Greenland: Glaciers Melt, Economy Heats Up

There's no mystery about the effect global warming is having on the great glaciers of Greenland. More ice breaking off and floating out sea than has ever been observed before.

CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips reports Greenland's most active glacier now sheds enough ice each year now to cover Manhattan almost a mile deep.

Photos: Mark Phillips' Greenland Pictures

Space imagery of the glacier shows how it has been shrinking back over the years - supporting the scientific consensus that the Greenland ice-cap is thinning, the melt-water causing sea levels around the world to rise. Levels that are feared may rise another two feet or more this century by the most widely accepted estimates.

The mountain-sized icebergs have been called the best evidence of global warming on the planet.

Mark Phillips' Greenland Blog

What was once the edge of a glacier has been receding at an ever-quicker rate so that now you've got to travel some 50 miles straight up the fjord until you hit the glacial wall itself.

For Johannes Mathaussen and the 4,500 people who live in Ilulissat, warmer weather means having to adapt. If the sea ice doesn't freeze up solid, allowing them to go out to hunt seals and to fish, they can make money taking intrepid tourists on dog sled trips into the spectacular, if stark, hinterland.

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Mark Phillips' Maldives Blog

The winters around here just aren't what they used to be. In the old days, it used to get to minus 50 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. Now, just minus 13, Fahrenheit.

Yet Greenlanders - all 5,700 of them - share a quiet little secret. For them there may be a silver lining in the climate change cloud.

The glacier is speeding up, running twice as quickly as it was just five years ago. There's another thing that may be speeding up here: the economy.

Where Greenland's traditionally lived off fishing and a massive subsidy from the colonial authority, Denmark - there's now a construction boom going on in the capital of Nuuk, a town of about 17,000 people.

Mining companies are lining up to explore the rich deposits of gold, copper and iron ore that are becoming more accessible as the ice recedes from coastal regions.

And there are good signs as well of significant oil reserves offshore. Inside their mittens, Greenlanders may have their fingers crossed that their future looks bright.

The trick will be to preserve their traditions while adapting to the changes. There is a worry here that too much wealth too soon may not be a good thing.

"I am afraid of getting rich right away because it will affect a way of thinking," said Stina Berthelsen of the Inuit Circumpolar Youth Council. "I do trust our people that we're going to figure it out. We're survivors."

Back on his dogsled, Johannes Mathaussen may be concerned that the old ways will have to change here. And he's not yet thinking of himself as a Sled Dog Millionaire. But, whatever devastation climate change may cause elsewhere in the world, you get the sense Johannes thinks that here, on the edge of civilization, there may also be good times ahead.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.