Greenland’s Traditions Being Swept Away By Melting Ice

by Maya Gutierrez

The Inuit—the native inhabitants of Greenland’s northern coastal settlements—have for centuries depended on the ebb and flow of sea ice for sustenance, but with climate change contracting the winter season they find their food sources and their way of life under threat.

Greenlanders above the Arctic Circle live in remote villages scattered along the coast separated by glaciers. They hunt seal and narwhale, a whale species known for the horn on its head, and fish for halibut in local waters. When the winter sea ice advances, these remote villages become connected by vast fields of ice, allowing the Inuit to use their traditional modes of transportation such as dogsleds and more recently snowmobiles to travel to other towns and villages, and to access their hunting grounds. In recent years, however, climate change has disrupted their way of life.

Shorter winters hamper the development of the ice fields essential to the Inuit traditions and commerce. Fewer whales are being seen in local waters. The thinner ice can no longer bear the weight of dogsleds, preventing their use to travel to traditional hunting grounds. Some hunters, no longer able to feed their dogs, have been forced to destroy their teams. Without the benefit of stealthy dogsleds, hunters must shoot the seal from longer distances. When they shoot a seal, it sinks more quickly through the larger fresh water surface layer caused by the ice melt, often preventing the hunters from retrieving their kill before it sinks into the ocean depths.

Because it is illegal to sell seal and whale products to other countries, the main product the villagers export for profit is halibut, but the locals have struggled with ice too thick to take their boats out and ice too thin to traverse with snow mobiles to distribute their catch. An already fragile economy is facing increasing pressure. Denmark, which still controls Greenland except for its domestic policy, must provide financial support to these villages to give them access to modern amenities and to maintain their traditional way of life. Many Greenlanders wonder whether it is worthwhile to continue to subsidize the villages in this way.

Young people in Niaqornat have realized the changing conditions and the diminishing opportunities in their villages. As the villages struggle to sustain their way of life, many young villagers have decided to break tradition and are leaving to find opportunities in larger cities, like the nearby town of Uummannaq, where the children attend high school. There, they can find more common jobs not available in their traditional villages. With the departure of youth, there is no one to carry on the Inuit traditions.

Tim Folger interviewed a man named Ilannguaq Egede who, acting against the trend, moved to the tiny coastal village of Niaqornat to be with a woman he met—ironically—on the Internet. In the nine years that Egede has lived in the whaling town, he had not yet caught a narwhal, but he was able to find something in the village that he could not find elsewhere—a life in tune with nature. The melting ice of climate change threatens to wash away this way of life.

Folger, T., 2015. How Melting Ice Changes One Country’s Way Of Life. National Geographic. 1-29.


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