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In Nuuk: Seeing the Bright Sides and Low Tides of Melting Ice

In Greenland’s capital Nuuk, climate change is palpable as a snow-poorer season, a home-grown potato, a new fish in the ocean. As seen by 15 inhabitants, an anthropologist, an ice fjord fisherman and the Minister of Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture, nature’s changes can bring both obstacles and possibilities.

August 2016. Nuuk-Ilulissat.

By Freja C. Eriksen

 

The world’s northernmost capital city, Nuuk, holds a fourth of Greenland’s population, a little more than 17.000 people. You may picture it with snow, below zero, your breath hanging white in the air. But around August, Nuuk is snow free and, in many’s memory, snow is growing lesser and lesser at other times of the year too. The cold covered season seems shorter, temperatures feel warmer, the goose feathered jackets ever thinner.

Of all the 15 inhabitants I interviewed in Nuuk, no one refuted a change in climate. 15 out of 15 sensed a change. Whether teenagers, fishermen, bankers or kindergarten teachers, everyone noted a difference in weather.

But climate change to Nuuk’s inhabitants is sometimes just as simple as that: change. Neither bad nor good. Something you adapt to. And to some, even a positive influence. These are some of the initial impressions I have drawn from the empirical work of my master’s thesis conducted in August 2016 in Nuuk.

As part of my master’s thesis within Journalism, Media and Globalization, I have interviewed 15 inhabitants of Nuuk about what they make of climate change. Through five focus group interviews, I have tried to understand how inhabitants of the capital city make sense of climate change – how they make it tangible and understandable through examples, common metaphors and ideas. More scholarly put, the thesis is a study of how different inhabitants of Nuuk make sense of climate change and its impacts in Greenland through media and personal experience.

Nature, Hunters and Adaptation’s Way

Part of the thesis’ aim is to understand how media consumption and personal experience interact and influence perceptions of climate change and its impacts. Do inhabitants refer to news articles and documentaries to explain their positions, or are personal observations and stories passed on between people and generations used as points of reference?

Though I will not share all my conclusions here, having not done the final analysis of the data collected, I can share some initial impressions of the data (these are also included in my final paper for the Arctic Summer College). For now, I can point at four recurring topics which I expect will dominate my final analysis. Firstly, it was striking that many interviewees said they were sure of climate change’s existence, but did not necessarily see it as anthropogenic. Secondly, some interviewees laid a perhaps surprisingly strong emphasis on climate change’s positive impacts in Greenland. Thirdly, many interviewees found personal experience (from talking to elders or hunters, for example) more trustworthy than media accounts. And lastly, I suspect a closer analysis will show a quite varied and relatively limited attention to and interest in media accounts of climate change.

Fishing for Answers

After interviewing 15 inhabitants of Nuuk about their perceptions of climate change, it has become clear to me, that the impacts of a warming climate are first and foremost connected to the largest industry in Greenland: fishery. Outside of academic interviews, this was illustrated in interviews with a Greenlandic anthropologist, an ice fjord fisherman and a minister.

The Greenlandic Government, Naalakkersuisut, is placed in a square tower – the tallest in Nuuk – on top of the city’s only shopping center. Here, I am invited to talk with Nikolaj Jeremiassen, Greenland’s Minister of Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture. Jeremiassen started his career in fishing when he was a boy and has kept this career until he became a Minister in May 2016. He wears a heavy golden watch and has two tattoos on one arm – his name and a sailor’s heart. From his experience, he says, conditions have become better for the fishing and hunting industry. At least seen from the perspective of Nuuk.

"But if you move up towards the Disco Bay area, there a lot has changed about being a hunter. You cannot exist as a hunter today unless you combine it with some fishing," the Minister points out.

Although I might have noticed that his hair is greying, he adds, the coastline of Greenland is so long that he has not yet travelled its full distance. The Minister can only speak of his own experiences, he notes. Still, his perspective of climate change is pragmatic. 

"Well, it is not the climate that adapts to the people, it is the people that have to adapt to the climate. And we know that fact from our own people. We have always had to adapt according to nature. And generally, that is nothing new."

In said Disco Bay, I talk to Klaus Rasmussen, a fisherman in Ilulissat Icefjord, a bit further north than Nuuk and above the Polar Circle. He, on the other hand, sees the warming climate in Greenland as mainly negative.

"I think it has made things much worse. Before, I have caught… in 1999, 77 tons. Last year I only caught 18 tons [of fish]."

He too has been fishing since he was a child, and notices the changes clearly.

"It has changed a lot. The water has become much warmer, we have noticed. Plus, the halibut, they are more up North now because of the heat."

A small change in water temperatures and sea currents can mean a change in subsistence. Where Rasmussen used to catch halibut, he now mostly finds cod.

"There are many cod. Cod are much cheaper than halibut and you have to remove the head and intestines, it takes a long time to clean the fish."

Rasmussen says that he and the other fishermen are earning a little less now, fishing for cod instead of halibut.

"We get 20 kroner for halibut and 6,50 kroner for cod. But then we catch many cod. They are easier to catch."

He also fishes a lot in the Icefjord with his dogs, but conditions for fishing with the dogsled have become harder. The ice is only there to sled on from December to March-April, he estimates.

"I am an Icefjord fisherman myself, I fish a lot with dogs. That has changed a lot. We have bad ice now every time. There is not so much ice anymore. Before it was from October until June," Rasmussen says.

In Nuuk, Greenlandic anthropologist Lene Kielsen Holm has recorded this transition through her projects Sila Inuk and The Meaning of Sea Ice, conducted in a transdisciplinary collaboration between researchers from glaciology, geology, anthropology and the hunters and fishers from Northern to Southern Greenland themselves. She can testify to Rasmussen’s observations.

"There is a transition from hunting to fishing taking place… Everywhere where there are dogsleds - that is north of the Polar Circle - many changes are happening. There are some places where you almost have no dogsleds left because there is no sea ice during the winter. Especially if they live on an island where there is water around you all year round, then it makes no sense to keep dogs. And it is very expensive - it is like feeding humans," Holm says.

Some shortcomings

These were some first impressions of the data collected for the thesis Local Discourses of Global Climate Change: A Case Study from Greenland, which I am currently writing at the University of Hamburg, while enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus Master’s of Journalism, Media and Globalisation.

It is important to note that inhabitants of Nuuk do not represent the opinions of the rest of Greenland’s population. Nor is a qualitative study, such as the one I have conducted, meant to be representative of all of Nuuk’s inhabitants. It is simply a detailed look at what 15 inhabitants of Nuuk thought about climate change and its impacts on Greenlandic society.

As a ‘flyfrisk’, fresh from the flight, visitor to Greenland, there are natural limitations to my levels of cultural insight and understanding. But I have tried my utmost to understand some of what makes climate change make sense to an inhabitant of Greenland’s capital city. Similarly, it is a limitation of my study, that I have only been able to talk to the Danish speaking part of Nuuk’s population as I do not speak Greenlandic myself. These (and many more limitations), you will be able to read more about in my full thesis – along with some findings – if you are interested.

I would like to thank Jesper Nymand and Katja Vahl for all their help and hospitality in Nuuk.

If you are interested in reading the full thesis once it is written, reach me on Twitter, @FrejaCEriksen, or write to frejaceriksen@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Freja C. Eriksen, photo of pedestrians crossing near the main street of Nuuk downtown.