HOTHOUSE OF CHANGE
Global warming is transforming the icy landscape of Greenland but, as Todd Pitock finds, the news is not all bad for a visitor with a camera.
GLOBAL WARMING IS SLOWLY TRANSFORMING THE ICY LANDSCAPE OF GREENLAND, BUT AS TODD PITOCK FINDS, THE NEWS IS NOT ALL BAD FOR A VISITOR WITH A CAMERA.
‘‘When I was a young man,” a fisherman named Ole Qvist tells me, “I was a champion dogsled racer. But now,” he sighs, “now, it takes seven dogs to pull me.” I’m unfamiliar with dogs as a measure of weight but 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. We are in Uummannaq, a settlement 645 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in west Greenland, where 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 18C, warm enough for short sleeves and smoothies. Just offshore, an iceberg three stories high and as wide as a small apartment building floats in a fjord like a late delivery from last winter. For me, coming here was a long-standing ambition, first as a child when I’d look on maps at the great wedge of land over America and just 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 icecap, melting and cracking and calving island-sized icebergs, has lately focused attention on the world’s largest island. Greenland is becoming green, a phenomenon that is making it into a hothouse of change. There is a nationhood movement for independence from Denmark, which has ruled it since 1927. Economic development and environmentalism, globalisation and heritage, grind against one another like the tectonic plates deep below the softening permafrost. And yet few people I encounter in settlements along the west coast seem overly concerned about any of it. In Uummannaq, the dock is busy with fishermen baiting their lines, and Ole, seated on an upturned white bucket, is happy to chill and expand on the eternal world of Greenlanders – Inuits who crossed continental bridges of ice to the world’s largest 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, Ole is enjoying some unexpected benefits: the superb Greenlandic halibut that fetch the highest prices 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.” I walk to the other side of the harbour to a café where Norah Jones plays over the hiss of milk being foamed for a cappuccino. Here are the people Ole has in mind. A girl dressed in jeans and sneakers, with turquoise earrings and a blue tattoo just behind her ear, sips an icy fluorescentyellow drink through a straw. A couple, Winnie and Jens, occupy a table. Winnie wears wraparound sunglasses. Jens’s 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, and they describe winter in Uummannaq – minus-32c average temperatures, three months without sunlight – with a kind of warmth that I suspect 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. They have encountered ghosts, they say and once had to use shamans to exorcise their home. Some things are just part of their DNA, Winnie says. When the weather is right, for example, her servers and baristas morph into hunters and fishermen. “They won’t listen to incentives or to threats,” she says. “I can’t stop them. They just go.” It’s time for me to go, too, but I take a moment to gaze upon Uummannaq, the soaring 1,189m heart-shaped mountain from which the village got 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. “How long will that be there?” I ask Jens. “All summer?” “It will be gone by tomorrow morning,” he says, “and a new one will take its place.”
Photos Todd Pitock
ABOVE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Ole, a 27-year-old fisherman from a settlement called Ilulissat; huskies are the only dog breed permitted in Arctic Greenland; another fisherman named Ole, once a champion dogsled racer; Uummannaq, a settlement 645km north of the Arctic Circle.
Uummannaq, the soaring 1,189m heart-shaped mountain from which the village got its name.