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Ice and snow in Greenland

Inspiration / Nature / Ice and snow in Greenland

A guide on more than the top of the iceberg

Greenland is the world’s biggest island

Greenland is the world’s biggest island – or the world’s biggest bathtub if you want. The Ice Sheet, which covers more than 80% of the island, is actually weighing the island down to such an extent that the part of Greenland not covered by ice, could be perceived as the edge of the bathtub. If the ice were to melt, Greenland would be ring-shaped. With the ice gone, it wouldn’t be long until the island would rise again.


Ice and icebergs – we find them fascinating

Also all around the island, the chalky white ice is present in all shapes and sizes. From small flakes to several huge and wide icebergs and icy rocks, which are beautifully intersected by green, turquoise or blue ribbons. They float all year in the deep blue or emerald green waters off the coasts of Greenland. This makes the Greenlandic landscape unique in this world. Except for the uninhabited Antarctica, you won’t find another place in the world where ice and snow have such a great effect on people’s lives.

Anybody visiting Greenland will be fascinated by the ice. Whether you are walking on it, driving on it or sailing between ice floes moving in the water, constantly melting and changing shape. Much like clouds in the sky, ice can take the most incredible, surreal shapes. Your imagination is given a free rein, and all your senses will be awakened when you are traveling in the icy landscapes of Greenland. Here is a pair of drinking elephants, there is a small seal or a polar bear cub and far away a submarine or a couple of impressive cathedrals.



Do people actually live in Greenland?

Many people around the world are quite surprised that there are actually people living in Greenland. They just consider Greenland to be the white lump at the top of the map. If they were at all aware that the white mass of land has a name and is in fact a country. Even when viewing Greenland from a plane at an altitude of ten kilometres, the Ice Sheet seems endless.

There is no Greenlander that hasn’t come across this question on trips abroad: “Isn’t it true, that Greenland is white and Iceland is green?”

Among these enormous amounts of snow and ice live an indomitable people of 56,000 souls. No other population has as much space as the Greenlanders. Bear in mind however, that 4/5 of the country is covered by snow and ice, but the 56,000 people still have a snow and ice-free area the size of France on which to roam about.


Light, Sound, Taste – AND WHISKY

The changing light plays a major part in making the ice so alluring that you want to seek it out again and again. Also your sense of smell and hearing are kindled in the clean, tranquil air. The sound – not to forget – of thousands of tiny explosions when filling a glass with hundreds of thousands year-old ice served with a single malt whisky. Inhale and let the warmth spread through your body. It is simply glorious.


The Ice Sheet

The Ice Sheet is the largest in the northern hemisphere. The is the primal mother of all the white ice giants in the sea and is in itself gigantic. From north to south, the Ice Sheet spans across 2,600 kilometres. It covers an area of approximately 1,726,400 square kilometres. In addition to this, Greenland also has a number of ‘smaller’ ice caps, covering 76,000 square kilometres. This leaves only about 338,000 square kilometres of ice-free areas in Greenland. The Ice Sheet consists of about 2,800,000 cubic kilometres of ice! If the Ice Sheet were to melt, the worlds sea levels would rise more than seven metres.

At its thickest, the Ice Sheet is more than three kilometres thick, and so heavy that approximately 1/3 is below the surface of the water. Where it is weighed down because of its size. If the ice did melt, Greenland would be a ring-shaped country, in the middle of which a new ocean would appear.


Getting close to the Ice Sheet

You can experience the Ice Sheet in many different places in Greenland, but nowhere is it as accessible as in Kangerlussuaq, where you can drive to the edge of the ice and walk around on the giant ice cap. You can walk, run, bike or be driven to the edge of the ice, however it is 25 to 37 kilometres travel on gravel roads through an undulating terrain. Therefore, we would recommend that you join one of our excursions to the ice. You will find more information about this in this guide.

Only in two towns in Greenland do you have a direct view of the Ice Sheet: Narsaq in Southern Greenland and in Qaanaaq in Northern Greenland. Although it may not be visible from other towns, this does not mean that the ice is far away. This is true for Ilulissat, Tasiilaq, Narsarsuaq, Uummannaq amongst others. And then there are places where you can see other glaciers at close range, for instance in Kulusuk.


