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Snapshot: Ilulissat

September 17, 2019

As the birthplace of icebergs, Ilulissat is the number one place to go to get up close and personal with some serious ice

It’s no surprise that a town with a name that translates as ‘Iceberg’ and sits a whopping 250 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle is cold and icy. What is more surprising is that over 4,500 people live here. The town was established by the Danish merchant Jacob Severin back in 1741 and later that century the Zion Church was built there – making it the largest building in the country at the time.

Ilulissat is the biggest island in the world, with Zion Church in the background.
Ilulissat is the biggest island in the world, with Zion Church in the background.

But people don’t come to Ilulissat for the architecture, it is the Ilulissat Icefjord that draws visitors. The Icefjord is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the most popular destination in Greenland. This giant gleaming river of ice comes from the Sermeq Kajalleq glacier (also known has Jakobshavn Glacier) that has worked its way from the Greenland ice cap to the sea. It calves over 35 cubic kilometres of ice every year making it one of the fastest and most active glaciers in the world. The ice, which is up to 250,000 years old, rolls into the sea at an incredible speed of 25 metres a day. The sound of millions of tonnes of ice, grinding and rumbling as it crashes into the water is both terrifying and awe-inspiring. It is from this glacier that most of the icebergs in the northern hemisphere are created and most likely where the iceberg that sank the Titanic was born.

The biggest glacier on the planet, the Jakobshavn Glacier in Ilulissat.
The biggest glacier on the planet, the Jakobshavn Glacier in Ilulissat.

For over 250 years, scientists have watched and studied the glacier giving a clear understanding of the effects of global warming. Boat trips to Disko Bay allows visitors to see some of the birds and whales that live in the area as well as getting up close to watch the giant ice sheet calves into the fjord, creating the huge icebergs. The bay is packed with tall, freshly calved icebergs the size of street blocks that make visitors feel tiny as they watch the natural phenomenon occur. The eerie crunching and creaking sounds of the ice is punctuated by huge explosions as the ice fissures and breaks in the summer sun – a soundtrack that remains with you for the duration of your stay in the town.

Cruising on the Disco Bay out of Ilulissat.
Cruising on the Disco Bay out of Ilulissat.

As well as iceberg watching, Ilulissat is a great place for dog sledding tours – there are as many sled dogs as people living in this remote northern settlement. For centuries dogs have been used as the main form of transport, they can often be seen pulling crates full of fish as well as visitors from all corners of the earth. Hiking in the surrounding area is also an experience that will take your breath away, and there are many campsites for people looking to camp out in the wilderness.

Dog sledding in Ilulissat.
Dog sledding in Ilulissat.

In the town itself, as well as the old Zion Church, there is also an art museum and a museum dedicated to the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen who was born in Ilulissat. As the museum shows, Rasmussen was the first person to cross the Northwest passage along the North American coast by dog-sled, and was an expert on Eskimology.

Knud Rasmussen's birthplace, which is now a museum in Ilulissat.
Knud Rasmussen's birthplace, which is now a museum in Ilulissat.

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