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The End of the Age of Ice


ISSUE:  Winter 2011
A helicopter arrives in Siorapaluk, Greenland's northernmost settlement, while Asiaq, eight, watches from his classroom window.
A helicopter arrives in Siorapaluk, Greenland’s northernmost settlement, while Asiaq, eight, watches from his classroom window.
Children making angels in the snow on the hilltop of the tiny village of Aappilattoq, West Greenland.
Children making angels in the snow on the hilltop of the tiny village of Aappilattoq, West Greenland.

Twice a week, a helicopter full of perishables, bulky packages, and the occasional visitor descends into icy Siorapaluk, providing Greenland’s northernmost village—and reputedly the planet’s most northerly natural settlement—its only physical connection to the rest of the world. Living in isolation just 850 miles south of the North Pole, Siorapaluk’s inhabitants are subject to temperatures as low as –30°F, as well as 99 sunless polar days per year—extreme climatic conditions that demand a very extreme lifestyle. Seal hunters, ice fishermen, dog sledges—these are not characters and props plucked from Nanook of the North. They are very much a part of day-to-day North Greenlandic life.

Growing up in Norway, documentary photographer Andrea Gjestvang was always peripherally aware of Greenland, which still has ties to Denmark, its former colonizer. Through the Danish media, Gjestvang encountered descriptions of a frozen, forlorn wasteland plagued by alcoholism, domestic abuse, and joblessness, as well as numerous impersonal, statistics-filled news pieces discussing melting ice caps and emerging oil reserves. “I realized I’d read a lot of these stories, but I didn’t know a lot about the society,” she says. “It’s important to look behind the numbers and clichés; that’s the only way to capture societies that are in the midst of change.”

Indeed, Greenland is undergoing a rapid and remarkable transformation. Global warming is causing the country’s monstrous inland ice sheet—which covers about 80 percent of the island—to melt, calving ice-chunks four times the size of Manhattan into our oceans, threatening to raise sea levels by seven meters, wipe low-lying islands off the map, and ignite hysteria the world over.

Change means that Greenlanders have become more dependent on the outside world. The old ways of earning a living, through hunting and fishing, are no longer viable. Gjestvang was set on showing the tension generated by the simultaneous death of old traditions combining with the potential—no matter how small—for new wealth and independence.

Greenlanders, especially in the isolated smaller towns, need the ice, and its disappearance is giving way to an insidious, widespread disillusionment that is eroding the Greenlandic identity. Many Greenlanders depend on familiar weather patterns: In the winter, for example, the only way to visit friends and family in neighboring villages, or to go hunting and fishing, is by dog sledge. It has been this way for hundreds of years. (Greenlanders also ride snowmobiles, but they need ice for that, too.)

Already familiar with indigenous communities in northern Norway that have similar problems, Gjestvang wanted to see if there was any connection between the diminishing ice and Greenland’s social issues. At the end of 2007, she applied for a grant through the Freedom of Speech Foundation, and left for Greenland the following year, where she spent months documenting daily life. What began as a journalistic project soon became a “personal obsession,” as Gjestvang puts it. “I have strong feelings for the country and the people; I always experience very emotional things when I’m there. I want to see how things are changing, because in ten years, it will be completely different.”

Change means that Greenlanders have become more dependent on the outside world. The old ways of earning a living, through hunting and fishing, are no longer viable. Parents want their children to have opportunities they never had, so young adults will often desert their tiny hometowns to study and work in Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk, or in Denmark, never to return.

Greenlanders do receive money from the Danish government, but that isn’t really the point. The traditions are far more precious. Because so few people live in Greenland—around 56,000—it’s nearly impossible to establish large businesses. Then there’s logistics. (Think of the helicopter.) Finally, what most Greenlanders find valuable, at least traditionally, is too arcane for foreign tastes.

Take sealing. When I was in Greenland, I supped on seasoned sælspæk—”seal bacon,” or seal blubber—a thick, mineral-rich adipose tissue bursting with viscous oils reminiscent of shiitake mushrooms, sulfurous vegetables, and everything that has ever lived in the sea. I wish I could say I liked it, but it’s not the truth. Like most people who didn’t grow up in the Arctic, my stomach is just not built for blocks of seal fat. It’s not only a difference in taste, though; it’s also the negative impression most people have of the sealing industry. The EU banned the importation of all seal products, including fur, in 2009. “What Greenland has to offer, the world doesn’t want,” says Gjestvang. “At least when it comes to seals.”

There is speculation that the receding ice will expose mineral deposits and vast oil reserves, meaning Greenlanders could unknowingly be sitting on top of billions of kroner. What Gjestvang picked up on, however, was doubt. “My impression is that people don’t really believe it will be a big change, but of course politicians and other people outside of Greenland talk about this,” says Gjestvang. “You see many examples of countries where they find oil, and the ones that get the money aren’t the people that live there.” Still, if the retreating ice does open up vast new areas for oil and gas exploration, the income could replace the annual subsidies the country receives from Denmark and allow a more definitive separation from their former colonizers.

