I want to share with you the lesson of the snowflake. Individually it is the lightest, most delicate, fragile thing in the world. It takes over 22,000 snowflakes to add up to a pound snow. A cubic foot of snow can weigh over 62 pounds. And 10 inches of fluffy snow floating down to cover an acre of ground weighs over a ton.
And if you keep piling up snowflakes for something over 800,000 years, which has happened in Greenland, you get rivers of ice - 53 glaciers on the world's largest island. Winter after winter, century after century, for perhaps 15,000 years, the gentle, ethereal fresh snow compresses the older snow beneath it, until 50 feet below the surface it becomes solid ice, and 2 miles down it crushes the water molecules so their oxygen-hydrogen bonds lock together in long bands, making glacial ice sharp blue and hard enough to crush human lives.
The fastest of Greenland's “tortoise rivers” , the Jacobshaven glacier begins 300 miles from the western coast, at a 50 mile arc of 11,000 foot high snow ridges, 42,471 square miles of compressed snow flakes, fed by 118 inches of new snowflakes a year. The base of this 2 mile thick ice machine is lubricated by a thin sheen of melt water against the bedrock, allowing the glacier to be squeezed like toothpaste from a tube, rushing 40 miles to the coast at 70 – 110 feet a day toward the 3 mile wide Jacobshaven Fjord.
As late as 1983 the ice did not stop when it reached the water. Marine biologist Richard Brown could write, “The tongue of ice grows into a long, floating slab, anchored only by the hinge of ice at its landward end. But the hinge becomes more and more precarious as the ice pushes farther out and the tides begin to work on it, up and down, twice a day. The cracks...soon become crevasses....at last... the deepest crevasse breaks through with a roar which echoes off the sides of the fjord like a mountain in labor.
"The slab crashes off the face of the glacier, scattering seabirds as it goes. A surge of water, three feet high, runs ahead of it and batters its way along the walls of the fjord. The ice berg is launched.”
It is called “calving”, and the 36 mile long fjord is jammed with thousands of newly born bergs, big and small, that scrape against the edges and bottom of the inlet. With the arrival of autumn, the air atop the ice sheet “...comes rushing down the fjord in a hurricane wind....(and) the bergs begin to move...until they are drifting almost as fast as a man can walk....grinding, jostling past the little port of Jackobshaven (above) and out into the sea at last.”
Each year western Greenland produces 25- 40,000 icebergs, averaging 5-11 million tons each. Sunlight melts the surface, while the colder sea water protects the body of the berg. The berg becomes unbalanced, and repeatedly rolls over, offering a fresh face for the sun to attack. The bottom of Baffin Bay is coated with gravel and rocks scrapped off the hidden mountains of Greenland and dropped from rolling bergs like pennies slipping through a hole in your pocket. A few of hundred of these islands of fresh water ice in a salted sea make it through the Davis Strait and into the North Atlantic, to be shepherded south by the Labrador current.
This particular berg has battled storms and seas that would have destroyed anything made by humans. But now, on a moonless night, the berg is approaching a border. The ocean has gone calm and placid. The air, at the very center of a high pressure area, has gone still as well, the pressure so high there is no fog. Close to the water surface a faint obscuring mist has gathered, held down by the warmer gulf air.
Approximately 380 miles south-south east of Cape Race, Newfoundland, in a meandering, swirling collision, the cold southbound Labrador water overrides the northbound warmer - up to 68 degrees Fahrenheit warmer – Caribbean air, heated by the approaching Gulf Stream current. And then, out of the still dark, flickering lights appear over the horizon, and quickly grow brighter and steadier. An object is approaching. It is dwarfed by the 2 million tons of the remaining berg, 200 feet long and 140 feet above the water line, meaning perhaps 1,000 feet below.
A human witness, on board the approaching object says it resembles “the Rock of Gibraltar”. The human object was less than a thousand feet long, and sat just over 100 feet above the water. But is moving so quickly, pushing 52,000 tons of sea water aside as it plows through the water at 20 knots – 23 miles an hour - in a most unnatural straight line, on a collision course with the berg..
Abruptly, the object begins to emit noises, first clanging and then shrieks. The tenor of its thrashing changes. At last it begins to swing away from the ice, slowly, as if distracted by a voice faintly heard. But it is not enough. The berg feels the shudder of contact. But the human forged metal is no match for the glacier ice, compacted over a thousand years by hundreds of millions of tons of compressing snowflakes. The metal bends ever so slightly. A chunk of ice snaps off the surface of the berg, and shatters on to the deck of the Royal Mail Ship Titanic.
“The iceberg rocks a little from the force of the impact, spins a little, and keeps on drifting southward, changed only by a smear of red and black paint along one of its sides.” The Titanic stops not far from the collision, and begins to make new sounds, and shed small pieces of itself. Then, within four hours, the Titanic is swallowed by the sea.
At dawn the next morning, another, even smaller object, approaches the berg. She is the R.M.S. Carpathia, soon to be joined by other similar objects. And for a few days the berg is surrounded by small human made objects. On one of these, the Russian-East Asiatic Steam Ship Birma, First Officer Alfred Nielsen takes a photograph of the iceberg (above), one of only three confirmed and mutually supportive photographs of the iceberg blamed for the loss of the R.M.S. Titanic. Then, one by one the ships move away. And for a time the berg and the detritus of the collision float together, southward in a warming Labrador current..
Eventually, this berg crosses the border, “...a boundary between the cold, gray world of ice and seabirds and the warm blue one of flying fish and Sargasso weed. The sea on the other side is (41 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer, in a matter yards.”. As Richard Brown would later write, “The ice berg goes no further south than...300 miles north of Bermuda, and then it is nothing.”
The particular iceberg held responsible for sinking RMS Titanic, and drowning 1,500 human souls, was unusual. Of the 25,000 to 40,000 icebergs calved by the west Greenland glaciers each year, few make it into the North Atlantic. At least 1,000 icebergs crossed through the Davis Strait in 1909 and in 1912.
That number was not equaled again until 7 years later - 1929 - which saw 1,300 North Atlantic icebergs. It was not 15 years later - 1945 - that number was equaled. But 22 year later - 1972 - saw 1,500, and 1,300 in 1982, 10 years later. Just 2 years later, - in 1984 - there were 2,200 sited, 1,000 again one year later, and 1,900 12 years later - in 1997.
The very next year - 1998 - there were 1,300. A decade later there were another 1,000 Atlantic icebergs and over 1,200 in 2009. The glaciers of Greenland have been calving bergs at increasing rates. The iceberg that “sank the Titanic” was an early warning of what humans were doing to the planet we depend upon for our breathable air and drinkable water.
The Jacobshaven has been in full retreat since 1850. And still we have refused to listen to its warnings. Since 2003, the Greenland ice sheet has lost 10 billion tons of ice - each and every year. The Jacobshaven glacier has lost 15 feet of thickness every year, and in the last six years - since 2010 - has retreated another 3 miles up the fjord. Once back on land, there will be no more icebergs from the Jacobshaven glacier, only a flood of fresh water. No longer will the ocean have to wait while the icebergs melt before their salty water is diluted. It is a tipping point, as if the berg was getting ready to roll over for the last time. After that, things speed up.
It will be a moment even a United States Senator, holding a February snowball in his hand, will not be able to deny. The lesson of the snowflake is that small things eventually add up to very big things. But, if you wait until the big thing is visible and obvious, it is usually too late to change course..