Thinning ice threatens lifestyle of ancient Inuit

Hunters are struggling to feed families, houses are crumbling and familiar howl of huskies has been replaced by the noise of oil drilling.
Inuit hunter Nukappi Brandt steers his small boat outside Qeqertarsuaq, Disko Island, alongside his daughters Aaneeraq, 9, right, and Luusi, 8. Mr Brandt, 49, said winter sea ice became too thin to support dogsleds about 20 years ago and seal hunting ceased to be a sustainable way of life.
Inuit hunter Nukappi Brandt steers his small boat outside Qeqertarsuaq, Disko Island, alongside his daughters Aaneeraq, 9, right, and Luusi, 8. Mr Brandt, 49, said winter sea ice became too thin to support dogsleds about 20 years ago and seal hunting ceased to be a sustainable way of life.

DISKO ISLAND // The old hunter was troubled by the foreigners encroaching on his Inuit people's frozen lands in Greenland.

"The Inuit say they are going to heat the 'siku' [the sea ice] to make it melt. There will be almost no more winter," the elder says of the southerners in Jean Malaurie's Last Kings of Thule, the French explorer's account of a year in the Arctic.

The year was 1951. A lifetime later, another Inuit hunter looks out at Disko Bay from this island's rocky fringe and remembers driving his dogsled team over the solid glitter of the siku to Ilulissat, a town 90 kilometres across the water.

"The ice then was one to two metres thick," recalled Jakob Jensen, 65. "Now, it's a few centimetres. It's very thin and you can't go on dogsled."

The winter sea ice that defined Greenlander life for millennia is melting - and it is the southerners who did it, as Malaurie's Inuit foretold long before science showed industrial emissions were warming the planet.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world and the effects are broad and deep.

For a village society whose dogsledding ice hunters long supplied it with seal and walrus meat and fish in winter, the "dark months" are now a time of enforced idleness, limited travel and emptier larders.

On land, the thawing permafrost underfoot is leaving houses askew and broken.

Climate change touches the animals, too - Greenlanders find lean polar bears, unable to stalk seals on sea ice, invading their settlements for food.

The very sound of Greenland is also changing. Where villages once echoed to the howl of huskies, that old call of the wild has been muted.

Dispirited hunters up and down the west Greenland coast, unable to feed winter game to their sled dogs, have been shooting them.

The 900 people of Qeqertarsuaq, Disko Island's main town, now have about 300 dogs.

Climate change has brought new sounds, too - of oil drilling.

Northwest of here, in Baffin Bay, Scotland-based Cairn Energy is drilling an exploratory well.

Geologists see good prospects for oil and gas off Greenland's shores and for valuable mineral deposits onshore, from gold to zinc.

The 56,000 Greenlanders, 89 per cent of them Inuit, sense the potential for gain, along with the reality of loss from the warming.

"On the positive side, I can point to emerging economic possibilities, potential income," Anthon Frederiksen, minister for domestic affairs, nature and environment, said in an interview in Nuuk, seat of this Danish island's self-rule government.

But the hunter's son added: "Fishing and hunting is our mainstay at present and we're very concerned about the negative effect this change will have on them."

Here on Disko - an Arctic island the size of Puerto Rico with barely 1,000 inhabitants - the problems are clear.

"If they find a lot of oil, it would be a big change and mean jobs for Greenlanders," said Johan Lindenhann, 62, chairman of the local hunters-fishers association. "But I'm afraid of pollution."

People here on the central west coast have relied on marine life for perhaps 5,000 years, prehistoric remains show.

Today, Qeqertarsuaq's neat, peak-roofed wooden houses in bright red, blue and green cling to a shelf of rock wedged between the iceberg-dotted sea and the brown basalt cliffs of an island born of volcanoes.

Far above mossy slopes, atop heights reaching to 1,200m, lies a huge, permanent ice cap. In this remote and beautiful spot, the Danes for more than a century have maintained a small scientific station, a post whose data tells the story of warming.

From 1991 to 2009, Disko Island's mean annual air temperature rose 4.5°C. The permafrost thawed 1cm deeper each summer and the sea-ice season shrank by half.

Older townspeople say the deep-winter cold of decades back - down to minus 30°C or 40°C degrees - has given way to lows of minus 20°C.

Sea ice still forms but one or two months later, in January or even February. But it is too thin and dangerous and is gone much earlier.

Disko Bay hunters can no longer lay seal nets under the ice in the 24-hour winter darkness.

They no longer drive dog teams to shoot the sea mammals at breathing holes, or drop long, many-hooked fishing lines through the ice, or hunt for narwhal and beluga whales that favour the ice edge in the spring.

"It was better 20 years ago when you could see many, many seals and whales closer to the town," said Nukappi Brandt, 49, a full-time hunter since his teens. He shoots seals from a boat in the warmer months but that does not make up for winter's lost time.

Retired hunter Jens Svendsen, 74, said: "In the dark months the ice is too unstable for the sleds and it's too dark to navigate by boat."

Ice chunks can wreck the propellers of their small outboards.

The dwindling supplies of traditional food hit older Inuit most.

"They prefer to eat Greenlandic food every day and if they can't get it, they have to buy it at the store and it's expensive," said Mr Svendsen's wife, Maaliannguaq, 70.

Budgets are also strained by the softening permafrost, which is deforming roads here that townspeople can ill afford to repair.

In the far northern village of Qaanaaq, foundations are sinking and heaving under houses, splitting joints.

"You can see it everywhere," said resident David Qujaukitsoq. "There are holes in the walls, so it's cold in the winter, and some people are abandoning their houses."

In mastering the planet's harshest environment, the Inuit proved themselves masters of adaptability.

But the climate is changing too fast and a once-nomadic people who would pack up and follow their prey are today too tied down. "We're not as mobile as we used to be," Kielsen Holm said.

"You can't change traditions from year to year and this is how changes are happening."

The important cod fishery, for example, has improved in northern areas but worsened in the south. What will happen next year?

"Climate change is hitting hard on everyday life," said Alfred Jakobsen, managing director of the national fishermen-hunters group. "They are going through very hard times."

The government stakes a lot on offshore oil, since one big strike could eliminate its need for Dh2,204 million in annual subsidies from Denmark, allowing Greenlanders to consider national independence.

But Cairn Energy announced on August 3 that its latest prospect had turned up dry and it was moving drilling to its West Disko Area, over the horizon from this island's unspoilt shores.

As their seas warm, the oilmen encroach and the dogs fall silent, many here feel they are sliding headlong into the unknown.

Published: August 24, 2011 04:00 AM


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