Grand Canyons of Ice

Sarah Das/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Temperatures in Greenland were 63 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday. If it felt warm to the residents of Kangerlussuaq, imagine how it felt to the wool-draped musk oxen roaming the hillsides.

It wasn't a record high temperature, but it's enough to keep Greenland's massive ice cap melting - a process that has accelerated in recent years and has scientists concerned about sea level rise and changes to ocean circulation.

Last year, melting on Greenland lasted a full month longer than the average over the previous 27 years. All that liquid has to go somewhere, and as you might expect, even on a 3,000-foot-thick glacier, it's down. Rushing rivers carve incredible sheer-sided canyons into the ice. Or billions of gallons collect in frigid, Disneyland-blue lakes that nestle in low spots on the ice itself.

Ultimately, the water finds a way out - typically straight down, through a dark, twisting wormhole called a moulin that empties straight onto Greenland's bedrock nearly a mile below the sunlight. And once it's there, the water tends to lubricate the glacier, pushing the ice off the land like a hydroplaning tire. The glacier speeds up in its headlong descent into the sea.

I usually try to avoid scenarios that might involve being pushed by tons of water through an unlit tunnel to a frigid grave that no one will ever find. But Sarah Das, a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has been studying the phenomenon up close since 2005 - work that involved puttering around in a boat mere days before the plug gave way and the whole lake drained in a few hours.

This year she's back, and we're all invited along through Woods Hole's Polar Discovery program. You can check in each day from your warm, dry home for photos of how the work is progressing, as well as a taste of the incredible ice-on-water architecture.

(Full disclosure: this is the same program that sent me to Antarctica last year - you may remember occasional Gist posts from Way Down Under including Scott's memorial cross, penguin watching, and the plastics plight of the snow petrel.) This Greenland expedition will be nearly as cold and a whole lot wetter. I'm rooting for them.

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