Fundamental Change

Words and Photos by: Christoph Ruhsam


Greenland – the Ice Age Island

An expedition through the interior of Nuugssuaq, Greenland took us to places where our souls had already been destined to go. We were hoping to find "Frozen Morphs” - mountain and ice surfaces that were shaped by the forces of Cryogenesis - the melting and thawing of earth's soil under extreme temperature conditions.

The hiking over tundra covered with deep, soft moss was exhausting through wide valleys that were bordered by scree, eroded over centuries by the forces of Arctic nature from the granite and gneiss mountains into sharp, fragile boulders. We crossed rivers that froze our legs until we were able to revive them on the other side and navigated extensive snowfields covered by blood snow - a reddish, cold-loving lichen called Chlamydomonas Nivalis.

The inland ice was bound by vertical ice walls 50 meters high and had raging rivers and waterfalls that tumbled down around them. Herds of reindeer wandered over lush lichen cushions and permafrost polygons. Often, these were the only suitable places for our tents in the frost-bitten rocky landscape, and our body heat made the polygons thaw and wobble like jelly under our mattresses at night.

The hills of Nuugssuaq, the ice lakes, and the vast valleys dotted with melt-water lakes were awe-inspiring. On one of the many plateaus we crossed on our way through the interior of Nuugssuaq, we had to cut steps with ice axes into the snow walls of a river bed.


The weather was kind to us with many sunny days, little rain and moderate temperatures between 0°C and +15°C. At the end, when we thought we had navigated the wildest parts of the interior of Nuugssuaq, we encountered a landslide not recorded on the map. This zapped us of all our remaining energy and became a real impediment on our way to Saqqaq. Boulders the size of houses lay loosely on top of each other with deep crevasses that threatened to devour us, and our navigation skills were constantly challenged.

At the east coast of Greenland, we stumbled into quicksand that tried to suck us into its cold depths, but luckily only pulled off our Wellington boots. Helping each other, we found a way through the sand labyrinth to the other bank. I climbed a foothill to enable me to see over Midgaard glacier and got glimpses into the Schweizerland and the massive lateral moraines which transformed the edge of the fjord into insurmountable terrain - the Frozen Morphs of Arctic morphology.

Boulders the size of houses lay loosely on top of each other with deep crevasses that threatened to devour us, and our navigation skills were constantly challenged.

We could not reach the calving front of the Midgaard glacier – the glacier comes through a valley labyrinth from the inland ice 70 km away, but it had retreated by about 15 km from where it should have been according to our map, which was based on glaciological data from the late 1930s. This corresponds to about 400 m per year and 5 km width of retreat. The outlet glacier has melted very fast and what was formerly known as Midgaard glacier has disappeared completely!


Years ago, many scientists who measured sea ice predicted that the retreat of Arctic summer sea ice would accelerate and that it is part of a fundamental change taking place. The same applies to the huge ice sheet covering Greenland, which shows massive ice loss since satellite measurements started in 1979. The two main glaciers, which merged in 1990 to become a single glacier, now end separately in the innermost Sermilik fjord.

Since 1979, NASA reports summer melt on the ice sheet has increased by 30 percent. For a few days in July of 2012, 97% of Greenland’s inland ice was melting up to its highest peaks at 3000 m elevation. This had never been observed since the launch of Cryosat satellites and was a consequence of global warming.

In 1990, I took an aerial photo of a mighty glacier flowing toward East Greenland’s Blosseville Kyst. The glacier’s pressure deformed it into something resembling an elephant foot. Twenty years later, this view would pop up in my life again. In the age of Google Maps, I searched for that glacier and was able to locate Sortebrae high in the frozen latitudes. The elephant foot had disappeared on the satellite image dating from around 2013.

However, looking closer, I got excited when I discovered the side glacier’s tongue about 20 km further downstream. It still showed its original shape, including the moraine patterns, but was heavily distorted by the strong forces of the flowing ice. This shape has been there since the 1990s and is now less than 8 km away from breaking off into the East Greenland Sea. It took about 20 years to move 20 km downstream, and it might be completely gone by 2025.


