We arrive via boat. Before we see it, we hear it. Initially, gentle popping sounds, as if of ice cubes dropped in a glass of warmer liquid, crackling as the air bubbles escape, melting. Then, the groaning, as if of a whale. Followed by the rumble and roar, clap and slap, of millions of tons of ice, of a glacier calving off and thunderously crashing into the sea. A floating iceberg.
Atlases are being redrawn as islands are disappearing. What does an island see when the sea rises? Sea Change: An Atlas of Islands in a Rising Ocean weaves together essays, maps, art, and poetry to show us—and make us see—island nations in a warming world.
The sound of a river, of water flowing, as the glacier melts and gushes into the sea: an ice stream. Land ice—that is, glaciers, ice caps, and ice sheets—constitutes Greenland, located between the Arctic Ocean to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the south. In fact, the world’s second largest ice sheet—after that of Antarctica—covers 79 percent of Greenland. It measures up to 2 miles (3.2 km) thick. As a result of this vast ice coverage, Greenland with an estimated population of 57,792 is the world’s most sparsely populated—with a population density of 0.0677 per square mile (0.0261 per km2).1
On the shore, the blinding white expanse of snow. Seemingly endless. Greenland is the world’s largest island in the world’s smallest ocean. Many mammals that live on Greenland blend into the frozen white landscape: polar bears, of course, but also arctic foxes and arctic hares, the Greenland wolf and the ermine.
The solitary but vocal and strong bowhead whales live in the Arctic waters year-round, as do bearded and hooded seals, even white whales. In late summer blue whales, humpback whales, and narwhals swim in the Arctic Ocean. Much of the Inuit’s sustenance comes from caribou and seal meat as well as fish. To fish, the Inuit use umiak, a boat, like a kayak (from the Inuit qajaq) but
larger, made of sealskin stretched over a whalebone frame.
But stand still for a while. And look. Differences and nuances start to become visible. Barrenground caribou abound. The vegetation, as the caribou’s full name suggests, is sparse and mostly low-lying. Shrubs dot the landscape with an occasional berry bush, vivid red alpine bearberry or cowberry, or the blue crowberry or juniper berry, breaking up the winnowed color palette. Wooly musk ox with long, curved white horns roam here, as they do in Alaska and in Canada. Hunting and fishing usually involve seasonal migrations over long distances.
The white landscape might look uniform to the untrained eye. But like the Tuareg, who read lines in the sand in the Sahara, the Inuit navigate the snowy terrain by reading the sastrugi, wavelike grooves, ridges, and furrows in snow. “Arctic snowdrifts hold clues about prevailing winds and thereby, cardinal directions” (Engelhard, “Sky Above, Sea Below, Inuit Wayfinding”). The Inuit also read the water sky, which are the dark reflections of ice-free sea on the underbelly of clouds (Engelhard, “Arctic Wayfinders”). They read them together with the constellations and the migration patterns of birds and whales, with the currents and the sounds of the surf on the shore, with the stories that had been told and retold about the landscape and with regular attentive movement through it (Engelhard, “Arctic Wayfinders”).
The Inuit carved wooden relief maps of the area where land and water meet. They have been the source of much confusion (Harmsen, “Wooden Maps”). The Eastern Inuit or Tunumiit carved maps to accompany stories they shared with Danish explorer Gustav Holm about navigating the area’s shoreline. He arrived in eastern Greenland, in the town of Ammassalik, now known as Tasillaq, in 1884 to map the coastline. To the Inuit, the process of making the map, the story that was relayed, was often more important than the map itself. What was centered was the knowledge of the region, the recall and relaying of it. Working in Nunavut, Canada, geographer Robert A. Rundstrom writes: “One Inuk elder told me that he had drawn detailed maps of Hiquligjuaq [Yathkayed Lake] from memory, but he smiled and said that long ago he had thrown them away. It was the act of making them that was important, the recapitulation of environmental features, not the material objects themselves” (165). The focus was on the knowledge that went into mapping rather than on the map. This knowledge connected the lessons from the past to the present. And it was based on a deep knowledge of and connection to the space. Some argue that it is the difference between cartography and mapmaking. In Greenland the Eastern Inuit created three such wooden carvings, known today as the Ammassalik maps. Now Greenland’s coastline is changing quickly and radically.
In the Arctic it’s not the cold that’s the problem; it’s the heat. It is why Canadian Inuk activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier calls for The Right to Be Cold. On the first day of summer in 2020, the mercury hit 100°F (37.78°C) in Verkhoyansk, Siberia, a new record. It was broken on the first day of summer in 2021, when the mercury hit 118°F (47.8°C) in Siberia. In 2017, 2019, 2020, and 2021, wildfires, once rare here, broke out. On August 11, 2021, for the first time in recorded history, smoke from wildfires reached the North Pole. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, a phenomenon referred to as the Arctic or polar amplification. The polar amplification results from a combination of factors. Among them is the region’s decreasing albedo. Albedo refers to the ability of something to reflect back the sun’s rays. Since ice is so reflective, it has a higher albedo and reflects back rather than absorbs the sun’s energy. But due to global warming, the ice has been melting, creating a negative feedback loop: more melting means less ice to reflect back, means more melting, means less ice and so on (see also Pine Island (49) in Antarctica).2
If all the ice sheets and glaciers on Greenland melted, it would raise sea levels by 24 feet (7.3 m).
