A fragile life at the frozen edge of Europe

Sarah Marshall
·14-min read
Greenland is a beautiful but sometimes inhospitable land - getty
Greenland is a beautiful but sometimes inhospitable land - getty

As a new exhibition salutes the resilience of ice-dwelling people, Sarah Marshall sees how Greenlanders have adapted to their surrounds

Navigating a route is almost impossible when every path leads to a blank horizon. Even a pillar box of amber light peeping through cracks in the disobliging dark sky fails to offer any guidance. Instead, Jorgen Lynge relies on a mixture of memory and instinct to lead me on a hike through the frozen peaks and slippery troughs of Greenland’s immense ice sheet. Dressed in a light jacket and gripping ski poles with bare hands, he tackles challenging terrain with the ease of a hill walker on a summer’s day.

When 80 per cent of your country is covered with ice, you learn to work with it – from big considerations, such as choice of settlement, to smaller details, like rarely wearing gloves. Over centuries, Greenlanders and their Inuit ancestors have existed on the ice. In fact, their lives have been shaped by it.

It’s a topic addressed by a new blockbuster show at the British Museum, The Citi exhibition, Arctic: Culture and Climate, which opened this week. Celebrating communities who have survived on the frozen fringes of our planet for 30,000 years, it’s a story of adaptation to ever-changing weather patterns, examining the ways human beings have harnessed the power of ice. Now the spectre of climate change looms heavily, demanding every last drop of resource and resilience, and ultimately threatening a way of life.

On a land mass nearly four times the size of France, Greenland’s 56,081 ­population live in coastal settlements connected by air, ice and sea. Kangerlussuaq, a small community in the west artificially created around the country’s international airport, has the only road access to reach the ice sheet. The 23-mile stretch of flattened rubble was partially built by the US military, who constructed the site as an airbase in 1941.

“We’ve grown up with the ice,” shrugs Jorgen ambivalently, expressing neither love nor loathing for a force of nature that heavily influences life on the world’s largest island – and arguably our entire planet. “We’ve always known it was there; it’s something we’ve learned to live alongside.” 

Ice in Kangerlussuaq - Getty
Ice in Kangerlussuaq - Getty

Our hike on to the 660 million square mile bleach-white sheet starts at Point 660, an area known as “the sweet edge”, where piles of moraine are stacked like slag heaps. It’s a natural demolition site, created when ice hit a dead end of bedrock millions of years ago, diverting into glaciers either side. 

Using crampons with sabre-tooth blades, I crab step along valleys and climb vertical slopes, curving through canyons carved by summer meltwater and crawling below the blue crests of frozen waves. I follow paw prints left by an Arctic fox, the only evidence of another heartbeat. Soon, shapes and impressions will disappear, sinking into a flat emptiness, the last trickles from streams underfoot drowned by silence. 

Seemingly inhospitable, in fact this vast bank of compacted snowfall underwrites our human existence. If its assets were released, sea levels would rise by 23ft, enough to wipe out large parts of our populated world. Alarmingly, that process has already started as global temperatures rise. Last year, images of dogs pulling a sled through a river of slush went viral; a recent study by Ohio State University reports the sheet melt is now irreversible; and only last month, a paper published by the journal Nature suggested decline had accelerated to its fastest rate in 12,000 years. 

It’s clear we have reached or even passed a tipping point. All we can do is slow the process down. “We are worried,” admits Jorgen, who was born in Maniitsoq, an island historically dependent on sea trade. “But we were only aware of the problem when we heard about it from people like Al Gore.” 

Evidence of change, though, is everywhere: fishermen are hauling different species in their nets; boats have largely replaced sleds; and glaciers are receding at a rapid rate. In the short term, greater threats have been posed by the pandemic. No amount of ice can freeze out concerns from the rest of the world. Although there have been only 16 cases of the virus recorded and the country has since been declared Covid-free, it remains vulnerable. There are only a handful of ventilators and many settlements don’t have a doctor. 

“There is no point in training anyone; they’d only get bored and leave,” sighs Jorgen, admitting his biggest upset has been the cancellation of this year’s national football tournament. But for a culture accustomed to welcoming new friends and family, social distancing has taken its toll. “We like to hug and greet even strangers, so this has been hard.”

An Inuit hunter and his dogsled team - getty
An Inuit hunter and his dogsled team - getty

Finding space, though, is never a problem. Only 500 residents live permanently in Kangerlussuaq, a functional transit hub where life revolves around runways and most visitors sleep in an airport hangar three steps from security. Aside from the terminal cafeteria, the settlement’s only social space is Roklubben – a scenic rowing club restaurant overlooking the community’s drinking water reservoir, which doubles as a place for a recreational paddle. 

Attempts to tame and cultivate the environment have largely been in vain: unfinished roads end in mounds of rubble and a small birch forest planted 43 years ago as an experiment has been stunted by the wind. Further out of town, an incongruous 18-hole golf course was the invention of two bored Swedish pilots. I’m told it costs £27 to join, although no one here plays golf.

