The ice, the science and the icefjord

The Inland Ice has unique historical importance for the foundation of glaciology - the science of glaciers - and the gigantic ice sheet of Greenland still plays a central role in modern glaciology and climate research. Published information about the Inland Ice and the pre-sent Ilulissat Icefjord World Heritage site goes back more than 250 years.

Many expeditions explored the Inland Ice in the 19th century. Their equipment was primitive, and travel on the ice was difficult and dangerous.

The first descriptions of the Inland Ice date from the early Middle Ages. ‘Kongens Spejl’ (the King’s mirror), a Norwegian document written about 1260, provides a vivid first-hand description of the widespread extent of Greenland’s ice sheet:

"But as you asked whether the land is free from ice or not, or if it is covered with ice like the sea, then you should know that there is a small part of the land which is free from ice, but the rest is covered by it, and people do not know whether the land is large or small, because all fell areas and all valleys are hidden by the ice, so it is not possible to find an opening". It continues "People have often tried to go to different places on the land on the fells that are highest, to look about and try to find any part of the land that was free from ice and habitable, but nowhere has it been possible to discover such areas apart from those that are already inhabited, which stretch only for short areas along the coast" 

Meeting between Inuit and Europeans.

Fridtjof Nansen´s 1888 expedition was the first to cross the Inland Ice.

The period of discovery: 1700-1845

The initial colonisation of Greenland in 1721, and the establishment of Danish settlements (Ilulissat / Jakobshavn was founded in 1741), resulted in many descriptions of the country, the nature and the Inuit people.

Inuit at their winter house.

Missionaries and traders who travelled along Greenland’s west coast wrote about the area around Ilulissat and the Inland Ice. Observations from the start of the 18th century indicate that the icefjord Kangia was then occasionally ice-free, whereas the margin of the glacier advanced in the 18th century and the start of the 19th century.

In 1770, the missionary David Cranz was one of the first to try to understand the origins of the Inland Ice and the icebergs, and he compared his observations with European and American glaciers. This provided the foundation for more detailed surveys of the Greenland ice sheet during the following century, when it was realised that glaciers could also yield information about earlier changes between warm and cool periods, a sort of ‘climatoscope’.

Traditional winter house from the Thule culture modified by a glass window.

Observations and ­theories: 1845-1950

One person dominated the early years of true glacier research in Greenland for decades: Hinrich Rink. Rink was originally educated in chemistry and physics, but he carried out geological and glaciological studies in West Greenland between 1848 and 1852 during travels along the coast from Upernavik in the north to Qaqortoq / Julianehåb in the south.

Hinrich Rink (1819-1893)

was a pioneer in studies of the Inland Ice, and the first to realise its enormous size.

Hinrich Rink’s objective was to make a map of the country based on his own and earlier surveys, and supplemented by map sketches made by local hunters. He concentrated his efforts around the central part of West Greenland, an area that was then largely unknown, and he succeeded in surveying large parts of the fjords and their glaciers. Rink spent the winter of 1850/51 in Ilulissat and sailed to the margin of the Inland Ice at Paakitsoq, north of the town, in October 1850. He travelled by sledge to the southern part of Sermeq Kujalleq in April 1851, and here he determined the position of the front of the glacier. Rink’s surveys were the first in a series of observations of changes of the ice margin that have now lasted more than 150 years. Meteorological observations at Ilulissat were begun in 1873, and together with measurements of the movements of Sermeq Kujalleq from 1875, provide unique documentation of glacier frontal variations in arctic areas.

Map illustrating Rink’s 1862 theory of the drainage of the interior of Greenland by rivers. As the map shows, East Greenland was then not well known, and the depiction of the area north of Ilulissat in West Greenland is also imprecise. Click on the map to enlarge it.


Rink’s 1857 map showing the extent of the Inland Ice, and the five large glaciers (ice streams) from the Inland Ice that drain into Disko Bugt and Uummannaq Fjord. Less important glaciers in southern Greenland are also shown. Click on the map to enlarge it.

Through his work, Hinrich Rink became the first scientist to realise the vast extent and special form of ‘the ice plain’ covering the entire interior of Greenland, and he called this ice cover Indlandsisen, (‘Inland Ice’) after a suggestion by the Danish scientist Japetus Steenstrup. The Inland Ice was completely different from the local glaciers of northern Europe, well known from many descriptions. At about the same time a new idea was developing in Europe - that ice had once covered large parts of northern Europe in the past. Rink’s sensational news that there was an enormous ice sheet in Greenland was therefore received with particular interest in scientific circles, because it could substantiate the argument that northern Europe had been covered by ice during one or more ice ages. Rink’s descriptions also provided the impetus for glaciological expeditions to Greenland and the Ilulissat area in the following decades.

Hinrich Rink also tried to understand the mechanism behind the production of calf ice. His main theory was that the ice streams flowing from Greenland’s interior are fed by the accumulation of snow. The snow, in the form of ice, is then transported out to the coast by the ice streams - in the same way that rain over large land areas is carried to the sea by large rivers.

