IF THE colour of Greenland is the deep blue-white of ice and snow, then its sound is of dogs howling. The Greenland dog is a hardy animal, living outdoors in compounds sullied with its own waste or just chained up beside a house, and fed irregularly. At the end of each day, they howl at the moon, and each other, and their lament carries in the absolute stillness of the Arctic night.
During the day, a burst of more intense howls shows their food has arrived. “You have to be careful how you feed them,” says my friend Hans as I help him prepare some sled dogs for an outing from Ilulissat. “They have a very strict hierarchy within the pack and any sign of favouritism will set off a fight to re-establish dominance. Give one a treat and you may bring down trouble on its head.”
Ilulissat is said to have 3,500 dogs for a population of just over 5,000 people, a reminder that transport by dog sled is still vital in a country where there are no roads connecting its settlements. While Greenlanders will hop on a plane or helicopter like those elsewhere might take a train, letting a dog take the strain remains a better option for tackling the rugged interior than the hardiest four-wheel-drive vehicle. With snowmobiles banned, having a dog team is an essential for many Greenlanders.
“The Greenlandic lifestyle is still very close to nature,” says Sarah Woodall, an American who has been living in Greenland for a year. “As well as enjoying nature’s beauty, they also still use the land and sea for personal subsistence. Greenlanders hunt reindeer all through the autumn to build a store of fresh meat. They also fish all summer long for cod, Arctic char, halibut and redfish to enjoy through the winter. The stark contrast of going 50km or more into the wild to hunt for one’s own food and then bringing it back to a modern designer home with electricity and wireless internet is fascinating to me.”
Our dog pack obviously enjoy getting out as well, for as soon as they catch sight of the sled they go wild and start throwing themselves at the end of their chains in excitement. One by one, Hans puts them in harness, struggling roughly with each dog and asking me to keep an eye on the anchor rope tied to an iron spike that holds the sled in place. As the number in harness grows, he asks me to sit on-board the sled and shows me how to use the brake, basically a thick rope that goes under its runners.
He finishes his work and jumps on, releasing the 12 dogs as he does and they dash off, howling with excitement. We pass a few “Yield to dogsleds” signs and quickly leave the outskirts of town behind us. In Greenland, with its near-total absence of trees, there is no need to run dogs in a string of harnessed pairs so they can fit through narrow gaps. Instead they spread out in a fan shape, and any individual is free to stop pulling its weight. From time to time, one moves off to the side to do its doggie business, sparing us on the sled the prospect of a face full of kicked-up poo. Then they throw themselves back into pulling. It is a moving tribute to the loyalty of man’s best friend, and Hans’ external gruffness cannot disguise a deep affection for his dogs.
As the dogs settle down and establish their order, they agree on a steady pace that take us near-silently across the hard-packed snow. I start to feel the -17C cold and sink my chin into the sealskin jacket I have borrowed for our trip to see one of the glaciers.
Ilulissat means “icebergs” in Greenlandic and the town attracts thousands of visitors such as me every year who come to see the fjord jammed with icebergs on which it stands, a Unesco World Heritage site. The biggest glacier is Sermeq Kujalleq (also called Jakobshavn Glacier from the former name of the town) which advances at the rate of 20 meters per day, fed by ice from Greenland’s Ice Sheet and dramatically calving off massive bergs that send waves crashing to shore. There is a good chance the iceberg that sank the Titanic came from it, having started life in a fall of snow 15,000 years earlier.
The glacier is an awesome sight, with the creaking and groaning of the ice building to a sudden crescendo as a giant slice of ice cracks into the ocean, sending an ice-filled tsunami surging up the fjord. The bergs are being carefully studied as monitors of climate change, with their rate of flow varying with the melting of the Ice Sheet. “Warmer weather has been creating lakes of water on top of the Ice Sheet that flow down to the base through the many crevices, threatening the ice’s grip on the rock below,” says Hans. “The glaciers have speeded up in recent years and there is the fear of a sudden release that dramatically accelerates the loss of ice.”
The best place to see the Ice Sheet closer up is further south at Kangerlussuaq, Greenland’s largest international airport, and a few days later I fly there to take advantage of a break in the weather. The runway was first built as a staging post for Allied aircraft on their way to Britain from America during World War II and its 3km length is still kept open 24/7 as an emergency option for transatlantic flights. Snowploughs, with their amber warning lights flashing through the snowflakes whipped up by biting sub-zero winds, work through the night as an ever-present sight from my hotel window.
Most of the town’s population of 500 works at the airport and Kangerlussuaq’s cluster of functional buildings sprawl close to the runway boundary fence. There is only one road out of town, built by Volkswagen for testing cars under extreme conditions and leading to the edge of the Ice Sheet. Reaching it after a 90-minute drive in a rugged four-wheel-drive truck, I find it is hard to grasp the scale of what I am looking at. It is a landscape of cliff face, broken rocks, valleys, frozen waterfalls and peaks – but all made from ice shining blue-white in the weak February sun. It is truly desolate, ever changing and still marked “unexplored” on maps.
This extraordinary cliff of blue ice is a last remnant of the ice sheet that covered the Earth during the Ice Age and is more than 3km high at its thickest. The best estimate is that the frozen mass of water would raise global ocean levels by seven meters if it melted – which it shows many signs of doing. ”There are few places like this left on earth,” says Hans. “We are a short distance from an international airport and a small town, yet you could walk in there and never be seen again. It would be a waste of time to even try looking for you.”
A part of me wants to explore that virgin land but the more sensible part is happy to get back in the warmth of our truck for the ride back to Kangerlussuaq. The windows are steamed up and dripping condensation but I spot a glimpse of a distant musk ox in the frozen landscape. Their shaggy heads may look like a bison’s but the thick coat disguises the animal’s true size: they are more closely related to goats than cattle. They survive these harsh conditions by digging for lichen and moss under thinner patches of snow.