Franz Josef Land – the Very End of the World

The climate in the first quarter of the 21st century in the frozen latitudes had already warmed up by a few degrees more than in lower latitudes: no pack ice in places such as the Austrian Channel, the British Channel, Markham Sound, the Collinson Channel. Only glassy water surfaces.

In the middle of the night, near the end of August at 82 degrees north, the sun rose at the northern end of the archipelago above the Arctic Ocean. The ship I was on steered through the constant fog that hung in large and small swathes over the mountains. Sometimes there was nothing to see except your hand in front of your eyes. Sometimes sunbeams broke through the lavender lead-grey sky to highlight icebergs, scars under ice caps and rubble covered with fresh snow.

An intangible humility hung in the air of this unspoiled pure landscape at the true end of the world. The horizon is dominated by ice cliffs which drop vertically into the sea to eventually disintegrate into huge icebergs. They arise in natural lines from the bare permafrost ground and continue all along to the horizon – 50 meters and higher – until they are swallowed by Earth’s curvature or by the everlasting mist.


My enthusiasm for the cryosphere dates back to my childhood. At the age of 7, as any proper Austrian should, I went up to the Alps via the “Großglockner Hochalpenstraße” with my parents and my brother. From a child’s perspective, we were exposed to daring adventures and dangers: right beside the narrow road, steep valleys seemed to pull us down to certain death. We saw overloaded cars and drivers who were anxiously looking at the steam coming out of their engines and we walked on the Pasterze - the largest glacier of the eastern Alps - where ice cold air was blowing under our Lederhosen and Dirndl. At the upper part of the 8 km long glacier, we spotted the frightening crevasse system Hufeisenbruch, where masses of ice tumbled down from the highest 3000 m peaks.

In 2014, when I traveled the same route with my wife in search of childhood memories, the Pasterze had shrunk into a dirty piece of ice covered by large amounts of debris and the Hufeisenbruch was a naked rock face. The past centuries caused a fundamental change that led to the death of even the largest Alpine glaciers and still impacts the whole cryosphere up into the highest Arctic areas.

Sometimes sunbeams broke through the lavender lead-grey sky to highlight icebergs, scars under ice caps and rubble covered with fresh snow.

In 2012, we became eyewitnesses to the lowest summer ice cover measured since 1979, when permanent observations of the pack ice using satellites began. Meanwhile, the daily updated ice maps can be accessed on the internet, allowing anyone to get a picture of the dramatic ice loss of the last 30 years - in winter, the ice covers about 14 million km² around the North Pole, shrinking in summer to about 8 million km².

2012 was the first time the ice was reduced to only 3.5 million km². That is a decrease of 50%! At less than 1 million km², the polar sea will be considered ice-free. Even worse is the volume reduction, as there is less and less thick multi-year ice. Thin sea ice can easily be broken up by storms. In 2012, there was 80% less volume compared to the long-term average since 1979. This allows us to sail without significant obstructions up to 83 degrees north.


The journey to Franz Josef Land began a long time ago in my head. I had recurring dreams about the calm waters of the wide sounds between the islands of Franz Josef Land. The smooth, glassy water surface mirrored the islands perfectly in an Arctic summer night. Those dreams were so real that many weeks later I thought I could recognize the places, even though I had never seen them before. My imagination had produced the exact climate of the archipelago - hundreds of islands, completely covered by snow, glaciers, and enormous ice caps right at the end of the Arctic summer. True Frozen Morphs.

The High Arctic's frozen latitudes invoke a feeling of gratitude and modesty for being allowed to experience a piece of land still nearly untouched by humans, coupled with the insight that restraint is necessary for the survival of mankind. It is there that you can truly feel that a fundamental change is happening.


Dr. Christoph Ruhsam is a landscape photographer specializing in the Arctic and the cryosphere, as well as honorary secretary of the Austrian Society for Polar Research. “Frozen Latitudes” is his book - a photographic tribute to the beauty of the High Arctic through photos and first-hand experiences over 30 years in Greenland, Franz Josef Land, and the Arctic Ocean. The final chapter is written by Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schöner, secretary of the Austrian Polar Research Institute APRI and the internationally-renown Austrian scientist specializing in Arctic climates and glaciology.

You can find Christoph’s book “Frozen Latitudes” by clicking here.


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