A Tsunami Sculpted Beach, Sermermiut Beach, Jacobshaven Icefjord World Heritage Site, South of Ilulissat, Western Greenland; By Harold R. Wanless And John C. Van Leer

Posted In Beach of the Month, Features


By Harold R. Wanless, Professor and Chair, Department of Geological Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, University of Miami and by John C. Van Leer, Associate Professor, Division of Meteorology and Physical, Oceanography, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami;

A most remarkable pair of small pocket beaches are nestled among the granitic cliffs at the mouth of Jacobshaven Icefjord. This Icefjord is about a third of the way up the western coast of Greenland, 250 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. Sermermiut Beach is near the end of the – km board walk south of the fabulous, growing tourism town of Ilulissat. This boardwalk takes you out to overlook the mouth of a major Icefjord that drains ice from 1/7 of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

“Sermermiut, in Greenlandic “the place of the glacier people,” includes evidence of all three major Inuit periods of migration and settlement.”
— Harold R. Wanless & John C. Van Leer

The Icefjord is over 1000 meters in depth, about 5-7 kilometers in width, extends about 60 kilometers inland to the edge of the Ice Sheet, and then continues in deep channels far inwards under the Ice Sheet.
Eight thousand years ago a glacial tongue of the Ice Sheet extended all the way out of this Icefjord and deposited a terminal moraine of gravel at the mouth of the fjord. This gravel ridge is now about a marine sill 200-250 meters deep and arcs across the mouth of the Icefjord just off of Sermermiut Beach. Further into the Icefjord, fjord water depths increase from 1,000 to 1,500 meters in depth. The calving front of the ice has now retreated some 65 kilometers inward beyond the Ice fjord, into and under the Ice Sheet.

The forward speed of the Ice Sheet ice moving to the calving front has accelerated 6 fold (to some 30 km/year) in the past decade and the frequency of calving at the front has increased from a few times a week to several times a day. Locals say that the number of huge icebergs has diminished because of more intense fracturing associated with this acceleration, but the number of 100-150 meter high icebergs temporarily stranded on the gravel moraine adjacent to Sermermiut Beach is still very impressive and their splitting, rolling and collapsing is a frequent source of tsunami energy to the beach.

The beach is called Sermermiut. It is the prehistoric habitation site there (studied but invisible). It is a spectacular beach of gravel and sand studded with small to large chunks of ice (bergy bits) stranded there by tsunamis created by the frequent breaking and rolling of nearby giant icebergs temporarily stranded on the 250 meter deep moraine at the mouth of the Icefjord.

The Ancient Inuit settlement of Sermermiut dates from about 2,500 BC and is a major element of this diverse World Heritage site, the adjacent Jacobshaven Icefjord is the most productive in Greenland. Sermermiut in Greenlandic means “the place of the glacier people.” It includes evidence of all three major Inuit periods of migration and settlement. Archeological evidence of the following cultures were found: 1) Saqqaq culture 2500-100 B.C.; 2) Dorset culture 500B.C. – 200 A.C.; and 3) Thule culture 1000 – 1850 A.C.

“ … people are warned against venturing down onto the beach because of these frequent and rapidly arriving tsunami surges which range up to about 10 meters.”
— Harold R. Wanless & John C. Van Leer

This “beach of the month” has open water offshore in summer, maintained by fjord’s circulation with outward flowing (about 1.5 kilometer / per hour velocity) melt water at the surface. Winter pack ice formed a convenient base for seal hunting and ice fishing for Greenlandic Halibut. So, this protected area along the northwest edge of an exceptional biologically productive fjord has been prime real estate throughout the millennia and supported the largest town in Greenland of about 20 dwellings in 1737, according to the first Danish missionary Poul Egede.

A number of rectangular depressions mark sod dwelling sites which were used as winter quarters as recently as the early Danish colonial period according to Egede. The walls of these homes were similar to Norse construction, except there were alternate courses of sod and flat stone for added structural stability. During the summers, when the Inuit were exploiting remote food sources, the roof skins and poles were removed and used as portable tents, so the inside of the sod homes could air out.

Importantly, today people are warned against venturing down onto the beach because of these frequent and rapidly arriving tsunami surges which range up to about 10 meters. The close source of tsunamis would give very little warning time. While large calving bergs sometimes sound like very large artillery, rolling bergs make little or no sound. We watched a small tsunami from the breakup of a large iceberg far out in the Icefjord.

Some beaches are amazing just to appreciate from a distance.

More / Beach Of The Month

“Beach Robbers”; By Charles O. Pilkey

November 1st, 2018

“Beach Robbers”, is a book chapter written and illustrated by Charles O. Pilkey, excerpted from “The Magic Dolphin: A Young Human’s Guide to Beaches, Sea Level Rise and Living with the Sea” by Charles O. Pilkey with Orrin H. Pilkey.

Read More

California’s Coastal Harbors, Beach Compartments and Sand Dredging; By Gary Griggs

October 1st, 2018

Every year the dredge at the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor along central California’s northern Monterey Bay sucks up about 250,000 cubic yards of sand, on average, from the entrance channel and pumps it out onto Twin Lakes Beach where it continues its journey down coast. If it were put in dump trucks, it would fill about 25,000 of them, but the waves can move all that sand without any human labor, and without any noise or carbon emissions.

Read More

Beyond Preservation: The Coral Restoration Foundation Bonaire; By Andrew Jalbert

August 1st, 2018

When avid scuba diver and famed Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton first visited Bonaire decades ago, he eloquently described the underwater environment as, “a world of riotous, outrageous color.” Years later, Bonaire has seen some changes but his assessment still largely rings true.

Read More

Management Strategies for Coastal Erosion Processes; By Nelson Rangel-Buitrago

June 1st, 2018

The Special Issue Management Strategies for Coastal Erosion Processes (MSforCEP) presents an international collection of papers related to the implementation of various management strategies for coastal erosion under specific objectives.

Read More

Sand volcanos on a flat and sandy beach in the Netherlands; By Bert Buizer, PhD

May 1st, 2018

In 2013, some interesting water escape structures were observed near the coastal resort of Bergen aan Zee, in the Netherlands.

Read More

Te Pito O Te Henua shore (Rapa Nui or Easter Island): a remote and mysterious place with rare beaches; By Nelson Rangel-Buitrago, William J. Neal & Adriana Gracia

April 1st, 2018

One of the most remote and youngest inhabited volcanic islands in the world is Te Pito o Te Henua Island, or as more commonly known: Easter Island (Rapa Nui or Isla de Pascua). World famous for its mysterious monumental statues (moai) erected by the early Rapa Nui people, the island is located in the southeastern Pacific Ocean nearly 3,650 km west of Chile.

Read More

Newfoundland’s Sandy Beaches: A Glacial Legacy; By William J. Neal & Joseph T. Kelley

February 1st, 2018

“Newfoundland” as a coastal place does not conjure up images of sandy beaches, but rather scenes of wave-cut rocky cliffs, bird rookeries on small rock islands, sea stacks, and boulder and cobble beaches if wave deposits are present. But scattered among the latter are genuine sand beaches.

Read More

Torrevieja, Spain; By Norma J. Longo

January 1st, 2018

Torrevieja, a former fishing village on the southeast coast of Spain (Costa Blanca) in Alicante province, is now a thriving tourist city with a 2016 population of around 85,000, down from a high of over 105,000 in 2013.

Read More

Archive / Beach Of The Month