The Ilulissat Icefjord (Kangia) is one of the most well known and popular tourist attractions in Greenland.
Fed by the Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier, this 61km long fjord is filled with icebergs of all shapes and sizes and was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2004. Its protected status is due to its scientific importance. It is “an outstanding example of a stage in the Earth’s history: the last ice age of the Quaternary Period”, and its ease of access means that scientists have been studying it for more than 250 years. It has contributed enormously to our understanding of “ice-cap glaciology, climate change and related geomorphic processes”.
Structure of the Icefjord
At its Eastern end, the fast-moving Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier flows down from the Greenland Ice Sheet and into the Ilulissat Icefjord. Icebergs break off the face of the glacer and make their way down the Icefjord, which in places is more than 1000m deep. It usually takes between 12 and 15 months for an iceberg to make its way down the length of Kangia – partially because the fjord freezes during the winter, and partially because of the density of ice in the channel.
When these icebergs reach the mouth of the Icefjord, they encounter an iceberg bank (Isfjeldsbanken) which traps the large icebergs and blocks the movement of ice out into the waters of Disko Bay. Any iceberg that extends 200-300m into the water is likely to become “beached” here until such time that it melts sufficiently to pass over the underwater embankment, or there is enough pressure from the ice in the Icefjord that it forces the iceberg over the bank.
Given the number of enormous icebergs calving off the glacier, the mouth of the icefjord is often completely blocked by large icebergs. This forces more recently calved ice to back up behind the embankment, and it is this phenomenon that results in the impressive fjord packed with ice.
How to explore the Ilulissat Icefjord
No matter your level of activity, there are several different ways to explore the fantastic ice sculptures of the Ilulissat Icefjord.
By land: There are 3 well-marked hiking trails that take you from the outskirts of Ilulissat to the Icefjord. One of them (part of the blue trail) is a boardwalk that has been built to enable accessibility and also to protect the historically important Sermermiut valley through which it passes.
The extended Blue trail turns inland to follow the Icefjord for a few km before heading back towards Ilulissat past shallow lakes that are typical of the Arctic tundra. The Yellow trail follows the headland at the mouth of Kangia and returns to Ilulissat along the shores of Disko Bay. All three offer amazing views of the Icefjord from land.
During winter, it is possible to explore the Icefjord with snowshoe, snowmobile or dogsled.
By boat: There are many boat tours on offer from Ilulissat – including midnight cruises and specific whale watching tours that seek out the large numbers of whales that feed in the nutrient rich waters at the edges of the Icefjord during the Summer.
If you would prefer a more active excursion and a waterline perspective of the size of the icebergs, there are also several operators offering Kayaking tours.
By air: Scenic flights are the best way to get an overview of the geography of the Icefjord region. They are also the only way to see the actual face of the Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier and how it spills down from the Greenland Ice Sheet into the Icefjord.