Rink estimated the production of calf ice on the basis of the size of the glaciers and the quantity of ice in the fjords, and he recognised five icestreams of ‘the first order’ - Jakobshavn, Tossukatek, Den større Kariak, Den større Kangerdlursoak and Upernavik. He thus realised that there was large calf ice production in five fjords, although he did not discover the unique status of Sermeq Kujalleq as the main outlet of the Inland Ice. That was first realised in the second half of the 19th century. However, Rink recognised the extraordinary size of the Inland Ice, which is indicated by his calculation of the catchment area of about 50,000 square kilometres or more that he estimated was necessary to feed each of the five glaciers.

The margin of the Inland Ice at Paakitsoq north of Kangia, drawn in 1850 by Hinrich Rink, one of the pioneers of glaciology. The ice margin was then advancing, and reached a maximum about 1880. Since then a gradual retreat has taken place, as is seen from the photographs from 1961 and 1987. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Interest in Greenland’s glaciology grew in the second half of the 19th century, with an increasing number of researchers visiting Kangia and Sermeq Kujalleq; nearly all described the glacier front and its surroundings. Among the early visitors were some of the leading scientists and explorers of the time, including Erich von Drygalski, Robert E. Peary, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld and Alfred Wegener.

Modern glaciology from 1950

During the Second World War map-making on the basis of aerial photographs was developed to a high standard, so that even remote areas such as Greenland could be mapped in detail from aerial photographs. At the same time, all-terrain vehicles were developed, which eased access to, and transport on, the inner crevasse-free areas of the Inland Ice.

The modern era started with the activities of Expéditions Polaires Francaises in the years from 1948 to 1953. The expedition’s work was focused along an East - West profile from coast to coast over central Greenland, with the purpose of measuring a profile of the bottom and surface of the Inland Ice and determining the mass balance along the route. The west end of the profile was 70 km north of Ilullisat, on the south side of Eqip Sermia glacier, and this area was the subject of detailed mapping. However, there was little direct contribution to knowledge of the Ilullissat region.

Researchers at work during Expéditions Polaires Francaises. (Source: The book: Indlandsisen by Børge Fristrup. Photo: Børge Fristrup)

Expédition Glaciologique Internationale au Groenlande in 1957-1960 was a collaboration between Austria, Denmark, France, Germany and Switzerland. Using aerial photographs, the expedition determined the rate of movement of all the outlet glaciers draining into Disko Bugt and Uummannaq Fjord. At the same time the production of calf ice was assessed, and the studies confirmed Sermeq Kujalleq’s unique role with regard to the production of calf ice.

After 1960, an important project was undertaken to determine the thickness of the Inland Ice and map the altitude of the ice surface and the topography of the landscape under the ice using airborne radar. More than 60,000 kilometres of profiles were collected over six seasons between 1968 and l976 - the first overall survey of the landscape under the Inland Ice. The survey was a breakthrough in the understanding of the dynamics and geomorphology of glaciers and ice sheets, and in climate research.

However, there was still a lack of detailed knowledge about the continuation of Kangia and the channel occupied by Sermeq Kujalleq beneath the margin of the Inland Ice. Some of this information has since been collected during investigations of the potential for using melt water for hydropower production. For this purpose a helicopter-borne radar technology was developed by the Technical University of Denmark, and modified by the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. The most recent surveys of the thickness of the ice sheet around Sermeq Kujalleq were published in 2001.

Modern studies of the marginal areas of the Inland Ice are, to a large degree, based on data from satellites. Satellite monitoring of frontal changes has replaced aerial photography to some extent as it makes it possible to carry out repeated observations within a short time frame. The record of Sermeq Kujalleq’s development since 1932, established from aerial photographs, has been one of steady retreat until the 1950s. Then followed a period of relative stability until 2002, when satellite monitoring has documented a rapid retreat.


Sermeq Kujalleq gradually retreated between 1850 and 1992. The glacier front was more or less stable between 1950 and 2002, with seasonal fluctuations, retreat in summer and advance in winter. The 1962 and 1988 positions shown are respectively winter and spring locations of the front. The 1985 and 1992 positions show the location of the front in respectively summer and early autumn. The 1992 determination, from satellite data, also depicts the ice margin to the north and south of Sermeq Kujalleq. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Glacier surges

During the second half of the 20th century increasing interest was shown by glaciologists in the phenomenon of glacier surging, during which glaciers make short term advances at relatively high velocities. This phenomenon has been described for local glaciers at different places around the world. Surges have velocities comparable to the high velocities of the so-called ice streams of Antarctica and Greenland, the major drainage outlets of the ice sheets for which the high velocities are permanently maintained due to the large catchment areas.

The interest in understanding surging glaciers is related to the development of the idea that the ice sheets of the ice age may have collapsed suddenly and catastrophically. Similar considerations are relevant today with respect to the possible response of the present ice sheets to global warming as a result of the increased greenhouse effect caused by mankind. Interest in the dynamics of glaciers has therefore increased. Sermeq Kujalleq is an obvious choice for studies, partly because the region is covered by a long series of climate observations from the weather station at Ilulissat, but also because historical and scientific observations extend back for 150 years. In addition, due to studies relating to hydropower, a continuous series of temperature, precipitation and radiation measurements were made at the margin of the Inland Ice in the 1980s, to determine the quantity of melt water produced from the ablation zone.


