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Greenland’s Stunning Natural Beauty Is Now Rife With Warning Signs of Climate Change

The world's largest island is showing the signs of a rapidly warming planet.

Greenland glacier Courtesy of Christopher Bagley

At first, I don’t even notice the two Remington shotguns tucked among the trekking poles and gear bags at the front of our boat. There’s no obvious need for firearms in the Sermilik fjord, a pristine inlet dotted with icebergs on the east coast of Greenland, where a dozen of us, outfitted in neon-orange flotation suits, are zooming past glaciers so numerous and so remote that many of them haven’t yet been named. But then we pull up beside a wide, sandy beach with an unexpected display of glistening ice formations. This morning’s extreme high tide has swept the blue-white masses right onto the shore, where they’ll remain for a few hours before the afternoon tide pulls them back out to sea. Our two guides remove the rifles from their cases and quietly step off the boat. The guns, it turns out, are for their own protection as they scan the shoreline for polar bears. We wait on board, watching a black guillemot fly overhead until the signal comes over the radio: All clear. Once onshore, we gawk at the beached icebergs before sitting down for a picnic lunch in what has to be the world’s most ephemeral, and most remarkable, outdoor sculpture park.

Anyone looking for all too obvious symbols of global warming—the chunks of ice melting in the sunlight, the lack of prowling predators, the muffled sonic booms of glaciers calving in the distance—will find plenty of them in this extraordinarily isolated place, right at the edge of the Greenland ice sheet. But one thing you quickly learn in Greenland is that the less blatant signs of climate change are often the more significant ones. A few weeks ago, a group of seal fishermen in a nearby village were perplexed by the sight of a strange creature in their harbor: a lone porbeagle shark, never before seen in these waters. Every summer, people are noticing little (and not so little) waterfalls gushing in places that used to remain frozen year-round. Julius Nielsen, a seal hunter and guide who grew up in the region, tells me his friends and family have always been able to confidently predict the weather, based on knowledge inherited from their Inuit ancestors. Now they routinely get the forecast wrong. “It’s scary what we’re seeing and how fast things are changing,” he says.

To get a front-row view of these changes—and of some magnificent arctic landscapes, plus a few humpback whales and very hardy wildflowers—I’ve joined an eight-day expedition organized by Natural Habitat Adventures. In 2015 the Colorado-based travel company inaugurated a safari-style tent camp on the shore of a glacial valley. It’s open only during the two months of the year when the ground here is completely free of ice and snow, allowing roughly 100 visitors annually. (Natural Habitat was the world’s first carbon-neutral travel company and is partnered with World Wildlife Fund; the camp is dismantled every September and reassembled in July to minimize environmental impact.) To reach the site, we must take a two-hour flight from Reykjavík, Iceland, followed by a helicopter ride to the region’s main settlement, Tasiilaq (population: 2,000), then a four-hour boat trip up the fjord.

Greenland melted glacier

A beached iceberg in Johan Petersen fjord.  Courtesy of Christopher Bagley

Our group of 12 first meets at dinner at a hotel in Reykjavík, where one of our two American guides, Mike Hillman, briefs us with some essential intel. In all of Greenland there are only 12 towns and 56,000 residents, making the island’s population smaller than that of Dubuque, Iowa. Our destination on the east coast is all but uninhabited, with just a couple of tiny settlements besides Tasiilaq and no roads connecting any of them. For much of the year, people get around by snowmobile or dogsled, though when the waters become navigable in the spring, the residents get in their boats and start plying the fjords for their traditional food sources: seals and fish and the occasional narwhal.

When our helicopter lands in Tasiilaq the following afternoon, it feels like we’re dropping into a child’s drawing of an arctic wonderland, with colorful little homes overlooking a serene bay backed by snowy peaks. Racks of drying fish dangle from the eaves, and teenagers practice their penalty kicks on the town soccer field. Despite the air of serenity on this 45-degree summer day, there are extreme social problems faced year-round by the town’s largely Inuit population. With few local jobs available and the communal fishing culture outmatched by the forces of the global economy, many families have no income beyond handouts from the Danish government. This lack of opportunity partly explains the unusually high rates of alcoholism, suicide and domestic violence here and elsewhere in Greenland. Climate change is yet another modern-day trouble requiring constant adjustment.

