Kalaallit Nunaat: Visiting a Changing Arctic

By Marisa Nixon

Caribou skull mounted on a museum in Qeqertatsuaq, Greenland.

“A little closer,” he said. “Now quick, reverse! Hold her right there; pass me the hatchet.” Ice chips started flying. I was driving a 14-foot inflatable and holding the bow up next to a hunk of glacial ice, floating in Arsuk Fjord near the terminus of a large glacier. I’d been sent with my employer’s guests to gather glacial ice for the evening’s cocktails. Collecting ice was an engaging chore, but something felt strange and allegorical about watching tiny chunks of a glacier dissolve into someone’s after dinner bourbon.

In the summer of 2015, I had the opportunity to work as First Mate on a private yacht sailing from Rhode Island, USA, to Greenland (and back). It was a chance to both go on an adventure and make some money before committing to school for two years, so I accepted without hesitation. We traveled along the southwest corner of the country, visiting many settlements and fjords. I fell in love with the rugged landscape of Greenland; Kalaallit Nunaat as it is called in Greenlandic. I also had a front-row seat to some of the changes I’d been hearing about in regard to climate change and the opening up of the Arctic. The following photos are a small sample of my experience visiting a rapidly changing place.

Ghost town

Arsuk Fjord is where we first made landfall after seven days of crossing the Labrador Sea from St. John’s, Newfoundland. We didn’t see a soul, but the abandoned mining town of Ivigtut provides a stark illustration of reaching an environmental limit. Once a large site for Cryolite, used in extracting aluminum and crucial for aircraft production in WWII, the deposit was completely depleted by 1987 and the town abandoned.

A view of the main harbor in Nuuk, the capital and largest city in Greenland

Our mast is the tallest one to the left. In Nuuk, I spent an afternoon off getting lost on buses until I found the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, which houses the Climate Research Centre. The Centre studies the impacts of climate change on the Arctic environment and Greenlandic people.

Not the worst anchorage

This anchorage was in Kangerlussuatsiaq Fjord; glaciers here outflow from the Maniitsoq ice cap, which is separate from the famed Greenland ice sheet. As the Arctic opens up for development, oil, gas, and mineral extraction are touted by some as a way to improve domestic revenue and promote independence by Greenland from the Danish Commonwealth. Others worry about the effects such extractive industries could have on places like this, and an already quickly changing way of life.

Entering Disko Bay

This was taken just after leaving the town of Aasiaat to head out into Disko Bay, and toward Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island. Disko Bay is full of large icebergs that have calved off the nearby Jakobshavn Glacier by the town of Ilulissat, to the northeast. The retreat of the Jakobshavn Glacier has been well documented, and made headlines worldwide in 2015 for potentially calving some of its largest pieces of ice ever.

Heading to Disko Island

This particular day was so warm, I found myself out polishing the stainless steel on the bow of the boat. The IPCC predicts that high northern latitudes will experience some of the highest levels of warming in the 21st century. As sea ice continues to thin, it is more and more likely Greenland will find itself a part of major shipping routes, which would bring with it a significant influx of people and infrastructure.

Summer sledges in Qeqertarsuaq

Arriving in Qeqertarsuaq, I spotted many dog sledges waiting in yards around town. Clearly, the summer months are not a useful time for sledges. However, even in the winter, increasingly fragile sea ice makes the use of sledges risky. Technology is changing as well as the climate – many Greenlandic people use snowmobiles instead of sledges these days. Similarly, mounts for rifles on the front of skiffs have largely replaced harpoons from umiaks, or skin kayaks, for hunting seal. While some would decry these technological shifts as a move away from traditional and subsistence practices, others acknowledge that traditional activities are frequently defined unfairly by outsiders in a historic sense, and that changes in technology are inevitable and have always been a way to adapt to changing conditions.

A sled dog checks me out in Qeqertarsuaq

These dogs aren’t cuddly pets; they are working dogs that are to be given a wide berth when walking around town. Unfortunately, the decline of the dog sledge due to climate and technology change has also meant the decline of the sled dog for many communities. Dogs are expensive to feed, especially in the summer months when they’re not working, and owners may put down their own dogs out of necessity. One place where the use of sled dogs is remaining consistent and even growing is in the burgeoning tourist industry – it is disconcerting but not without precedent in the world to see a once essential element of daily life being slowly relegated to a tourist experience.

The universal appeal of puppies

While the older sled dogs were not pets to be cuddled, it turned out these two weren’t so ruthless…

Laundry with a view

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to visualize how changing sea levels will impact coastal communities like Qeqertarsuaq.

Whale bone arch in harbor, Qeqertarsuaq

Whale bone arches are prominent in Greenlandic towns, and several species of whale are an important part of Greenlandic diet. Tensions have arisen in recent years in regard to Denmark’s membership in the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and the IWC’s refusal to grant an extension to Greenland for its moratorium on hunting large whales. Generally, the IWC does grant exceptions for ‘aboriginal subsistence’ whaling, and approximately 89% of the population in Greenland are Greenlandic Inuit who have been utilizing whales for thousands of years. Much of the debate stems from what can be a fuzzy distinction in a globalizing world between ‘subsistence’ and ‘commercial.’ A similar argument around an EU embargo on seal products has raged for the last few years. Some international groups argue it is time to change, and some say this is one more example of Western ideals being imposed where they’re not appropriate. One thing is certain: as the world opens up, it’s not just easier to share technology, culture and ideas; it is also easier to levy different values and ethical judgments on dissimilar cultures.

Globalization and cultural diffusion in action?

There was a surprising amount of graffiti scrawled in English around the Greenlandic towns we visited. I always found myself wondering if it was left by a tourist or from someone who lived in town. Is someone in Aasiatt a big Misfits fan?

Back in Disko Bay, another giant

This iceberg was about the size of a city block, and the small pieces in the water crackled loudly. The casual observer might not realize that mariners have names for different sizes of ice they see — there’s the piano-sized growlers, followed by the slightly larger bergy bits, and then the icebergs. Navigating through the growlers can be quite the adventure. A key task of mine on the way up to the Arctic was putting handles on our ice poles: long PVC pipes with thick screws in the bottom for pushing ice away from the hull.

The coveted keyhole shot

Don’t let this picture fool you: we were well behind this iceberg in case it capsized. However, many boaters who are new to arctic waters choose to get too close to icebergs, or make risky decisions in areas with pack ice. As sea ice declines and the Arctic opens up, more and more people are choosing to cruise with their own vessels at higher latitudes. While it is primarily the Crystal Serenity that has been making headlines, I met many smaller, private vessels in Greenland that had either just completed, or were headed toward the Northwest Passage. The increase in private and commercial vessel traffic in the Arctic is a growing concern for those who respond to emergencies at sea.

What’s next?

The rate of environmental change happening in Greenland is palpable, and will continue even if the world takes steps to curb climate change in the coming decades. Also evident is the way that the opening up of the Arctic, along with an increasingly interconnected world, means change for many aspects of Greenlandic life and an onslaught of people and development. Is it my place to mourn this change as a brief visitor?