The land ice is thinning. According to Harold Wanless, a geologist at the University of Miami, “Greenland is currently calving chunks of ice so massive they produce earthquakes up to six and seven on the Richter scale” (Rush, “Rising Seas”). It is worst along the shoreline. This melt of land ice is one of the two main reasons for sea level rise. The other is the increased temperature of oceans. When water heats up, it expands. So warmer oceans take up more space. Greenland’s land ice melt accounts for approximately 25 percent of global sea level rise (Voosen). If all the ice sheets and glaciers on Greenland melted, it would raise sea levels by 24 feet (7.3 m).
On December 5, 2018, in a study published in Nature, scientists put forward a dramatic new hockey stick for Greenland ice melt, arguing that while melt began to pick up in the mid-1800s with industrialization, Greenland has been melting more in the past 20 years than at any other point in the past 350 years (Trusel). A month prior, on November 12, 2018, scientists published findings in Nature Climate Change, which argued that, like other elements of the climate system, both “the Greenland and Antarctic… ice sheets hav[e] tipping points at or slightly above the 1.5–2.0˚C threshold; for Greenland, this may lead to irreversible mass loss” (Pattyn, et al.).
In the summer of 2019, Greenland’s ice melt spiked. And on August 13, 2020, a study found that Greenland’s ice sheet has melted to the point of no return (King, et al.).
In the summer of 2021, it rained in Greenland. No one knows how much because it has never rained before in Greenland and so there are no rain gauges on Greenland.
Halfway around the globe, in the middle of the Pacific, rests another island nation, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (20), with a population of 79,906, relatively close to that of Greenland. But their sizes contrast sharply: the Marshall Islands measures only 70 square miles (181 km2) of land to Greenland’s 836,330 square miles (2,166,086 km2). And the Marshall Islands’s mean elevation is 6.56 feet (2 m) above sea level to Greenland’s 5879 feet (1792 m). When the glaciers melt in Greenland, they flood low-lying islands in the Pacific on the other side of the planet (see Marshall Islands (20) and Kathy Jetn¯il-Kijiner’s poem “Dear Matafele Peinam”). We are all connected.
But if Greenland and the Marshall Islands are disproportionately experiencing the dangers associated with climate change and sea level rise, they might also suggest the solutions. It is not only about what might be lost but also about what can be saved and how.3
Like in the Marshall Islands, where 92 percent of the population is Indigenous, the majority of Greenland’s population or 88 percent is Indigenous, Greenlandic Inuit. The Inuit span Greenland, Siberia, northern Canada, and Alaska (see Sarichef Island (2)). In Greenland the Inuit include the Kalaallit in the west, the Tunumiit in the east, and the Inughuit in the north. The remaining 12 percent of Greenland’s population is of European, mostly Danish, heritage. The official language is Greenlandic, an Indigenous Eskimo-Aleut language closely related to the Inuit languages of Canada.
In 2018, Greenlandic poet Aka Niviâna and Marshallese poet Kathy Jetn¯il-Kijiner shared how their islands are interrelated in their poem “Rise.”
“Sister of ocean and sand,” Niviâna says, addressing Jetn¯il-Kijiner, “Can you see our glaciers groaning / with the weight of the world’s heat? / I wait for you, here, / on the land of my ancestors heart heavy with a thirst / for solutions / as I watch this land / change / while the World remains silent.”
“Rise” highlights that the climate change effects manifesting in either location result mostly from CO2 emissions produced in other regions, which, too, will now “try to breathe underwater.” “These issues,” the poem continues, “affect each and every one of us / None of us is immune.”
“Instead of simply identifying what was what, I had to go deeper,” Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes in Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. “I took my cue from the many marine mammals who echolocate. I had to focus not on what I could see and discern, but instead on where I was in relation, how the sound bouncing off me in relationship to the structures and environments that surround me locates me in a constantly shifting relationship to you, whoever you are by now.”
“This guide to undrowning listens to marine mammals,” Gumbs writes, “specifically as a form of life that has much to teach us about the vulnerability, collaboration and adaptation we need in order to be with change at this time, especially since one of the major changes we are living through, causing, and shaping in this climate crisis is this rising of the ocean.”
“Listening is not only about the normative ability to hear,” Gumbs writes, “it is a transformative and revolutionary resource that requires quieting down and tuning in.”
Christina Gerhardt is an associate professor at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, a permanent senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley and the former Barron Professor of Environmental Humanities. She is also an environmental journalist and has been published in The Guardian, Grist, The Nation, and Sierra. She is the author of Sea Change: An Atlas of Islands in a Rising Ocean.
Header photo of coastal Greenland by murattellioglu, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Christina Gerhardt by Beowulf Sheehan.