Huge iceberg threatens small village

An 11-million-ton iceberg is lodged dangerously close to a tiny village in Greenland and if it breaks, tsunami waves could wash away parts of the town. The iceberg's fate depends on the weather. CNN's Phil Black reports from Innaarsuit, Greenland.

Posted: Jul 24, 2018 7:06 PM
Updated: Jul 24, 2018 7:29 PM

The people of Innaarsuit know how to handle themselves around ice. Their small island off western Greenland is surrounded by it through every long, dark winter. They take dogsleds out on Baffin Bay's frozen surface to hunt seals and polar bears. They cut out holes and catch fish through it. Most importantly they know when to avoid it.

But this summer an unpredictable 11-million-ton mountain of ice has parked itself right next to their isolated fishing community. The 170 people who live here can only hope it leaves quietly without creating a fuss.

"It's the biggest we've ever seen here," says village councilor Susanne Eliassen, gesturing toward the mound of ice. It rises roughly 100 meters above the water, the Danish Meteorological Institute estimated to CNN -- around the same height as London's Big Ben.

Standing on the shoreline before Innaarsuit's iceberg is an awesome experience. So is circling it in a boat. And flying around it in a helicopter. You could watch it all day. It is overwhelmingly beautiful.

Read more: Greenland's melting glaciers may someday flood your city

The side facing land is a straight drop from its sharp top edge, a sheer cliff of brilliant white. The rear side slopes more gently back to the waterline. A narrow arm juts out from one side with a perfectly formed arch that you could drive a boat through if you dared. From the air you can see a turquoise shadow beneath the surface — the only hint of the iceberg's vast underwater structure that is now snagged on the seafloor.

Constantly changing

There are cracks across every surface — some very deep. Even from a distance you can hear meltwater endlessly running through it. And every so often: a loud boom from within, followed by a part of the ice falling to the water.

Like all icebergs, this one's always changing and getting closer to its end. The people in Innaarsuit fear it will end violently with a sudden breakup or roll, sending tsunami-like waves toward them.

In the harbor, small fishing boats come and go, overlooked by the only significant employer here, a seafood processing plant. A seal carcass lies tethered, just above the waterline. Locals visit their community's only store. The iceberg looms over the scene.

Hans Mathias Kristensen is preparing his boat for a two-day fishing trip. The 52-year-old now keeps it anchored on the other side of the island to protect it from the iceberg. This softly spoken hard man of the Arctic doesn't scare easily.

"I'm used to it. But this one makes me afraid. My father taught me when an iceberg is stuck on the ground, the ice beneath the waters gets smaller, melts and eventually breaks," Kristensen says. "There would be huge waves if that breaks up." He remembers another iceberg long ago that destroyed or damaged 11 boats.

The village is made up of around 50 brightly painted, cottage-style houses scattered through a valley and the hills around it. Some are decorated with hunting trophies — seal and whale bones, polar bear skulls. The quiet here is broken only by teams of sled dogs, tied up around the settlement, often howling together.

A viral video

One person in this community has done more than any other to let the world know about the iceberg. Oline Nielsen always keeps a video camera rolling, pointed out her window. It captured a dramatic moment: a large chunk calving from the iceberg soon after it showed up in front of the harbour. That video has now been viewed millions of times.

The painfully shy 28-year-old helps manage the village store. "I want to take photos and video for a living," she says.

Other people here also hope the iceberg and its fame will bring opportunity. "That's good. For the tourists maybe," says schoolteacher Pia Kristensen. "They will come to enjoy the icebergs and nature.

"It's peaceful. My husband is a fisherman. The other men fish. We have a lovely life here. Everyone knows each other."

Scientists have many concerns about the negative impacts climate change is having on Greenland, its massive ice sheet and its many glaciers. But the Innaarsuit iceberg isn't specifically one of them. Nor are many of the other enormous chunks of ice found floating off this region.

"There is no linkage between this event and the retreating glaciers we see elsewhere in Greenland," says Keld Qvistgaard from the Danish Meteorological Institute's Greenland Ice Service.

"The Innaarsuit iceberg probably originates from the Upernavik Ice Fjord only 30 to 40 kilometers south. The glacial outlets in the fjord are capable of producing very large icebergs.

"In Eastern Baffin Bay there are about 20 glacial outlets -- some of them capable of producing icebergs bigger than the berg we saw off Innaarsuit."

The right iceberg at the right time

What's unusual about this iceberg is its location and how it got so close to one of the very few settlements here. Qvistgaard says that's just an extraordinary coincidence.

"We had the right iceberg, with the right size, at the right location, at the right time of a moon phase. And it managed to find a channel all the way to Innaarsuit and run aground there, where there were lots of good people with cameras."

Villagers felt some relief when the iceberg moved a short distance away from their harbor. But it stopped again. They now hope the next full moon on July 27 will raise sea levels enough to lift the ice off the bottom and allow it to drift away safely.

The iceberg's towering presence hasn't stopped people here from enjoying the important things. On this night in the village a crowd of family and friends is dressed up to celebrate the Lutheran confirmation of a 14-year-old girl. Schoolteacher Pia Kristensen tells us: "I want to go dancing now!"

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