poor farming practices and conflicts with the Inuit, the onset of the Little Ice Age during the mid-14th century helped to seal the fate of the Norse settlers.  



Times change, and in the 21st century Greenland is receiving far more attention from the rest of the world. The massive ice sheet that occupies more than 80 per cent of the island – or, more specifically, the rate at which it’s melting – has caught the imaginations of geographers, climatologists and the world’s media.

Greenland’s ice sheet is the world’s second largest – only Antarctica is covered in more ice – extending over more than 1.7 million square kilometres, an area three times the size of Texas. Together, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets hold 98 per cent of the world’s fresh water. Scientists estimate that if the whole Greenland ice sheet melted, the world’s sea levels would rise by around seven metres.

That Greenland’s ice sheet is, indeed, melting is indisputable: in 2007, measurements made by NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite put an exact figure on the annual rate of melt at that time – 239 cubic kilometres. Since then, the rate of melt has accelerated.

The summer of 2012 was the first time that the entire ice sheet was in melt for a few days. Of course, every winter, snow accumulation, particularly at higher elevations, partially offsets the melt, but in recent years, the rate of melt at the edges of the ice sheet has outpaced the accumulation of snow because warmer temperatures have led to increased melt and faster glacial movement.



Although the ice sheet is by far the largest geographical feature of Greenland, it’s the vast, craggy coastline of fjords, glaciers and mountains that contains the most spectacular scenery. Greenland covers an area of more than 2.1 million square kilometres (about twice the area of South Africa) and stretches from a latitude of 59°N to 83°N.

This large latitudinal variation traverses several temperature zones with a subsequent range of climatic conditions. For example, during the brief summer months, the southernmost part of Greenland is, indeed, green: grass-covered hills are dotted with bright yellow buttercups and white clover, providing grazing pasture for small
flocks of sheep. In this setting, one can finally see some truth in Erik the Red’s description of the land.

By contrast, the northernmost reach of Greenland, known as Peary Land (in honour of the controversial first conqueror of the North Pole) is a largely barren expanse of craggy mountains, frigid fjords and sparse vegetation. Although only 700 kilometres from the North Pole, this part of Greenland is largely ice free.

In fact, Peary Land is the most northerly ice-free region in the world. Here, the air is so dry that it doesn’t snow and precipitation so low that scientists classify the region as a polar desert.

Most of Greenland’s 56,000 residents live on the island’s west coast, with just a few outposts, such as Tasiilaq, on the rugged east coast. Here Inuit traditions are stronger and communities regularly go hunting, some on skidoos, others preferring sleds pulled by huskies.

Seals are the main prey, with the meat, blubber and skin used for food and clothing. Tasiilaq offers the photographer superb opportunities for capturing dogsled teams racing across the sea ice in a spectacular mountainous setting.



Some of the world’s biggest icebergs float off the Greenland coast, calving from the glaciers that grind down to the sea from the high inland plateau of the ice sheet. Disko Bay, on Greenland’s west coast, is one of the most accessible locations from which to see these frozen behemoths.

At the head of this large UNESCO World Heritage site lies the town of Ilulissat, Greenland’s third-largest settlement. Nearby is the Jacobshavn Ice Fjord, one of the country’s three biggest ‘ice streams’, channelling ice from the Greenland Ice Cap into the fjord’s glacier.

From here, icebergs continually break off from the edge of the glacier into the sea. It’s a spectacular sight, made more memorable by the straining, cracking thunderclaps of splitting ice and the crescendo of a heaving ocean enveloping each iceberg as it tumbles into its grasp.

Disko Bay has been attracting greater numbers of camera-toting tourists in recent years because the rate at which icebergs are calving into the bay is increasing. Although this creates an even greater spectacle, the growth in iceberg numbers is widely considered to be a direct consequence of a warming planet.

With temperatures in the Arctic rising at twice the global rate, more ice is being pushed into Disko Bay and other parts of the Greenland coast. Scientists believe that if the current rate at which ice flows from the Jacobshavn Ice Fjord continues, in about 30 years’ time, no more icebergs will calve into Disko Bay.



