No matter how complex the models or extensive the computer programs, gauging what is happening to Earth's climate and its natural systems needs boots on the ground, on the water, on the ice, and in the air. Glaciologist Gordon Hamilton of the University of Maine and physical oceanographer Fiammetta Straneo of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are doing just that.
Working out of the small Greenland village of Tasiilaq, they have for several years undertaken a coordinated, two-pronged investigation of the water and glaciers of Sermilik Fjord. Hamilton and his team comb Helheim Glacier, installing and checking cameras and GPS units; Straneo and her team drop probes into the water in the fjord to measure its temperature.
As the two scientists explained to staffers at a gathering on Capitol Hill late last year, Hamilton has found that Helheim Glacier has surged in speed, from approximately 7,000 meters (roughly four miles) per year in 2003 to almost 12,000 meters (approximately seven miles) a year by 2005. Straneo, meanwhile, has discovered that, around the time Helheim and other east Greenland glaciers began surging, the water temperature increased along the island's east coast. Those water temperatures are now the warmest they have been in the last 50 years, and there is "increasing evidence that ocean warming is playing a role in accelerating Greenland's glaciers," Straneo says.