The End of the World Exploring Greenland, the blankest spot on the map--and not a moment too soon
by Edward Readicker-Henderson
(page 2 of 3)
AN ICE BRIDGE BROUGHT THE FIRST PEOPLE to Greenland as far back as 2500 B.C., crossing by foot from Canada. There were a couple of false starts before the Thule culture, which appeared around A.D. 1100, got Arctic life right: whale and walrus hunting, snow houses, dogsleds. It lasted until Western contact in the 1500s. That contact--whalers and glory-drunk explorers, mostly--explains why traditional Greenlandic dances now tend to look like variations on the hornpipe and the jig.
At our first stop, in Sisimiut, I corner a schoolteacher. The town of 5,000 has number 8 and 9 buses--and apparently no others--and serious traffic problems around the open-air market, which features seal ribs on a steel table.
"In Alaska, we use the word Eskimo or Inupiat or Yup'ik; in Canada, Inuit. What's the term here?" I ask.
He looks at me like I'm slightly stupid. "Greenlander," he says.
When the Vikings showed up, they called the natives skraelings, from the Old Norse word for skin. (They made the same mistake generations of wool-clad European explorers would: sneering at the locals' sensible--and warm--fur and skin clothing.) Erik the Red, banished from Iceland in 982, named the place Greenland in a desperate, misleading attempt to get people to come with him, and the Norse gave it a shot for a couple of hundred years.
Digging into the shallow topsoil, they grew a few grains and raised thin sheep. By the mid-1100s, the eastern settlement held upwards of 250 farms, even a cathedral. But in the end, the Vikings just never got the hang of the land. They never took up hunting or fishing (what kept the Greenlanders going, then and now) but stuck to farming, an economic model that didn't work because it had very little to do with the environment. Adaptation was not a Viking virtue.
The western settlement was gone by 1300; the eastern settlement was empty a hundred years after that. The last written record was of a marriage. In the end, historians say, ice inexorably pushed the Vikings off the edge of the island. The end of Norse settlement coincides neatly with a peak in the Little Ice Age. Temperatures dropped, and the ice cap spread closer to the sea.
No longer able to farm, their sheep no longer able to fend off the cold, odds are that the Vikings simply packed up and sailed away. Falling out of history, they might have headed for the place they called Vinland, the shores of North America, where, the stories said, the sun was soft, the forests were thick, and grapes grew wild.
IT TAKES ABOUT 30 SECONDS to fall in love with Uummannaq, just northeast of Disko Island, the great mass of Greenland visible across a narrow fjord. A mountain locals say is shaped like a seal's heart shades women pushing babies in prams and teenagers going to church in traditional sealskin pants and kamiks--boots trimmed with dog skin, high enough to tuck the hands in to keep warm. The houses are bloodred and yellow, pale green and dark blue. When the church bell tolls, every dog in town lets out a wolf howl.
I climb to the top street, sit on the steps of the school. In the water beyond, icebergs trolling the harbor crack and groan. Over on the mainland, bare mountains climb toward the unseen ice cap. The mountains are staying that way later and later into the winter as the snow level throughout Greenland rises. "The snowline should be at 600 meters here," Dornsiepen had told me, "but it's now at 1,000."
The mountain barrier separating the coast from the ice cap in this part of Greenland ranges from 1,800 meters to as little as 400 meters. Already, the lower edges of the vast plain of the ice cap have doubled their melt in just the past few years. What happens when the snowline climbs over the last mountain and the glacier no longer has new infusions of snow, even at high altitude? The glacier dies.
From behind his desk in the Uummannaq museum, curator Karl Peter presides over narwhal tusk walking sticks and polar bear pants. But in the past few years, he says, it's hardly been worth the effort to go hunting. The ice is gone, and the animals are migrating north, looking for a climate they understand.
Peter, who has lived all over Greenland, shakes his head. "It's bad," he says.
DENMARK ENDED UP WITH GREENLAND in a shuffle of Napoleonic War paperwork. In 1953, it was upgraded from a Danish colony to an increasingly autonomous province. Even so, about two-thirds of its economy today remains dole from Denmark.
People say that 10 or 20 years ago, Denmark was thoroughly resented. (A show of Greenlandic art in Copenhagen still features a straightjacket sewn from a Danish flag.) But now schools are taught in Greenlandic, Danes are only about 10 percent of the population, and Greenlanders who went away for higher education are coming back and taking over elite jobs.
"Within 15 years, we will be totally independent," says Jens Laursen, a government official in Kangerlussuaq. Home rule began in 1979; now only Justice, Defense, and Foreign Affairs are under Danish control--and Justice is scheduled to be handed over soon.
But the leases Greenland is selling for oil exploration around Disko Bay could change all that. Oil companies claim there could be as much as 10 billion barrels off Greenland's coast (roughly as much as is estimated to be in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge); others estimate a fifth as much. Even so, when I ask Laursen if he thinks the Danes will assert more sovereignty if oil production starts, he just chokes out a laugh and says, "They'll try. Of course."
I imagine huge chunks of melting glacier, icebergs the size of shopping malls, knocking over shiny new oil rigs in a perfect demonstration of greenhouse cause and effect.