The Ice Sheet – a rugged landscape of ice

Due to the enormous pressure the ice imposes on itself and the ground beneath it, there are numerous glaciers all along the Greenlandic coastline where the ice is pushed out into the ocean. This way, the famous and impressive icebergs are born as they break off from the Ice Sheet. This is called “calving”.

The Ice Sheet is not merely a gigantic white lump. If you get close to it, you will see a rugged landscape of ice in many different shades of white, grey, blue and even black. During summer, many of these crevices are filled with blue and green meltwater currents. Generally, the ice is like a living organism, as it sheds its edges by means of large calvings.


The Greenlandic Ice Sheet – Ice cap or Galcier?

We have already mentioned Greenland’s Ice Cap, but there are also incredibly huge amounts of ice covering Antarctica. Antarctica is a continent where freshwater ice and snow cover the ground like in Greenland. The ice at the North Pole, however, consists of frozen salt water from the Arctic Sea. On top of this ice, snow deposits produce additional freshwater ice on top of the flat slopes of sea ice. During the latest ice age, large parts of North America, Patagonia and Europe were also covered by ice caps. If an ice area measures more than 50,000 square kilometres, it is categorised as an ice cap. Consequently, Vatnajökull in Iceland does not qualify as Iceland’s ice cap, but rather as a large glacier.


How big is the impact of Global Warming?

In recent years, there has been a lot of focus on the Ice Sheet melting faster than earlier. This is caused by global warming, and there are a lot of reasons for the ice melting faster. Pollution from Europe and other places creates a dark layer on top of the ice. This makes the ice melt faster than if it was white. Black absorbs heat stronger than white. A major melting is also occurring below the ice because many of the new freshwater lakes and currents above the ice run down through crevices and along the ground below the ice. This makes the ice rise, and the additional friction below the ice further advances the melting. The underside of the ice also becomes smoother due to these currents, which then makes the ice glide faster towards the sea (enhanced by geometric heat in certain places).


Glacial striae and moraines

You can see whether an area has been covered by ice if there are visible glacial striae on the rocks. They are made by rocks that have been frozen in the ice, and the movements of glacier have then caused these rocks to make glacial striae in the landscape. In Greenland, it is very evident if a glacier has drawn back, because then the rocks around the glacier look completely different.

So-called moraines appear in glacial rim areas. They consist of piles of clay, sand, gravel, silt and other materials and have been carried forward by glaciers or washed out at the foot of the glacial rim. Silt is the same as sand, but as fine as flour.


A window into the past

Throughout the years, a lot of scientists have worked on the Ice Cap, and Danish scientists have drilled into the ice and taken core samples from the past 125,000 years. In that sense, the Ice Cap functions like the growth rings in a tree, and each year adds a new layer of ice and snow that can tell scientists about the climate in specific years. In that way, the ice shows for instance when Krakatau exploded. Krakatau is a volcanic island in Indonesia. The ice has even brought forward fossils of old plants that used to grow in Greenland before the ice arrived.


The many colors of ice

Icebergs can be blue, white and even have dark stripes. In the blue icebergs, the oxygen levels are low because air has been pressed out of the snow over time. In white icebergs, there are many air bubbles or a snow-filled surface. Glacial ice is created either by freezing of water or pressurised snow. The dark stripes appear when icebergs scrape against the ground on their way from land to sea. Moreover, many icebergs are intersected by turquoise, green or blue bands of pure water ice. The bands appear in the glacier where ice has melted and refrozen as bubble-free meltwater. The colors appear, when they reflect rays of sun.


The Icefjords in Greenland

The Ilulissat Icefjord is a remarkable natural phenomenon, which you may have heard of. You can read more about it further below in this guide. There are other icefjords in Greenland, which are just as impressive as the Ilulissat Icefjord, but its speed and accessibility have made it more famous. Other beautiful icefjords include Sermilik west of the Ammassalik island, the icefjord near Paamiut and Nuuk, Qoorooq near Narsarsuaq, Bredefjord behind Narsaq and especially the Eternal Fjord near Maniitsoq.

It is always a completely different experience to see icefjords from the waterside as the ice masses become so much more impressive when viewed from below. The captains on the tourist boats are very careful when they approach the icebergs. The ice is alive

and imposes nature’s great forces. When large masses of ice are calving, they create tsunami-like waves.


