When I was a young man,’ a fisherman named Ole Qvist tells me, ‘I was a champion dogsled racer. But now,’ he sighs, ‘it takes seven dogs to pull me.’ I’m unfamiliar with dogs as a measure of weight but I gather from the way he palms his belly, which is mounded like his native Greenland’s polar ice cap, that seven dogs indicates a serious body-mass index.
Uummannaq, where Ole has lived his whole life, is a settlement 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle in western Greenland. The July sun hangs like a fixture spraying light from the top of the world. At midday, it could be midnight. It’s a balmy 65° Fahrenheit (18°C), warm enough for short sleeves and smoothies. Just off shore, an iceberg three stories high and as wide as a small apartment building floats in a fjord like a late delivery from last winter.
As a child, I’d look on maps at the great wedge of land looming over America and wonder what, and who was there. Later, I flew en route to Europe over its massive ice cap like a vast desert of frost. That ice cap, melting, cracking and calving island-sized icebergs, has lately focused attention on the world’s largest island, which, as remote from the rest of the planet as it may be, is a crucible of global issues: as Greenland gets greener, it’s becoming a hothouse of change.
Greenland’s 57,000 residents include about 7,000 Danes who moved here and live among Greenlanders, marry them and have Danish-Greenlandic children. ‘People here think I’m Danish,’ a blue-eyed, blonde-haired 19-year-old I meet while hiking says, ‘but in Denmark they think I’m Greenlandic.’
Some of the Danes I meet who are visiting as tourists affect a condescending attitude. When I mention my conversation with Ole, one such tourist says, ‘So you talked to a native fisherman. Did he give you the wisdom of the world?’
Others defend Danish control arrangement in paternalistic terms. They are, they claim, supporting people who cannot support themselves. I repeat this to Salik Hard, a 47-year-old who consults the government on tourism. ‘Danes tell everyone they give us three billion krone a year,’ he says. ‘They don’t say that they take out six billion in what we have to spend on their products. It’s a monopoly. We are here to buy everything from them. Plus they get the largest fishing industry in Europe.’
There is a nationhood movement for independence from Denmark, which has governed Greenland since 1927. Economic development and environmentalism, globalisation and heritage all grind against one another like the tectonic plates deep below the softening permafrost. And yet, travelling by boat, bus and foot up the coast, few people I encounter in settlements along the west coast seem overly concerned about any of it.
‘We know the climate is changing, but we aren’t worried because we know it is always changing,’ Salik says. ‘People in Europe and America have mass hysteria. It’s useful for politicians and the media. Listen, there are good things about the hysteria. Maybe it’ll get the West to stop poisoning the seas and oceans. That would be a good thing.’
In Uummannaq, the dock is busy with fishermen baiting their lines, and Ole, seated on an upturned white bucket, is happy to chill and expound on the eternal world of Greenlanders – Inuits who crossed continental bridges of ice to the island 4,000 years ago and settled on its littoral fringes. Ole seems happy about most things. As for global warming, with the rivers and channels that no longer freeze, he is enjoying some unexpected benefits: the superb Greenlandic halibut now swim closer to the surface, so he is able to pull up more and bigger fish in a lengthening season.
But Ole is not happy about every change. ‘Younger people are too influenced from abroad and want to live like foreigners,’ he says. ‘They look down on us fishers and hunters. I understand it’s important to get an education, but I’ll tell you something, you can be educated and know computers and software and still be unemployed. I don’t know any unemployed fishermen. A fisherman always has work.’
On the other side of the harbour is a café where Nora Jones plays over the hiss of milk being foamed for cappuccino. Here are the people Ole has in mind. A teenage girl dressed in jeans and sneakers, with turquoise earrings and a blue tattoo just behind her ear, sips an icy fluorescent yellow drink through a straw.
A couple, Winnie and Jens, occupy a table. Winnie wears wraparound sunglasses. Jens’ bicep is covered by a tattoo. They look like visiting Europeans, though in fact they own the café and have always lived here. The internet brought the world to them, and they want to be part of it.
‘We don’t have to choose between being in the world and being Greenlandic,’ Winnie says. ‘Life is change; adapting doesn’t mean abandoning who you are. It isn’t, after all, as if anyone still lives in traditional turf houses.’
They are Greenlandic in their hearts, they say, and they describe winter in Uummannaq – minus 31°C average temperatures, three months without sunlight – with a kind of warmth that
perhaps you have to be from a cold climate to understand. The polar night descends, the aurora borealis spreads its sparkling web of electrified light, and spirits come out.
