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Satellitbillede of the Ilulissat area

Quick guide to Ilulissat Icefjord

In 2004, the Ilulissat Icefjord was included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List of unique cultural and natural sites. The World Heritage site is located near the town of Ilulissat in West Greenland. It includes the icefjord Kangia and its surrounding land areas, part of the Inland Ice and the Iceberg Bank. Kangia is an incredibly beautiful site, where icebergs from one of the world’s fastest moving glaciers create fantastic and dramatic scenery, but it is also an abundant basis of life for humans and animals alike.

The stunning beauty of the area is due to the unique combination of the enormous production production of icebergs from the glacier Sermeq Kujalleq at the head of the icefjord and the presence of Isfjeldsbanken (the “iceberg bank”), the threshold across the mouth of the fjord where the icebergs run aground. An unending drama of changing forms, colours and sounds is created as the icebergs melt, collapse and collide with each other.

Sermeq Kujalleq moves with an extreme high velocity – 19 metres a day – and it is responsible for one-tenth of the total production of icebergs from the Inland Ice. The movement of ice towards the fjord is through an ice stream which flows through a narrow channel, that can be followed from the present glacier front and far in over the ice sheet. The channel and the icefjord itself are formed by glacial erosion of earlier river valleys, which were draining water from the central Greenland before the ice arrived.

Each year snow equivalent to about 600 cubic kilometres of ice accumulates on the Inland Ice, and there is an equivalent loss through the production of icebergs and melting. About half of the loss is due to the calving of icebergs from glaciers that reach sea level. The eastern and southern parts of the Inland Ice are limited by high mountain ranges partially submerged in the ice. The central part of the Inland Ice therefore drains mainly towards the west with several prominent outlet glaciers reaching Disko Bugt and Uummannaq Fjord. The area around Ilulissat represents the southern part of this drainage area and the glacier Sermeq Kujalleq is the most productive glacier in Greenland.

The area around Ilulissat Icefjord is an important part of the Inland Ice providing information about the history of the ice sheet far back in time. With an area of 1.7 million square kilometres the Inland Ice is the Worlds second largest ice sheet only exceeded in size by the ice sheet covering Antarctica. The continental ice sheets, which covered North America and Europe during the ice ages have melted away many years ago, and the Inland Ice is the only continental ice sheet on the northern hemisphere which still exists.

Signs of earlier advances and retreats of the Inland Ice margin are widespread in the area. The present day ice-free strip of land bordering the Inland Ice was glaciated at the culmination of the last ice age about 21.000 years ago. At that time, the Inland Ice also covered large parts of the shel areas off West Greenland. After the end of the last ice age, about 11,550 years ago, the Inland Ice slowly shrank to its present size.

Sermeq Kujalleq is one of the best investigated ice streams in the world. During the last 150 years a large number of scientific expeditions have visited the area and described the gradual retreat of the ice margin from 1850 to 2002, and during the last years the ice stream has been studied by satellite data. The ice margin was nearly stable from 1950 to 2002 and during this period the glacier retreated every summer and advanced during winter. From 2002 to 2003 the floating part of the glacier broke up and the ice margin retreated 12 kilometres.

The icefjord is nutrient-rich, so there is plenty of food for the marine animals. For many years this has created good hunting and fishery possibilities for people in the area. During the Stone Age about 4400 years ago, the Saqqaq people settled at Kangia, and after them the Dorset people came and finally the Thule people arrived. To day fishing and fish industry continue to be the most important business enterprise in Ilulissat which is Greenland´s third-largest town.

Map of Ilulissat Icefjord and surrounding region. Limit of the World Heritage Site is marked with red line.

Glacier front of Sermeq Kujalleq
Glacier front of Sermeq Kujalleq at the head of the icefjord – seen from north.

Stranded icebergs at Isfjeldsbanken at the mouth of the icefjord
Stranded icebergs at Isfjeldsbanken at the mouth of the icefjord.
(Photo: Henrik Højmark Thomsen)

Bevægelsen af is mod fjorden foregår igennem en isstrøm
The ice stream feeding ice into the icefjord seen from an airplane.
(Photo: Henrik Højmark Thomsen)

Cover of last ice age
About 21,000 years ago, during the last ice age, the large ice sheets of the Northern Hemisphere covered an area of 30 million km2, including much of North America. Ilulissat was centrally placed in the glaciated regions of the Northern Hemisphere.

Map showing the retreat of Sermeq Kujalleq from 1850 to 2006
Map showing the retreat of Sermeq Kujalleq from 1850 to 2006.
Click here to enlarge.


Unique nature for the world

In 1972 UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, established the World Heritage List to protect the world’s most important cultural monuments and natural landscapes from damage or destruction, so that they can be preserved for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.

A total of 788 sites in 134 countries are included on the list. Of these, 611 are sites of cultural importance and 154 are outstanding natural landscapes and 23 are mixed. Amongst the most famous are the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China and Yellowstone National Park in the USA.

It is the World Heritage Committee that decides which areas will be included on the World Heritage List, based on proposals put forward by individual countries. In 2002, Greenland’s Home Rule government proposed Ilulissat Icefjord for inclusion, on the basis of the icefjord’s scenic beauty and its unique importance for long-term glaciological studies.

Any locality included in the World Heritage List automatically receives enhanced recognition and status. As the name of the list implies, the site, wherever it is located, becomes not only the responsibility of the host country, but shares that responsibility with the entire population of the world on whose behalf it is preserved and protected. It is a condition of inclusion on the World Heritage List that the host country avoid activities that damage or diminish the value of the site, but in practice it is only poor countries that can expect to receive direct financial help for a site’s preservation.

Uluru, Ayers Rock
Ayers Rock (also called Uluru) in central Australia is on the World Heritage List. (Photo: Jakob Lautrup).

Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is another area on the World Heritage List.
(Photo: Michael E. Thuesen).

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