Aside from an introduced population of musk ox, life here has never taken off. From 27 animals translocated from northeast Greenland in the 1960s, there are now 10,000 shaggy, prehistoric creatures sweeping though the willow and gorse. But even they have been borrowed from another era, slowly shuffling through time and place like balls of tumbleweed.

In the absence of any culture, Kangalussuaq’s charm and character can be found in its landscape, an Arctic desert bulging with smooth, sculpted mountains streaked with rosy ribbons of quartz. I’ve arrived during a brief two-week window of autumn, when valleys smoulder with glowing embers ignited by the last blazing rays of summer sun. Peaks dusted with snow can be miles away, but in air so pure distances are distorted: ridges seem deceptively scalable and boundaries within easy reach. 

Clear skies and stable weather also increase the chances of northern lights, abating loneliness when darkness swallows 56 days of the year. On a moonless night, below a dome of shooting stars, I watch the green goddess waltz through constellations; a swaying, rippling and whirling choreography. But Jorgen shares a less romantic explanation: “We say it’s our ancestors playing football with your head.”

Despite their gentleness, Greenlanders have a mischievous sense of humour. In Ilulissat, a 50-minute plane ride north, one traveller speaks of a homestay host who laughed hysterically at his efforts to fillet a halibut. He soon realised she’d handed him a blunt knife for the job. Fortunately, gourmet chefs prepare my fish dinners at the Hotel Arctic, a property boasting the accolade of most northerly four-star stay. Windows gaze across the ice-choked Disko Bay, where a flotilla of cruise ships once sailed. But thanks to Covid, these are silent seas. 

A Greenland musk ox - iStock
A Greenland musk ox - iStock

For a town focused on tourism, it’s been a financial blow. Although tour guide Malik Hansen, whose olive skin is an awkward match with his midnight black hair, admits the absence of crowds has been a relief. Born in capital Nuuk and partly of Danish descent, Malik typifies a generation straddling two worlds; embracing the present while resurrecting the past. He is inked with a tattoo depicting his young family in Inuit amaats (hooded anoraks) and has ambitions to represent his country in the Arctic Winter Games (a celebration of circumpolar sports and indigenous culture). To sharpen traditional skills, he has designed a home-made tug-of-war toy – two sticks attached by string and smothered in seal fat, intended to mimic catching fish with slippery hands.

With a population of 4,670 (and almost as many sled dogs), Ilulissat is one of Greenland’s most atmospheric towns, where towering icebergs compete with a rainbow of rooftops for skyline space and the howls of impatient huskies whip through hilly streets. It’s a curious blend of old and new: an open-air museum displays whale bones and qajaq (hunting kayaks); on the balconies of modern apartment blocks, socks and T-shirts are pegged on washing lines alongside ceremonial kamik boots and air-drying racks of reindeer ribs. 

Although founded by the Danes as Jakobshavn in 1741, a settlement of turf houses was occupied for 4,500 years before communities were moved into concrete structures by missionaries, earning the area Unesco World Heritage status in 2004. A boardwalk and two hiking trails leads to Sermermiut, now an expanse of scarlet gorse and overripe purple sea berries. Only the view remains the same as it was several centuries ago: a funeral march of icebergs solemnly drifting through the Icefjord towards burial at sea. Gulls hitch a ride on their sculpted peaks for a journey that could take an eternity.

Older than Egypt’s pyramids, these ancient monuments can rise 100ft high, but according to many elders they were once triple that size. They’ve travelled from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, the most productive in the world. Churning out chunks faster than a commercial crusher as temperatures increase, this is arguably ground zero for our planet’s impending great melt.

Malik takes me to Sermermiut’s sheer drop viewpoint known as the Nakkaavik cliff, “the place where you fall”. “It’s where the community would sacrifice their loved ones in times of food shortages,” he explains. Also translated as “most beloved”, it’s name is now a slang word for “bitch”.

Eqip Sermia is Ilulissat’s only glacier accessible by boat, lying 50 miles north. But as we crunch through crystalline debris and weave between humpback blows, more ice in the bay makes it trickier to reach. Small shards constantly calve from the 650ft-high wall, growling like thunder and sending hapless seals surfing on floes. Once stretching two-and-a-half miles into the water, Eqi (as it’s also known) now hides behind a shadow of moraine. Scientists predict it will no longer be active within as little as a decade. 

Excursion boat on fjord Ilulissa - Getty
Excursion boat on fjord Ilulissa - Getty

Reflecting the urgency of our times, a new museum focusing on climate change is set to open in Ilulissat in summer 2021. Shaped like a snowy owl’s wings in flight, the Icefjord Centre will house holograms and interactive exhibits joining the dots between scientific theory and the reality of what is really going on.