Sea ice and field ice

Sea ice is another name for field ice, which is created when salt water freezes at the surface of the sea. Sea ice is created along the Greenlandic coast with the exception of the area stretching from Sisimiut in the north to Paamiut in the south. This area is called the open water area because it never freezes over. Qaanaaq in northern Greenland is only ice-free in August and September. Field ice arises in north east Greenland as well as close to the pole. It floats south along the east coast and north along the west coast to Paamiut. The part of the sea ice drifting to Sisimiut is called the Western Ice, as it comes from Buffin Bay.

Normally, the entire Greenlandic east coast from the north to Cape Farewell in the south is frozen from December to May/June. The distribution of sea ice has decreased in recent years due to global warming. Sea ice can have a vast, horizontal extent, but never rises high above sea level.

How is an iceberg created?

Icebergs, which are made from frozen fresh water, contain small air bubbles, which originated from the creation of the Greenlandic Ice Cap. Icebergs are created when the various glaciers along the Greenlandic coastline pushes tongues out towards the sea. Thus, both smaller and larger floes break off and fall into the water. There are also “dead glaciers”, where ice is pushed out and melts off, for instance in a glacial stream. Compared to field ice, icebergs can have a vast vertical distribution and stretch 100 metres above sea level. A rule of thumb says that only 10% of the ice is above sea level.


Icebergs and pack ice in Southern Greenland

Southern Greenland is known for two particular phenomena, the blue ice against the green fields and the pack ice. The Southern Greenland ice is old because it has been underway for a long time. This makes it more compact, and therefore the ice often becomes blue instead of white because the bubbles have vanished due to the high pressure the ice has been exposed to.

Pack ice is a noticeable phenomenon – especially in Eastern and Southern Greenland. Pack ice occurs when ice in the Norwegian Sea breaks up in spring and summer and giant, flat icebergs flow down along the east coast and double Cape Farewell – Greenland’s southern tip – to turn up into Southern Greenland where it will melt or drift to sea in the Baffin Bay eventually. Pack ice – or drift ice – is frozen sea ice of salt water, unlike the freshwater ice from the Ice Cap. It packs tightly wherever it floats, and it can be incredibly dangerous to manoeuvre in it.


The dangerous black ice

We cannot make it clear enough that it is dangerous to come too close to the ice – whether it is the Ice Cap or large icebergs in the water. Please be careful, as there are unimaginable forces of nature at work here. The ice is beautiful but also demands respect and awe. You have to be a skilled skipper in order to set out between the icebergs and sea ice. Greenlanders in small dinghies and speedboats have particularly great respect for the so-called black ice, which is totally transparent and thus almost completely invisible in the dark water where it appears to be black. A collision with ice can be fatal for a boat that is not ice-enhanced. Black ice is dangerous, because it is difficult to see and therefore hard to avoid.

Ships on the transatlantic routes must be alert, too, when icebergs from the Baffin Bay between Greenland and Canada in spring and summer drift down through the Davis Strait (and as far south as to New Foundland). Even polar bears have a reason to be careful on the ice. In spring, as temperatures begin to rise, large ice floes are created, and sometimes a polar bear from the national park up north ends up as a blind passenger on a floe and drifts southward with the current, all the way down to Greenland’s southernmost town, which is even named Nanortalik (“the place with the polar bear”). The Forest Fjord near Narsaq is even also called Tunulliarfik in Greenlandic (“the road back”, which westerners sometimes call Eastern Greenland), because polar bears travel this way to get home to the east coast.


Ice creates life – beneficial for man and animal alike

Besides being fascinating, the ice has life-giving qualities. In several places in Greenland, obtaining drinking water can be somewhat problematic, making it necessary to melt the ice. But ice also helps create life in a more indirect way – namely as the ice floes melt in the sea water. The meltwater from the freshwater ice produces rotations in the salt water causing a number of minerals to whirl around and to rise to the surface. Here, alga then utilise them to produce biomass, and thus establishing ideal living conditions for prawns and fish – and hence for sea mammals and humans.

In multiple locations on the Greenlandic east coast and near Ilulissat Ice Fjord during winter, grooves are created in the ice that never freeze over, making them an attractive spot for seals, whales and polar bears to come look for food. One is located off the coast of Ittoqqortoormiit, which provides good conditions for the local sealers. In fact, this is the very reason the settlement was established here.