“There has been a big problem with snow melting and then refreezing in hard layers which stops animals getting at lichen to graze,” says polar explorer David Fletcher. “That used to be confined to the west coast but is now happening in the east as well. The melting of the permafrost is not as dramatic a problem in Greenland as it is in Northern Alaska and northern Canada but I have noticed several places on the east coast were buildings are sloping because it is melting under them. Animals can adapt but this change is happening so fast they do not have time to.”
Animals – and builders – are not the only ones having to adapt to climate change; tourists do too. “In Kangerlussuaq in March, I witnessed the temperature rise from -18C to 7C in a matter of five days!” says Sarah, who works for Visit Greenland. “The melting meant many dogsledding tours were cancelled. Of course, dogsledding is one of the main reasons tourists visit Greenland in spring. Not to mention that they want a cold, snowy experience. If this warming trend continues, both the spring and summer seasons could begin a few weeks earlier than they do now.”
It seems that you do not have to go far in Greenland to witness the effect of our planet’s changing climate but David points out that it is not all bad news. It is thought the ice may hide one of the world’s largest resources of rare earth elements: uranium and zinc. “Greenlanders don’t see the Ice Sheet melting as a serious problem for them,” he says. “The great bulk of it is still stable but the retraction of glaciers and of the edges is exposing the possibility of huge mineral wealth in the future and they see that as a real plus for independence.”
Most of the population of Greenland is Inuit, with the remainder made up largely of Danes involved in the government. Greenland became a Danish colony in 1814 and, although a self-governing province since 2009, the country’s foreign affairs and defence remain in Danish hands. Denmark also pays two-thirds of the country’s budget, with the remainder coming from fishing.
“The Greenlanders are Inuit but they are different from other Inuit people,” says David. “They would say they are Greenlanders. Everyone in Greenland, including the Danes, is so proud of Greenland. That is really remarkable in an age when so many of us are cynical about our countries. The loyalty of the Inuit is to Greenland, not to the wider Inuit community. They think the Inuit in Canada for example, are going in the wrong direction.”
The direction for Greenland would seem to be full independence but to do that it needs to be able to pay its own way. After fishing, tourism is the second biggest industry and the country is keen to develop that while it waits for any mineral and oil bonanza.
“Cruise tourism here has increased by 6 per cent since 2006,” says Sarah. “And there has been 28 per cent growth since 2001 in hotel bookings, or roughly 2.5 per cent annually. Most tourists come to experience nature, wildlife, and natural phenomena such as the Midnight Sun and Northern Lights. About one in five call it an exotic or even a dream destination.”
Even the most rose-tinted visitor would hesitate to call Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, a dream destination. Three-quarters of Greenland’s population – 15,000 people – live here and the result is an untidy jumble of wooden house and functional apartment blocks painted in faded red, blue and mustard, and roads busy with traffic. The unfinished curbs and waste plots might hint at a wild frontier past, but it now has all the trappings – including a new shopping mall – of any other small European town.
Nuuk clings to a rocky headland around a compact harbour that is an obvious lifeline to the world beyond. Several fishing boats look long abandoned and the general air of stuttering action might sum up Greenland’s character: unpredictable weather seems to have produced unpredictable people, ready to risk their lives hunting in the wilderness, or just do nothing at all for long periods of time, both at a moment’s notice. The first Greenlandic word I learn is “impaqa” or “maybe”, which is the “Get Out Of Jail” card for any proposed plan, and “Imaqa Air” is the nickname for the national airline, Air Greenland.
“Climate change is a big uncertainty in Greenland,” says David. “But the concern is that people do not know what is going to happen. They can see how the ice disappearing will have benefits to them but it also brings unknown worries. Will the animals survive, will they adapt? We have no idea. There is so much speculation and so much that we do not understand, such as the movement of global currents. The unknown is more of a concern than what is actually happening right now.”
The one unknown the people of Greenland do have some control over is independence. “I absolutely believe Greenland will achieve independence in my lifetime,” says Sarah. “There is this sense that Greenland is on a great precipice and that big changes are ahead. Naalakkersuisut, the Self-Rule government, already possesses the tools to achieve independence – most importantly, Greenlanders with the motivation and dedication to bring it to fruition.
“Most people are inclined to analyse the benefits of independence from an economic standpoint. No doubt that’s a pertinent issue but, in my opinion, the most important benefit is a social one. Greenlanders will have total responsibility for every decision and action they make, and that’s vital for anyone’s wellbeing and happiness. There’s something to be said for having complete ownership over one’s successes and failures.
“Greenland is a country of strong people – pioneers. Greenlanders have not only survived but also flourished in this country longer than any others. Many question how they will survive without support from Denmark, but I ask a different question: why could you possibly think Greenlanders would not survive?”
On my last evening in Greenland, I decide to go for an evening stroll. Leaving the bright lights of a warm bar behind me, where I have enjoyed a glass of chilled wine, I walk off into the night to sit and admire the landscape. It is at least 20 below and within minutes, a wind howls in off the Ice Sheet, whipping snow off the ground into an instant blizzard. The lights I have left behind me vanish and I am suddenly and completely alone in the world, totally dependent on my next actions to stay alive. No one knows I am out here and, if I walk the wrong way, I will freeze to death in the night despite the many layers of clothes I am wearing.
If anywhere is a place to take responsibility for one’s own actions, that place is Greenland. Very carefully indeed, I make my way back towards the thin veneer of civilization that protects us all from nature at its most rawest and magnificent.