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13 September 2007

The greening of Greenland

As the Arctic ice retreats, some communities find that a new way of life beckons. Greenlanders are g

By Brian Cathcart

Walk southwards out of Ilulissat, past the last of the brightly coloured timber houses, and you soon come to something astonishing: a valley of dogs.

Across perhaps half a mile of scrubby terrain are hundreds of woolly sled dogs, black, grey and dirty white, chained mostly in pairs. Some, presumably the ones that have been fed, are sleeping in the thin sunlight; the others are howling, and you can hear them a long way off.

A woman in heavy overalls, wellingtons and a red bobble hat is feeding a big group nearby and the dogs are almost berserk with excitement. She carries plastic buckets of grey fish and throws a handful to each dog; it disappears in moments.

She works quickly and doesn’t want to talk. It can’t be pleasant in there amid the fish and dogshit, not to mention the excited dogs themselves, and she has to do this often. It is also the case that she doesn’t know whether there is any point to what she is doing, whether these dogs have any future.

We are in Greenland, about halfway up the east coast. The job of the dogs is to pull sleds across the winter sea ice when go people hunting and fishing, as folk have done in these parts for millennia. The problem is that three winters ago the sea stopped freezing, and now there is nothing for the dogs to do.

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Farther north, near the US military base at Thule, the Inuit of Qaanaaq have it worse. These are people who live exclusively by hunting and fishing using dogs through the eight months of Arctic daylight, and they eat only what they kill: mainly polar bears, walruses, narwhals and seals.

Two winters ago this community of 500 or so contacted their government in the south to say that, while they themselves had enough food to survive until the spring, their dogs were starving. For the first time in history, dogfood was flown north.

There are thousands of stories like this around the world, depressing despatches from the global-warming front lines that show the alterations to our climate picking off weak groups on the fringes of humanity. Places that were only just fertile enough to support human life are drying up; densely populated coastal zones are flooding; rains are washing mountain peoples from their homes.

Here, though, the story is different, because for the Greenlanders there is hope, albeit hope of a kind to make the rest of us uncomfortable. For Greenland is booming, and it is all down to climate change.

There is no trace of desperation and no hint of anger in the demeanour of Aleqa Hammond, the foreign affairs and finance minister of the Greenland home-rule government, as it is called (her country of 56,000 people is still a dependency of Denmark). Unlike many leaders in marginal, small countries, she does not plead or rail. Instead, she positively glows with confidence.

Take, she says, Ilulissat, the town of 5,000 people where we have met at an environmental conference. It doesn’t depend on the sea ice and dog sleds alone: the harbour is chock-full of fishing boats and the two factories handling halibut and prawns are working day and night.

“Because of the warming of the sea,” she explains with a smile, “the halibut are multiplying faster, and the fisheries have never been so good as they are now.” Better still, the cod that dis appeared from these waters two decades ago are returning, refugees from seas farther south that are now too warm for them.

And you can almost see it. The fishing boats barely have to leave harbour to do their job: they cluster near the icebergs, drop their nets and it’s as though the fish are asking to be caught. Gulls swirl over them in clouds, watching for pickings.

And because the sea doesn’t freeze, the fishermen can now do this all year round.

In the south, nearer the tip of the island, where most of the population lives, climate change is greening Greenland. Grass grows for between six and eight weeks longer than it did only five years ago, so the sheep farmers – 65 families at the moment, but with more joining in all the time – are on a roll. Greenland lamb is, says Hammond, the best in the world.

Potatoes, too. Until recently the southerners could grow some in the garden for their own use, but now they have surpluses and for the first time you can buy Greenland potatoes at the Ilulissat supermarket.

But what really makes Hammond’s eyes light up is the water. “Because of global warming our rivers and lakes have never been so full. We have lots of water and we want to use it for hydro power.” This means cheap electricity for every community in the country, but it also means an opportunity for serious industry.

Talks are well advanced with Alcoa on opening an aluminium smelting factory in Greenland that will create jobs for 3,500 people – or 10 per cent of Greenland’s entire workforce. The processes require vast amounts of cheap power and pure water, and that is what the Greenlanders will have.

The plan does not stop there, because the greening of Greenland and the retreat of the ice opens up opportunities to mine for gold, zinc, lead and diamonds, not to mention oil, both offshore and onshore. There is widespread talk of a new Klondike in the Arctic: look no further.

It would be easy to paint Hammond as naive or greedy, but it would be unfair. She comes from a community to the north of here and five of her uncles were hunters and fishermen. Now just two of them are; the other three are retraining.

“For us this is a drastic change. Society without ice is a disaster and we hope it will come back. But we from the government are encouraging people to take advantage of the change. For the people of the north it is important that we prepare them. To live by hunting alone will not be possible in a few years.”

Twice the speed

Hammond has another motive, about which she is frank. Greenlanders want independence, but that can’t happen so long as they require the annual subsidy of about $10,000 a head they at present receive from Denmark. Industries, mining and oil wealth would certainly change that: they could be richer than sheikhs.

Walk on up the valley of dogs at Ilulissat, over the saddle and down the long slope of rock and heather behind, and you have a grandstand view of one of the biggest and most magnificent production lines in the world.

This is the Ilulissat Icefjord. To the left, some miles away, is the Greenland ice cap, and just out of sight in that direction, ice forced down towards the sea is breaking off in monumental chunks, some the size of small farms and a mile from top to bottom.

Higgledy-piggeldy they float past, down the fjord’s canal into the sea on the right. Not only are they vast, but they are also, like the clouds, wonderful in the variety of their shapes. It is a hypnotic, majestic spectacle, and of course a very ancient one.

But now it is all happening too fast. Water is seeping to the bottom of the glacier as the ice melts, lubricating the glacier’s slide. This ice field, which pumps unimaginable volumes of fresh water into the sea, changing the biosystem and raising its level, is now moving at two metres an hour, twice the speed of five years ago.

Three years, two years, five years: everything is quickening and time frames here are short. Last year’s alarming scientific warning is already this year’s complacency. The Greenlanders may get their place in the sun at last, but they will not enjoy it long.

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