World - - CONTENTS -

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.


‘‘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.

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