ILULISSAT, Greenland - Residents of Ilulissat, the town on Greenland's western coast famed for the majestic icebergs that glide through its icefjord, nearly choked on their morning coffee as they read the news: the town's biggest attraction was melting away.
The Groenlands Posten newspaper sent locals into a tizzy when a few weeks ago it described how the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, one of the most active glaciers in the world, had receded by more than five kilometers (three miles) in the past two years.
The sun sets on the Ilulissat fjord, on Greenland's western coast. Residents of Ilulissat, most of whom live off of shrimp and halibut fishing as well as the all-important tourism industry, nearly choked on their morning coffee when The Groenlands Posten newspaper described how the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, one of the most active glaciers in the world and the town's biggest tourist attraction, had receded by more than five kilometers (three miles) in the past two years. The chilling news came just two months after UNESCO placed the Ilulissat Icefjord on the World Heritage List. (AFP/Slim Allagui)
"There is a risk that the glacier will stop calving into the icefjord," it said, using the term which normally describes a cow giving birth but is also used by scientists to describe how a piece of a glacier breaks off and forms an iceberg.
The chilling news came just two months after UNESCO placed the Ilulissat Icefjord on the World Heritage List.
"The combination of a huge ice-sheet and the dramatic sounds of a fast-moving glacial ice-stream calving into a fjord covered by icebergs makes for a dramatic and awe-inspiring natural phenomenon," the UN's cultural body said.
The Ilulissat Icefjord "is an outstanding example of a stage in the Earths history: the last ice age of the Quaternary Period". The glacier is one of only a few whose ice cap reaches all the way down to the sea, with more than 35 cubic kilometers of ice cascading down the ice sheet into the ice-choked fjord each year.
Located 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of the Arctic Circle, Ilulissat is home to 5,000 people, most of whom live off shrimp and halibut fishing as well as the all-important tourism industry.
Some 15,000 tourists visit the town each year, or about half of all those who visit Greenland. In addition, 235 luxury cruiseboats laden with tourists docked on the island this summer, carrying thousands of people keen to experience the dramatic sights and sounds of the moving ice.
"I hope this isn't true, that the glacier is not sleeping ... The tourists come here just to see the magic spectacle of the icebergs," says Anton, who works at a local hotel.
Glacier experts were able to ease islanders' fears somewhat. They said that despite fears of dramatic climate change due to global warming, it was unlikely that Ilulissat would become a "quiet" glacier, behaving like most of the others in the world.
"The glacier has receded a lot since 2002, which is very surprising and new since it had been relatively stable, almost unchanged since the 1950s," glacier expert Henrik Hoejmark Thomsen of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland told AFP.
Satellite photos taken in 2003 showed that the glacier had regressed by five to seven kilometers, a shrinkage which has continued according to observations made by hunters and helicopter pilots who have flown over the region recently.
"However, there is no danger that the glacier will stop producing iceslides, even if it recedes, Thomsen said.
"The regression and expansion of the glacier is not an exceptional phenomenon. In 1860, it reached the middle of the Ilulissat Icefjord, and 5,000 years before that it had receded by 20 kilometers," he said.
In the meantime, tourist boats will continue to sail through the fjord, maneuvring carefully between the icebergs.
On this day, a few awestruck tourists ask the captain to steer their boat closer to an iceberg, only to hear his ominous warning: "The icebergs may look calm, but they can crack suddenly and create huge waves, and you won't have a chance. Remember the Titanic."
© 2004 AFP