There couldn’t be a more appropriate location than Greenland; living sustainably from their surroundings, the Inuit made these connections long ago. When Mother of the Sea, Sassuma Arnaa, was upset, animals would become tangled in her long black hair leaving no food for families. People would contact their angakkoq (shaman) to comb her mane and set the creatures free. It’s an allegory that still rings alarmingly true. Cleaning up our act might be a challenge, demanding sacrifice. But even blank horizons reveal a path – if you are prepared to listen and learn.

The Arctic on show

For the time being, most Arctic regions are out of physical reach to British travellers. But the British Museum’s latest exhibition promises to bring a breath of fresh polar air to London this month. Using archaeological artefacts, newly commissioned artworks and immersive displays, it plunges into the deep freeze and examines how 400,000 people have harnessed the cold to make extreme northerly reaches their home.

“These communities have made hospitable and warm homelands out of ecosystems of ice,” explains curator and anthropologist Amber Lincoln. “If that ice is gone in 80 years, as climate scientists predict, what will happen to these rich ways of life?”

Adaptation to demanding environments is explained through a range of objects: a whaler suit worn by Greenlandic hunters in the 1840s; a sled made from narwhal and caribou bone fixed to driftwood; a limestone Inuksuk used as a navigational tool and a symbol of hope. 

“What you notice when you live and work in the Arctic,” says Lincoln, who has studied the region for 20 years, “is that indigenous people aren’t bracing against the cold. It’s not about being tough. It’s about using the weather as a resource and being knowledgeable enough about it, so that you don’t have to be tough.”

Part of the British Museum's new Arctic exhibition - Eddie Mulholland
Part of the British Museum's new Arctic exhibition - Eddie Mulholland

Although concerns about climate change are voiced throughout the exhibition, the prognosis is not all doom and gloom. Lincoln praises skills shared by reindeer herders, hunters and seamstresses who still command great respect in their communities: “Arctic people have dealt with change and challenge in the past; they’ve responded and adapted their strategies of resilience.”

Social co-operation has been key to their survival, with circumpolar organisations now working across national boundaries. “People have worked so hard to make their grievances known, to advertise their solutions,” says Lincoln. “There is this incredible voice. It’s really important that we listen.”

The Citi exhibition Arctic: Culture and Climate runs at the British Museum until Feb 21 2021.

The future of polar voyages

In the absence of roads, popular polar regions such as the Arctic, Antarctica and Greenland are best accessed by cruise ships. Voyages are on hold and experts predict it’s unlikely the industry will return before next spring. 

“We’re optimistic the Arctic 2021 season will happen,” says Alex Mudd, commercial director for Swoop Travel, which sells small ship voyages. “By next March/April, we will have far greater clarity around vaccines, and protocols will be in place. The picture will become a lot brighter.” 

But he warns it won’t necessarily be plain sailing for early operators. “I can see there will be flare-ups, which will disrupt programmes.”

Bob Simpson, VP for Expedition Cruising at Abercrombie & Kent, agrees: “There has to be a rational understanding that there is no such thing as a zero-risk proposition; Covid isn’t going away. But there will be processes in place to manage and mitigate it to ensure safety.”

Hopefully polar travel will return in 2021 - getty
Hopefully polar travel will return in 2021 - getty

It’s likely, at least in the short term, that small expedition ships and yachts will prove most popular as travellers seek to avoid crowds. Underpopulated polar regions also lend themselves perfectly to a new appetite for remote travel. “You’re outside most of the time looking at wildlife and landscapes, and the vast majority of landings don’t involve people,” says Mudd. “And the polar regions do blank spaces better than most.”

Concerns over sustainability and the environment are also increasingly likely to inform our choice of voyage. Swoop offers customers a carbon calculator for every trip it sells, while Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten, responsible for the world’s first hybrid battery-powered cruise ships, the MS Roald Amundsen and the MS Fridtjof Nansen, continues to invest in green technology.

“We are completely rebuilding existing ships to run on a combination of large battery packs, liquefied natural gas and biogas,” says Anthony Daniels, Hurtigruten’s UK and Ireland general manager. “When guests choose us, they know they are travelling with the greenest cruise line in the world.”

These initiatives go a long way to offsetting any impact on fragile environments, justifying tourism as a long-term force for good. “The net positive far outweighs the negative,” insists Simpson. 

“Ultimately, passengers will become ambassadors for these areas, protecting them for generations to come.” 

Essentials

Regent Holidays (020 7666 1290; regent-holidays.co.uk) has launched a new six-night Icecap & Icebergs Summer 2021 tour combining two nights in Hotel Kangerlussuaq and four nights at the Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat from £3,255 per person. The price is based on two people sharing and includes return flights from Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq and from Ilulissat to Copenhagen, bed and breakfast accommodation, two dinners and six excursions. The price excludes flights from the UK to Copenhagen and accommodation in Copenhagen.

Travel to Greenland is currently not open to UK nationals.