Gjestvang was set on showing the tension generated by the simultaneous death of old traditions combining with the potential—no matter how small—for new wealth and independence. What she didn’t want to do while working in Greenland was make another series of pretty pictures. “It’s easy to go into this very romantic idea of Greenland: the hunters and the nature and the light … blah, blah, blah,” says Gjestvang. It is difficult to look beyond the treeless, wind-exposed ridges, icy black ocean, flood plains ablaze with broad-leaved fireweed, and rivulets of 60,000-year-old glacial water. It’s an encompassing beauty but also dangerfilled. There are thousands of enticing, tiny purple bilberries all over the ground, but one bold step sinks your leg two feet deep into the lichen-covered arctic carpet. This is a land that swallows you up, and its sheer power can divert an outsider’s attention from nuanced social interactions. “That was the biggest change on my second trip, being able to get past that. I had to really push myself.”

Seals draped over the side of a hunting vessel near Isortoq, East Greenland.
Aboard a seal hunting vessel, near Isortoq, East Greenland. Changing climatic conditions are causing great insecurity among the many Greenlanders dependent on seal, both for food and for the income from selling skins.
Hansigne Thomassen working in her kitchen in Greenland.  Two seals lay on the floor awaiting preparation.
Hansigne Thomassen is the consummate modern Greenlandic woman. She supports her family by working as a teacher in Aappilattoq, but when her husband comes home from hunting she returns to traditional tasks, like cleaning and preparing the seals.
Dines standing outside the door to his apartment.  He is wearing a sleeveless shirt and has a swastika carved into his upper arm.
Dines, eighteen, has a swastika carved into his upper arm. “There is nothing for young people to do here; we are so bored,” he says, insisting he is not a neo-Nazi.

The austere spectacle of the place wasn’t the only thing in her way. Greenlanders are often mistrustful of foreign journalists. “People were afraid I was going to tell another bad story about Greenland.” To make genuine connections, Gjestvang avoided photographing her subjects until she had gotten to know them; she was rewarded with invitations to stay in local houses, where she was able to get a close view of Greenlandic home life.

Despite the shifting conditions, Gjestvang observed, family is still very important to Greenlanders. “They spend a lot of time with family inside their houses, gathering together to watch TV and DVDs and 3-D movies,” she says. “But the typical Greenlandic mother, who is usually the one supporting the family with a day job, also takes on traditional hunter’s wife tasks at night, like preparing the seals or making warm clothes for her husband. The men go hunting and fishing just like their fathers and grandfathers taught them.”

Graffiti on a house wall in Ilulissat that reads Live fast die young
Graffiti on a house wall in Ilulissat. Greenland struggles with high rates of suicide, abortions, and alcoholism among its young people.

Parents understand, however, that younger Greenlanders don’t see much point in engaging in traditional life. It’s not so much a rebellion as a recognition of how unviable that way of life has become. There are also outside temptations. Teenagers do have access to the same viral videos and other aspects of pop culture as everyone else below the Arctic Circle. Breakdancing, graffiti, and hip-hop are all popular here, and Greenlandic rap albums have been released. “But they’re always watching from a distance,” says Gjestvang. “Lady Gaga or whoever will never come to Greenland.”

But what Gjestvang ultimately observed is a resilience when it comes to preserving cultural identity—even, occasionally, among the younger generation. Small-town Greenlanders still make clothes from sealskin, go hunting, and spend lots of time outdoors, taking boat trips with their families or going on excursions. They’re not afraid of cold weather. Even teenage boys with no desire to become fishermen will spend all night out on the ice. Greenlanders have integrated old traditions into the modern lifestyle, to the point where the average kitchen, with its oven and boom box and refrigerator magnets, looks completely normal with fleshy sea mammals spread out over the floor, and waiting to be butchered.

“I went to the modern homes that were very similar to homes in Norway,” says Gjestvang. “But then in the hallways you have a dead seal hanging from the ceiling with the blood dripping into a bottle.”

Gjestvang plans to continue documenting Greenland’s transformation this summer. “There are new stories then: different lives somehow, different activities. I’d also like to go south because it’s not as extreme as the north. You have green grass and sheep and it’s more Icelandic. Also, they can grow food down there now— a few potatoes and strawberries.” But this, too, is because of global warming.

Miranda Siegel is a contributing writer at New York magazine.

Ella, Salu, and their son Hans, four, watching a 3-D movie in their home in Isortoq.
Ella, Salu, and their son Hans, four, watching a 3-D movie in their home in Isortoq, a small village with roughly sixty inhabitants in East Greenland. With so little outside entertainment, family life is very important.
Otto Simigaq prepares for a long journey to visit family in the next village.
Otto Simigaq prepares for a long journey to visit family in the next village. There are no roads between settlements in Greenland, and the only way to commute during most of the year is via dog sledge or helicopter.
Children fishing on the ice in the afternoon in Siorapaluk.
Children fishing on the ice in the afternoon in Siorapaluk. During wintertime, the ice becomes a social meeting place.

1 Comments

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Pat Dickens's picture
Pat Dickens · 2 years ago

Excellent article. You should do one on th Namibia seal hunt too. There they have no cultural excuse to kill seals. Ghastly bloody business.

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