Some things are just part of their DNA, Winnie says. When the weather is right her barristas morph into hunters and fishermen. ‘They won’t listen to incentives or to threats,’ she says. ‘I can’t stop them. They just go.’
I cast my gaze upon Uummannaq, the soaring 3,900-foot heart-shaped mountain from which the village takes its name. For the 1,300 people who live here, the mountain, rose-hued granite and gneiss, represents permanence. It is the ice that is always changing.
A beam of sunshine seems to set the iceberg just off the dock ablaze with white light. ‘Will that melt in the course of the summer?’ I ask Jens.
‘It will be gone by tomorrow morning,’ he says, ‘and a new one will take its place.’
In school, everyone learns that Iceland is green and Greenland is ice. Even now, despite global warming, most of Greenland, most of the time, is still ice, which covers 95 per cent of its landmass, or 660,000 square miles. At the summit of its ice sheet, the ice piles two miles high and has pressed the land beneath it almost 1,200 feet below sea level. After Antarctica, which has almost 85 per cent of the world’s ice, Greenland has 12 per cent – 35 times more than Alaska.
Not surprisingly, Inuit, the Greenlandic language (people here can communicate with Inuits from Alaska), has a prodigious vocabulary for ice. Different words describe pack ice, melting ice, ridged ice and rime, ice that stretches across vast expanses, and ice in all its forms on the surface of water. Just coming to Greenland is cause to learn English terms for ice you didn’t know existed, like frazil, grease ice and pancake ice.
The ice has architecture. There are pyramids and ziggurats, towers, colonnades and arches. Some massive ones sit on foundations of refulgent blue, or enormous crystalline plinths. Sometimes they seem sculpted into images. From a distance one looks like a sailor with a rain-soaked hat. The water is as calm and cold as a cryogenic bath, and yet, because the air is warm, the bergs are sweating curtains of rain. The Ilulissat Icefjord is a vast field of icebergs calved from Sermeq Kujalleq, the northern hemisphere’s most productive glacier. This is Greenland as you imagine it to be.
Icebergs are packed ice; they’re white and opaque. I see one, 40 feet long and 20 feet high, convex and ridged like a clam shell, that is a miracle of translucence and clarity, light cascading through its surfaces so that it makes the water all around it sparkling and lambent, like stars on the surface of the fjord. I wonder if even Greenlandic has a word for it.
Despite the school lessons, because of climate change Greenland is becoming greener. In the south, they are planting forests and growing potatoes, and Ole the fisherman’s laissez faire attitude about it seems typical of Greenlanders. It’s not that they’re climate change sceptics, just that they take a different view on the situation.
In Ilulissat, I meet another fisherman, 27-year-old Ole Lange who learned English during three years on a bible studies course in Norway. I ask if the warmer weather has any downside for him. He shrugs. ‘I don’t take my dog sled out anymore because the rivers here aren’t freezing. I take my boat out fishing instead.’
He’s out for long periods. It takes six hours to put down 3,000 feet of line and two hours to pull it up with a hydraulic lift. This, he says, is when a fisherman is most vulnerable to the immediate effects of climate change. The icebergs are breaking up and sending out sharp, fast-moving blocks, acting like torpedoes that can splinter a boat. In this cold water, falling in would be certain death. Despite that, the younger Ole isn’t too concerned about things, and shrugs as if to say ‘what will be will be’.
A trail head on the other side of Ilulissat runs over meadows carpeted by luminous grasses and wildflowers, purple mountain avens, yellow poppies, willows and buttercups. The lushness is normal, not a symptom of climate change. The settlement, with modular houses painted in bright reds, yellows, blues and greens, feels fantastically isolated; here at its edge that feeling gives way to an expanse that is open and free.
This feeling is what Greenlanders cherish, and it’s what they say they want for themselves. But apart from fishing, prospects to develop a viable economy are limited, and their best hopes – namely natural resources including rare earth minerals, gold, and oil – are trapped under all that ice. In short, warmer temperatures may unlock the gate to statehood.
Even as indigenous people elsewhere, such as in the South Pacific, stand to lose everything from rising tides, Greenlanders see possible benefits. I ask Salik if access to the potential resources influences how people see the issue.
‘The ball is rolling for independence and you cannot stop it,’ he says. ‘Even if there is another Ice Age we will have it. And if global warming speeds up the process, so be it.’
This was published in the November 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.