Melting the Greenland icecap

I felt the need for something less grimly serious at the end of the week, so this little essay is about an adventure, though there is a little moral buried in it. The story begins in 1942, when two B-17 bombers escorted by six P-38 Lightnings were flying to Iceland en route to the European war theatre.

Bad weather and dreadful conditions meant, finally, that the pilots became disoriented, and when they finally had some visibility they realised that they were over Greenland, and the only place to go, given how little fuel they had left, was down on to the ice cap. They all got down. Here is a photo of one of the P-38s, post-landing.


Amazingly, none of the personnel was killed or wounded, and all survived ten days on the ice without an injury. The planes were abandoned, referred to as ‘the lost squadron’, but not forgotten. Between 1977 and 1990 eleven different teams tried to find the missing aircraft.

The first nine were unsuccessful. There seemed to be no trace of the planes, until the 1988 group found a clue,  then used steam to bore a hole down through the ice, and found parts. The B-17 they located was in bad condition, and they gave it up — the ice had crushed its fuselage. What about the Lightnings?

A further expedition located one, and the men hollowed out the ice around it, excavating quite a cave. Indeed, the P-38 was in much better condition. The plane was disassembled with a certain amount of nervousness. The men found the ice cave to be uncomfortable and treacherous, with very little room to move, constant dripping water, and occasional chunks of ice falling from the ceiling. A few times, a strike of a chisel would send fractures racing across the ceiling of the cave, causing a number of tense moments for workers. 

The ice cave looked like this.


When everything was out of the hole one person who was able to see the plane was one of the pilots on the last flight of the squadron; he was then 74. The pilot of the found plane had already died.

Well, they took all the bits back to the USA and began restoration, which proved to be an immense job. But they persevered, and in 2002 the restored P-38, now named ‘Glacier Girl’, flew again over a crowd of 20,000 people. Here she is.



Only six are left in flying condition of the 10,000 that were made, and you can see Glacier Girl in the Lost Squadron Museum in Middlesboro, Kentucky.

It’s a lovely story, and I like it because I was mad about planes when I was a boy, and could tell you almost instantly the name of any plane that was in the air (and this was at the end of the war, so there were quite a few about, and the closest RAAF base was only eight km away from our house). When I was 13 I joined the Air Training Corps, and my first flight was in a  Catalina, taking off and landing on Lake Macquarie from the RAAF base at Rathmines, long since closed. I have sat in the cockpits of a Mustang and a Gloster Meteor, too (both u/s). Biggles was my hero.

That’s why I liked reviving the story, which you can read here in the original. But it’s not the moral. No, the moral is that when the discovery team found the P-38 it was three miles from where it had landed, and under 268 feet of ice — that’s 82 metres. That much snow and ice had accumulated in 48 years. I don’t suggest that everywhere in Greenland had gained that amount of ice, but the annual rate of ice gain where the Lightning was found was around 1.7 metres per year.

Now there are folks who worry about the Greenland ice cap’s melting, and raising the sea levels by many metres, imperilling harbourside residents all round the world. There are claims that the ice cap is melting as we speak, and we are all doomed. The IPCC claims that Greenland is melting at the edges, so to speak, though there is very little historic observation. Satellite records go back only to to 1979, and much of the literature is based on palaeo evidence of various kinds, and a ‘what if…?’ extrapolation about the present and future.

Well, it does seem that Greenland also accumulates a lot of snow and ice, so I think that it is probably true that we don’t really know all there is to know about the accumulation and melting of its ice. Maybe the place where the planes landed is unusual.

But it does take a great amount of heat to melt ice, and my tentative conclusion is that about the Greenland ice, as elsewhere in discussions about climate, the science just isn’t settled.

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • BotfromTottenham says:

    Hi Don,
    Nice article – As an ex-DCA radio tech I loved your casual use of “u/s”, which you may have to translate for many readers as “unserviceable” – i.e. not capable of flying (if I presume correctly). Regarding Greenland’s ice, I am familiar with the stories from various warming catastrophists who invariably talk about so many thousands of tons or cubic metres of Greenland’s ice “melting” or “being lost” each year, without of course ever putting this in perspective for the reader by stating how many gigatons or cubic kilometres of ice there is on Greenland. I worked it out the last time I read such an article, and estimated that if the “melting”, which was probably minor surface melting from a warm spell of summer weather, continued at the rate reported, the ice might all be gone in “only” 27,000 years or so. Big deal!

    BTW, In the early 1970’s I was fortunate enough to have participated with a group of WW2 aircraft enthusiasts who each spent a week in dis-assembling a P 39 Aeracobra (one of two) near the tip of Cape York, in order to bring it back South to be restored. It too had struck bad weather and run out of fuel, whilst flying from Townsville to PNG. And the pilots also were rescued safely. We found the key in the ignition, the log books, and that the plane only had a few hours on the clock. And then we discovered that the 0.5 inch cal machine guns on board were still fully loaded! What fun, and the brightness of the stars at night up there was truly awesome. Hard to forget.

    kind regards,

  • […] my piece on ‘The Lost Squadron’ a couple of weeks ago, this little essay contains a moral. I discovered science fiction when I was […]

  • Gordon Watson says:

    An absolutely fascinating story. Thank you for sharing.

    Regards Gordon

  • […] the last reference caught my attention, because I too wrote about Glacier Girl (here). It still shocks me that no one who writes anxiously about the melting of the Greenland ice-cap […]

  • […] Aitkin posted a comment on the melting of the Greenland ice cap here and mentioned the case of some WWII fighter planes having to make an emergency landing after […]

  • […] more than the Antarctic — and while it is losing some ice at the side it is gaining it on top. I wrote about the astonishing depth at which some Second World War aeroplanes were discovered years after they had landed on the ice […]

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