Through thick fog we head for Sermilik Fiord, just a few sea miles south-west of Tasiilaq. The visibility is less than 10m.The Arctic Smoke, as this typical sea fog is called here, is formed even when the weather is very good - when the air over the land warms up, fills up with moisture and then spreads over the cold water. Although we can see blue sky above and the sun is shining through the fog, we approach the settlement Ikateq, which seems to be deserted, at a walking speed. As neither our electronic map nor the standard nautical maps are reliable here and it is only partly possible to navigate with radar as a locating instrument through the iceberg armada, therefore a survey team must go out. Even the latest standard maps are incorrect and have only sporadic depth indication and dangerous underwater reefs are often not indicated.
The dingy runs ahead of us, looking for a possible safe bay along the coast we can anchor in – but in vain. Visibility, shoals and a drifting anchor cause us to spend the night drifting between icebergs and ice flows at the entrance to the fiord. In the morning the fog slowly lifts and we can continue into the fiord and slowly get ourselves oriented once again. Wondrous iceberg formations and the occasional hunchback whale pass us on our zickzack course and soon we can see mountains and glaciers on both sides – a magnificent site of natural beauty. We want to fill up our water supply and today decide to use an iceberg for this. The melting water flows down the iceberg in different small waterfalls. This good idea turns into a cold, wet and strenuous matter, but in any case we get 160 l of top glacial water on board.
We reach Tiniteqilaq while searching for a possible spot to anchor. This is the only inhabited settlement in this fiord. Luckily we find a good spot and spent a peaceful night. Next morning we explore this lovely and magnificent place on the fiord. This is a Greenlandic settlement with all its charm but also with the reality of garbage and excrement disposal. The “shit gang” passes us daily with one of the two motor vehicles in town, picking up plastic bags: Black ones for excrement, which are left of the side of the road, collected and then emptied out in the waters of the fiord.
Sermilik Research Station
The next evening, while searching for another good spot to anchor, we find the Sermilik Research Station. After, in 1933, Knud Rasmussen undertook the first surveys on glaciers, the Sermilik Research Station was established in 1970 as a permanent base station for geomorphological, glacial and water examination at the Mitivagkat Glacier. We go just a little further south the next day, where the Mitivagkat Glacier ends. While some crew members go hiking, Tim and Dirk are getting water not far from the Research Station and meet up with seven researchers from all over the world, who are spending two weeks there. They invite us to come back in the evening when they have returned from a helicopter trip to the inland ice.
We arrive in the evening and enter an improvised research lab from the University of Copenhagen in a small wooden hut in Greenland. The researchers from Denmark, Germany, Rumania, Brazil and the USA are all carrying transparent plastic bags with water samples inside and are filtering these in wide-necked jars. The filter collects everything out of the water that cannot be seen by the naked eye – especially algae. This is the reason why the researchers are here: brown algae, which otherwise live in water, grow and thrive on the ice. Vast surfaces of the glacier seem to be dirty - black, brown or red. Besides the man-made dirt and particles in the air, algae makes up. It is possible to find such algae in areas here in Greenland which are not strongly influenced by humans. These grow all the more the greater the amount of melting water. The essential nutrients are probably extracted from dirt particles in the air and sediments from rocks enclosed in the ice.
And sunlight helps the algae to grow and especially to take on a dark pigmentation. This is what our skin does to protect itself from UV radiation – it darkens and the algae on the ice, according to the researchers, do the same. The sunlight unfortunately then has a strong warming effect on the ice surface – there is more melting water – more algae grow and thrive - the ice surface warms up … a vicious circle. The researchers are looking to find answers to the questions of what share the algae have in the melting process of the glaciers and the inland ice, how widespread they are and if there is a possibility to curb their growth.
They are all in agreement that the algae cannot be ignored and must be considered in the climate models.
We look on with great interest, look at the dirty filters which will be frozen and shipped to Denmark and examine brown algae under a microscope.