Seals relaxing in the sun

In spring, seals lie on the ice to burn off the fat in the sun, in order to become great divers. Reportedly, seals have made their own system of breathing holes in the ice. The seals work together to keep the breathing holes open. Coming up to breathe, however, is not without risk, as a polar bear might be waiting on the ice, and in that case, the seals have to hide again quickly.


Two ideal spots to get close to the Ice Sheet

There are many places in Greenland where you can get close to the Ice. We would like to introduce you to the two most popular spots:


  The Ice Sheet close to Kangerlussuaq

  Ilulissat Ice Fjord near Ilulissat

The Greenlandic Ice Sheet at Kangerlussuaq

As mentioned above, the Ice Cap is located 25 to 37 kilometres from Kangerlussuaq, depending on the route. That might be a bit too far to walk for the majority of travellers, so we recommend that you join one of the arranged excursions to the ice, which take place in large four wheel-drives. As you approach the ice, the nature becomes very varied. At times you can have nice, green fields of grass to one side of the car and an Arctic desert to the other. The surroundings are spectacular, and there is a chance you might spot musk oxen, reindeer and maybe even ptarmigans and mountain hares.

In Kangerlussuaq, you can easily access places on or at the ice. One of them is Point 660 where you get up on the Ice Cap. Not far from there, Camp Ice Cap is located, giving you the opportunity to spend the night in a tent on the Ice Cap. You can also go on one of the trips to the Russell Glacier, which is also easily accessible. Here, you will experience a tall wall of ice located among green plains.

We have made a guide specifically about Kangerlussuaq, which can provide you with much more information about the trips to the ice.

Read more about the Greenlandic Ice Sheet.


Ilulissat Icefjord – World-famous UNESCO World Heritage

The Ilulissat Icefjord is located near Ilulissat, which is known as home of the icebergs. Here, you will find plenty of options for experiencing the icebergs.

You can go on a boat trip to the mouth of the Icefjord all year round and you can walk to the Ice Fjord from the center of Ilulissat in half an hour. Furthermore, surrounding Ilulissat there are some nice paths and well-marked hiking routes along the Icefjord.

A full-day hike along the Icefjord is for those who are in regularly good shape. You will start out on the green route, which leads down to the abandoned Sermermiut settlement by the Icefjord, and continue on the marked blue route. Bring food and water in your backpack along with some extra warm clothing, a seat pad and what else you might need on a day in the rocks. During this hike, you can really take in the ice as you are walking along the Icefjord.

In Ilulissat, it is easy to go on a boat trip to the icebergs at the estuary of the fjord. It is beautiful by day, but if you are in Ilulissat when the midnight sun is shining, you should definitely consider also joining an evening boat trip in the glow of the midnight sun. The special warm hue is a perfect match with the white-blue surfaces of the ice. During summer, you could also consider getting on a helicopter and take a trip over the Icefjord and to the edge of the Ice Sheet.

Read more about the Ilulissat Icefjord.


Download our guide to Ilulissat

The Ilulissat Icefjord is a unique natural phenomenon which is listed as UNESCO world heritage – and rightly so. The 45-kilometre long fjord is brim-full of icebergs and ice floes from the huge glacier Sermeq Kujalleq at the far end of the fjord, and the glacier itself moves about 40 metres a day during summer, making it the fastest moving glacier in the northern hemisphere. The view of the Icefjord is simpy incredible and you will never tire from looking at it.


Cakving ice at the size of lower Manhattan

The ice in Greenland is fascinating, impressive and scary at the same time. Follow the link below and watch the largest calving, that ever got recorded on film. The movie got accepted as a Guiness Record in 2016.

It happens at the Ice Cap near Ilulissat in Western Greenland. You are witness to icebergs at the size of lower Manhattan breaking off the Ice Sheet and collapse. This is shown very well in this movie.

Watch the movie via this link. 




’Sermeq’ means glacier and ’suaq’ means large. Sermersuaq – the large ice – is the Greenlandic name for the Ice Sheet.

Two types of ice

There are two main types of ice in the Greenlandic water – freshwater icebergs that break off glaciers, and sea ice, which consists of frozen seawater and get created on the sea.