Students on Ice: From Greenland to Sea Ice

Written By: Sue Novotny, Communications Officer, Global Arctic Program, WWF
WWF is part of a “Students on Ice” expedition from Arctic Canada to Greenland, both sponsoring students, and helping give the students useful skills. WWF staff member Sue Novotny is on board, and is sharing her experiences from the expedition. 
Putting the green in Greenland – and the rap in rapport
After four days exploring Labrador, southern Greenland seems both familiar and new to the students. The mountains are more jagged, icebergs are far more frequent, and valleys have turned to glaciers. But as we rounded the corner of a fjord, a sight new to almost everyone on board – Greenland’s ice cap, rising almost as high as the enormous mountains.

First glimpse of ice cap   © Sue Novotny  / WWF
First glimpse of ice cap © Sue Novotny / WWF

When Students on Ice visited this site five years ago, the glacier was calving directly into the water. Today, we hiked about a kilometer from shore to the glacier’s edge. The retreat has been so rapid that the area uncovered by ice is still scrubbed free of vegetation.
Our next stop, “Paradise Valley”, is one of the few places in Greenland where trees can be found.  The plants here are now familiar – willow and birch – but far more like shrubs than the tiny plants we saw in Labrador. Paninnguaq (the WWF student from Greenland) was excited to find a much larger piece of birch than she’s seen in her hometown of Sisimiut, above the Arctic Circle. She’s now busy whittling it down to create a traditional Greenlandic toy.
Finally, we dock in Nanortalik, Greenland’s southernmost town. In Greenlandic, the name means “place of the polar bears”, but there are no bears here today, just a collection of colourful little houses on a rocky landscape. Culturally, the northern students feel at home here. Despite the occasional language barrier, the students traded performances with the local teenagers, from rap to Inuit games, throat singing and drum dancing, and Greenlandic rock. Tat (the WWF student from Nunavut) has been writing his own rap songs in English and Inuktitut, and performed publicly for the very first time for the Students on Ice. His second performance was to an appreciative crowd in Nanortalik’s youth centre. It’s good to see Inuit youth sharing their culture like this, maintaining ties stretching back thousands of years.
Students explore Nanortalik © Sue Novotny  / WWF
Students explore Nanortalik © Sue Novotny / WWF

Sea ice stories
While talking with the students about climate change and the future of sea ice, I asked them to raise their hands if they saw sea ice for the first time on this expedition. Over half of the 85 students were new to sea ice, and to the Arctic.
Along with them, I saw sea ice for the first time last week – hundreds of bergy bits at dusk. We’ve since encountered much more ice, from enormous icebergs to calving glaciers to a thin strip of fast ice under the water at high tide, seeming to glow like a modern art installation.

Students on Ice check out ice © Sue Novotny  / WWF
Students on Ice, checking out ice © Sue Novotny / WWF

Then I asked who lived in a place where the sea freezes up every winter – 25 more hands. These students from northern Canada and Greenland shared their stories about life with sea ice.
One student said it’s a difficult time to be away from home, because it’s when his family goes out to the floe edge to hunt.
Another talked about jumping a snowmobile across cracks in the ice during the summer breakup. (I asked if this was dangerous. The answer: it’s fun!)
And another said moving his snowmobile from the ice onto the land is a sign that spring is coming.
Sea ice is clearly part of life and full of life. And viewed from satellites over time, it almost looks like a living thing.

This video elicited some gasps from the audience. Within their lifetimes, both the extent of the ice and the amount of multi-year ice has shrunk dramatically. What ice is left is pushed by prevailing currents to northern Greenland and Canada – the “Last Ice Area“. Ice models project that this will be the only place sea ice remains in the summer by 2040.
Many of these students will go on to be scientists, advocates, and leaders in Greenland and Canada. They’ll be making decisions on the Arctic’s future. If they want to focus on regions that will be important to the Arctic in the decades to come and beyond, the Last Ice Area is a good place to start.