Greenland glacier Zodiac and kayak

Going with the floe: A Zodiac and kayak navigate past the icebergs in Sermilik.  Courtesy of Christopher Bagley

Of course, around here most human concerns, whether social or economic or political, are ultimately governed by the powers of nature. Eighty percent of Greenland’s landmass is covered by the ice sheet, and it remains almost two miles deep in some sections, despite the huge summer melt-offs now making headlines. (If the whole thing suddenly turned to liquid, sea levels worldwide would rise 23 feet.) We get a preview of the island’s spectacular vastness when we hike east from the center of town and soon find ourselves in a wide, empty valley with several deep glacial lakes. That night, after darkness finally sets in around 11 p.m., there’s a surprise sight in the sky: the leaping green arcs of the aurora borealis.

“If you think this place feels otherworldly, wait until we get to base camp,” says our other guide, Colby Brokvist, during breakfast the next morning. Sure enough, our half-day sail up the dazzling Ikasagtivaq fjord feels like a slow glide into another dimension: The dark, glassy waters, 2,000 feet deep, serve as a giant mirror for the granite peaks that line the waterway as we make our way toward the only man-made objects on the horizon, a dozen vinyl cabins below a ring of mountains. Our group is a well-traveled, adventure-ready bunch—mainly over-50 Americans who can casually swap opinions about their favorite and least favorite parts of Namibia—but we’re all wondering just how rustic the situation will be in our middle-of-nowhere encampment, whose perimeter has an electric fence to keep out the polar bears. A quick walk around assures us that our set-up is as luxurious as things could be around here, so we’ll face none of the hardships recorded by Knud Rasmussen, the polar explorer and anthropologist who made several harrowing sled trips across this part of Green- land a century ago. (“Only two things were certain,” he wrote about one expedition’s low point. “We had nothing to eat but eleven lean and hungry dogs, and the dogs had nothing to eat.”) Our tented cabins are snug, comfortable two-bed structures on raised platforms, with gas heaters, eco-friendly toilets and porches with unobstructed fjord views. Three larger group tents house a lounge area, a block of showers and a kitchen-dining room with a full-time chef, who prepares meals starring delicious local fish and abundant fresh vegetables (relatively rare in Greenland) flown in from abroad.

In my own tent the next morning, I can see my breath as I don an extra set of underlayers while getting ready for breakfast. But none of us is complaining about the chill as we pile into two Zodiac inflatable boats and see our first whale spout within minutes of setting off. Brokvist and Hillman, like all good naturalists, have a freakish ability to spot distant wildlife even while looking in the opposite direction. We’ll see nine more of the humpbacks before the end of the day, including one that bobs and slithers in a solo feeding ritual. When we hike up an outcrop for a view of the massive Hann glacier, Brokvist tells us that the hundreds of scarlet chunks embedded in the rock beneath our feet are actually gemstones: red garnets. (Greenland’s huge array of natural resources, and its strategic location along new shipping lanes created by melting ice, are what gave President Trump the idea of buying the island, which is an autonomous territory belonging to Denmark.) Periodically we stop the boat and just listen to the pops, hisses, booms and trickling sounds made by the ever-shifting chunks of ice. On our way back to camp, Hillman reaches overboard to grab a block of it. He’ll chop it into cubes for use in the evening’s gin and tonics.

cottage in Tiniteqilaaq Greeland

A cottage in Tiniteqilaaq.  Courtesy of Christopher Bagley

One day we leave camp to explore the only settlement in the area: Tiniteqilaaq, whose population is about 100. Brokvist and Hillman introduce us to a few residents, who explain some of the local nuances that we could only guess at in Tasiilaq. East Greenlanders who speak English like to say they’ve gone from the Stone Age to the iPhone age in a few short decades, and it’s no exaggeration. Many elders remember growing up in one-room sod huts, with only seal fat for fuel; now they get their local fishing updates on Facebook. These days, according to the town’s 71-year-old mayor, Paulus Larsen, the most momentous and possibly most regrettable change is that the individual, rather than the community, is considered priority number one. On the plus side: Daily life is much easier than it used to be, thanks to the introduction of things like motorized boats, plumbing and dentists. In the old days, Larsen says, all men fished and hunted full-time, and “basically, if you didn’t do your work, your family would die.”

