Kristin had been raving about Ilulissat all summer. In Nuuk, when we exclaimed about the icebergs in the fjord, she laughed and said, “Just wait for Ilulissat.” And yet, she kept worrying outloud: “What if the others don’t like it? What if it really isn’t as spectacular as I think?” The second our cohort spotted Ilulissat from our plane windows, we knew Kristin had no reason to worry. She was absolutely right: Ilulissat was so spectacular that our pictures didn’t seem real, even hours after taking them.
Indeed, the natural beauty of Ilulissat, the third largest town in Greenland, has been recognized internationally by the World Heritage Committee. In 2004, Ilulissat Icefjord joined the ever-growing list of World Heritage sites, which includes familiar locations such as the Statue of Liberty, Yosemite National Park, and Yellowstone National Park. World Heritage sites are chosen for their ‘outstanding universal value,’ and must meet at least one out of ten selection criteria (to learn more about the selection process, visit the World Heritage Committee’s website). Ilulissat Icefjord met two selection criteria: being an example of an important stage in Earth’s history, and being a memorable natural spectacle.
There is no doubt that the view of the Ilulissat Icefjord is memorable. Our first day in Ilulissat, Kathy Young, CPS Science Coordinator, took us on one of the many marked trails around town. As we rounded the corner and the icebergs came into view, our jaws dropped in amazement. Continuing along the rest of the hike was slow going – we had to stop every few minutes to stand in awe, take pictures, and pinch ourselves.
A few days later we experienced something that will stick with me forever. As we walked from town to the World Heritage Site, cold fog suddenly blew in. At first, we thought we wouldn’t be able to see any icebergs. As we looked up, however, we realized that the tops of the icebergs were sticking up through the fog, floating pinnacles of towering ice. Absolute magic.
It is Ilulissat’s other reason for World Heritage site selection that makes me pause and think: an example of an important stage in Earth’s history. Usually, when I think of Earth’s history, I think far back in time: the first life on Earth, the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere. Ilulissat Icefjord, however, is an example of a very recent stage in Earth’s history. The fjord was full of ice during the Last Glacial Maximum, and we are today witnessing the retreat of the glacier up the fjord. Thinking about the site in terms of Earth’s history makes me realize just how fleeting this natural phenomenon is. At some point, will people stand looking out over the fjord, relying on signs telling them about the icebergs? Will the location of the World Heritage site seem strange: just another glacial fjord, devoid of ice? How will they ever know how beautiful it was?