Estimated maximum (blue) and minimum (turquoise) calf ice product ion from glaciers along the west coast of Greenland. The production of calf ice from Sermeq Kujalleq is in a class of its own. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Information about the most recent changes in extent and movement of glaciers is based on surveys from satellites, which can also determine the topography of the ice and the surface velocity over large areas. The dramatic retreat of the floating segment of Sermeq Kujalleq in 2002 will undoubtedly lead to more intensive studies in the near future.

Continue your journey through Ilulissat Icefjord:

The nutrient-rich icefjord

150 Years of exploration

1850/51: H. Rink was the first to determine the frontal position of Sermeq Kujalleq.

1870: N. A.E. Nordenskiöld described the front of Sermeq Kujalleq, but was unable to determine the boundary between the glacier front and the calf ice in the fjord. His visit to the glacier took place during one of the earliest attempts to reach the unknown interior parts of Greenland. During a reconnaissance from the bottom of Arfersiorfik fjord, 90 km south of Ilulissat, he traversed 56 km across the Inland Ice reaching an altitude of 680 metres above sea level. A later larger expedition led by Nordenskiöld, from the same starting point, reached 350 km into the Inland Ice and an altitude of 1947 metres. The main purpose was to investigate the ice sheet, and study the landscape at the ice margin.

Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901)
Nordenskiöld was very interested in the ice age theory, and he was convinced that the natural conditions in Greenland were a good image of the conditions in Europe during the Ice Ages.

1875: A. Helland determined the location of the Sermeq Kujalleg glacier front, and made the first measurements of the velocity in July 1875.

1879: R.R.J. Hammer surveyed the whole of the fjord system, including the glaciers at the bottom of the Sikuiuitsoq and Tasiusaq fjords. He also determined the position of the Sermeq Kujalleq front in September.

1880: R.R.J. Hammer repeated his visit to the glacier in March and August 1880. Hammer recorded a winter advance of 1 km for Sermeq Kujalleq, and a subsequent summer retreat of 2 km. He also measured the movement velocity from the southern edge of the glacier front to its central part, and estimated that a movement of up to 16 metres in 24 hours was possible. Hammer reported that the movement was not uniform, and that there appeared to be a connection between air temperature and glacier velocity. The position of the front was very variable, and Hammer concluded that large icebergs were released through a break-up of the ice front due to the buoyancy of the floating part of the glacier.

1886: R.E. Peary attempted to reach the interior of the Inland Ice from a starting point at Paakitsoq, 40 km north of Ilulissat. Accompanied by Christian Majgaard he reached a point 185 km into the Inland Ice and an altitude of almost 2300 metres above sea level. A description of the landscape near the ice margin was published.

Robert Edwin Peary (1856-1920)
Peary – the first man on the North Pole – was very interested in Greenland, and he felt that he had to find out the truth about the mysterious central part of Greenland.

1888: S. Hansen made a sketch map of the icefjord for the Royal Danish Sea Chart Archive. According to Engell, a photograph made during this visit showed that the position of the glacier front was further to the east than shown on the map of this year.

1893: E. von Drygalski visited the area to the south of the Sermeq Kujalleq front in February. The position of the front was drawn on a map, although it was difficult to determine precisely.

1902: M.C. Engell measured the frontal position of Sermeq Kujalleq in July, and showed that the process of retreat since Rink’s observations in 1851 had continued. Velocity measurements were similar to those previously determined. Engell also described the whole fjord region, including Sikuiuitsoq and Tasiusaq.

1903: M.C. Engell again visited the glacier in July, but could only determine the frontal position with some uncertainty; it appeared to be about 350 metres further west than in 1902. He reported the calving of a large iceberg.

1904: M.C. Engell made his third visit to the glacier front in the summer of 1904. The position of the front was not determined.

1913: J.P. Koch and A. Wegener. After their east to west crossing of the Inland Ice in 1912-1913, the two scientists visited Sermeq Kujalleq in August 1913. Their determination of the position of the glacier front indicated a considerable retreat since 1902

J.P. Koch´s expedition crossing the Inland Ice 1912-13. (Source: The book: Horisonter af is by Rud Kjems)

1929: J. Georgi and E. Sorge. During the preparations for Alfred Wegener’s Expedition to the Inland Ice in l930-1931, two of its members determined the position and movement of the ice front during a visit in ­autumn 1929.

1931/32: The position of the glacier front was depicted on the first map sheet (1:250,000) of the Jakobshavn area, published by the Geodetic Institute, Copenhagen.

Efter 1932: During and after the Second World War there were rapid developments in aerial photography techniques. Aerial photographs of Kangia and Sermeq Kujalleq in the archives of the National Survey and Cadastre in Copenhagen date from the years 1942, 1946, 1948, 1953, 1957, 1958, 1959 and 1985. In more recent years satellite imagery allows continuous monitoring of frontal positions.

The marginal part of the Inland Ice seen from an airplane. (Source: The book: Indlandsisen by Børge Fristrup. Foto: Børge Fristrup)