Icebergs are incredibly photogenic and on a clear day, the lack of air pollution produces a light of extraordinary clarity, allowing photographers to reproduce fine detail and pick out long-distance subjects. Bright sun, white ice and clear seas also result in more light being reflected in many directions.

The resulting increase in contrast levels means that cutting down glare and surface highlights becomes a primary objective if you’re going to achieve a well-exposed image. For this reason, polarising filters and neutral-density graduated filters are an essential addition to the photographer’s kit bag. In such conditions, fast shutter speeds can be combined with lower ISO ratings for reproducing maximum image detail.

Maintaining fast shutter speeds is also advisable for photographing another of Greenland’s great attractions – whales. As in other parts of the country, Disko Bay is also home to the remains of a whaling station, a reminder of the era when humpback, fin and bowhead whales were hunted to the brink of extinction. Since the international ban on whaling came into force, numbers have recovered and the waters around Disko Bay are now a popular whale-watching destination.

Among the other wildlife that can be seen along the coast in summer are colonies of seals and walruses, which can be easily approached on land. Smaller, more elusive mammals include the Arctic hare, stoat and Arctic fox. Bird enthusiasts will find more than 100 species, 50 of which breed in Greenland.



The biggest wildlife photographic target of all is the polar bear, the world’s largest land-based predator. Encounters with humans are more likely in summer, when the sea ice has melted and the bears retreat to the shore, often foraging on the edges of human settlements.

Although the entire coast of Greenland is within the polar bear’s natural range, photographers are more likely to see a bear skin before they encounter a live bear on the ice. Even in the southernmost towns of Nanortalik and Narasq, polar bear skins are occasionally seen stretched out on wooden racks, drying in the Arctic breeze, evidence of the great animals venturing too close for comfort, and of the decrease in the amount of ice that’s needed to sustain them.



Look for a neutral tone in the scene to get the most accurate exposure. In a predominantly white landscape, take a meter reading from an exposed rock, or even an item of clothing such as your boots or gloves

Use a polarising filter and a lens hood to reduce glare caused by reflections off the ice and snow

Use a wide-angle lens as your standard optic. The tall skies, distant horizons and vastness of Arctic Greenland are best captured with a lens with a wide view



Always rely on your camera’s automatic meter reading. When photographing highly reflective surfaces such as glaciers, icebergs and water it will result in underexposure. Instead, try different exposure values up to +2 stops over your camera’s metered reading and check the results on your LCD monitor

Take pictures when the sun is high; far better to photograph early or late in the day, when contrast levels are lower and shape and surface detail becomes visible in the landscape

Take too much gear. Freezing air temperatures can drain your energy levels quickly, so pack just one camera body and two or three lenses


Recommended reading

Greenland: The End of the World by Damjan Koncnik with Kevin Kato, Blue Fuji, pb, £4.95

Greenland Expedition: Where Ice is Born by Lonnie Dupre and Will Steger, Creative Publishing International, hb, £12.99

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich, Fourth Estate, pb, £50


Equipment Selections

Outdoor option: Glasses

Arctic light is bright light, reflecting constantly off ice, snow and the open sea. In the 24-hour days of summer, you should protect your eyes constantly with specialised glacier glasses to prevent snow blindness. The Julbo Sherpa (£25) is a lightweight, traditionally designed, wraparound glacier glass with leather covers. The frames can be equipped with corrective solar lenses.



Lens option: Fast-aperture wide-angle lens

Greenland’s stunning vistas and clear light are best captured using a high-quality wide-angle lens. Light-gathering capacity is better with fast maximum apertures such as f/1.8 or even f/1.4. Sigma makes a 35mm f/1.4 wide-angle (£600) for full-frame DSLR cameras from various camera companies. Its optical quality and resolving power are as good as any and the autofocus includes HSM for fast and silent operation.



Camera option: Fixed-mirror DSLR

Strictly speaking, the Sony Alpha series of interchangeable-lens digital cameras aren’t SLRs, as they use a different autofocus system to other cameras and have an electronic viewfinder (EVF) instead of an optical one. The Sony Alpha a99 (£1,700 body only) is the first full-frame interchangeable-lens camera to use EVF. There’s also a 1.228k dot articulating screen for easier framing when working at unusual angles.


This story was published in the April 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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