As for climate change’s effect, uncertainty remains the rule. A national quota system has kept the populations of polar bears and other species at sustainable levels, and for now seals remain plentiful around Tiniteqilaaq. But fishing itself is fading in importance, with packaged snacks and frozen meats for sale at the supermarket. Nielsen, who keeps about 20 sled dogs in the village and still hunts regularly (a few months ago he and his brother-in-law tracked and shot a polar bear, then divided up the meat), tells me that, in the past, the most important person in the family was the most skilled hunter. Today it might be the kid who goes to Copenhagen for university and stays there to find a well-paying job. Nielsen also points out that village life itself is a relatively new concept for the Inuit. “It’s actually not our culture to stay here, in one place,” he says. “Our ancestors moved all the time to find an easier life. If young people, even my children, want to leave, I won’t discourage them.”

As I wander among Tiniteqilaaq’s picturesque wooden cabins, many of them empty, two unleashed sled dogs start following me. We end up in a hilltop cemetery, where decades of violent snowstorms have left the rows of white crucifixes pointing every which way but up. Looking out over the glorious fjord and mulling this country’s extreme contradictions, I’m struck by another paradox: While Greenland may be the place on Earth where the effects of climate change are most glaringly apparent, it’s also a spot where the planet’s beauty is at its purest and most intense. A few times during the past week, Brokvist has read excerpts of Inuit songs and stories, many of which place equal emphasis on the bliss and the terrors that come with life here. One poem, by the female shaman Uvavnuk, evokes the feeling of being set adrift in rough seas: “The arch of sky / And mightiness of storms / Encompass me / And I am left / Trembling with joy.”

humpback whale Greenland

A humpback whale near Natural Habitat’s seasonal base camp.  Courtesy of Christopher Bagley

Before we board a plane back to Reykjavík, a storm moves in from the northeast and we walk through the fog to a tiny family museum in the village of Kulusuk. Owner Justine Boassen has arranged the displays of inherited regional artifacts, from sealskin boots to arctic fox skulls. On a low shelf there’s a carved wood sculpture that Boas- sen’s son made for a school project when he was about 10. Called Noah’s Kayak, it’s an arctic answer to Noah’s Ark: a narrow boat carrying a musk ox, a snowy owl, a polar bear, a narwhal and a few other local species. Her son wondered if the animals are unprotected from climate change because they never made it onto the ship described in the Bible.

When I ask Boassen if her family and friends see reason for optimism, she looks out the window and mentions a few positives. Some people like the fact that the fjords are melting earlier in the year and freezing later, lengthening the fishing season. There’s now more accessible land in summertime, when the snows melt. Also, the dolphins come closer to the shore than they used to. She shrugs. “We can hope, but we don’t know what will happen,” Boassen says. “It seems like nobody knows.”

See more photographs from this story below:

Paulus Larsen

Portrait of Paulus Larsen.  Courtesy of Christopher Bagley

Tasiilaq Greenland view

A sweeping view of Tasiilaq, the region’s main settlement.  Courtesy of Christopher Bagley

sled dogs Tiniteqilaaq

Sled dogs in Tiniteqilaaq.  Courtesy of Christopher Bagley

Greenland base camp

The tented cabins at base camp.  Courtesy of Christopher Bagley

Tasiilaq soccer field

Tasiilaq’s soccer field at night.  Courtesy of Christopher Bagley

Tasiilaq cemetery

Tasiilaq’s cemetery as seen from above.  Courtesy of Christopher Bagley

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