Greenland's grief and golden opportunities as climate change takes hold

Jamie Roberton

Former Health and Science Producer

Greenland is not accustomed to being the most topical place on the planet.

Yes, Donald Trump’s newly-stated colonial intentions has contributed to the global attention but there is growing evidence that the world is finally stopping to take notice of the island‘s position on the frontline of climate change.

Images of sled dogs wading through puddles of sea ice and headlines about extreme melting events have ensured Greenland is seared into the minds of those with an increasingly green conscience.

So how does a country of just 56,000 people cope with the feeling that their world is quite literally melting?

A mix of grief and optimism is the answer. To spend almost two weeks here at the end of one of its warmest ever summers is to witness the titanic struggle of a country wanting to retain its traditional ways of life and one embracing fresh opportunities - with the changing climate offering no choice in the argument.

“It is scary - I’m afraid for the future,” says Gitti Titussen, an IT worker and environmental activist fearful of the consequences of rising sea levels and warming oceans.

“We have to tell the world: change is here, it is not some thing in the future or 100 years. It is here. It is happening. We have to do something.”

Lars Matthaeussen and Johannes Heilmann have been hunting and fishing for almost their entire lives but both are increasingly anxious about the impact of an unpredictable climate on their way of life.

"We don't know what winter will come now - we are ready for change again," says Heilmann.

Johannes Heilmann waits for his catch. Credit: ITV News

Hunting - while now more of a hobby than a necessity - still holds huge cultural importance in this region but the unpredictable conditions and thinning sea ice are closing routes and leaving sled dogs, a once essential mode of transportation, almost redundant.

Unwilling to continue feeding the dogs without a return on their time and money, hunters have stopped breeding or even started to put them down. One estimate suggests the number of Greenlandic sled dogs has almost halved in nearly two decades - the once boisterous howls of the animal are falling silent.

Hunters have stopped breeding or even started to put dogs down. Credit: ITV News

“The whole culture of sled dogs is almost disappearing,” says Flemming Lauritzen, a police chief who has set up a rescue centre for the animals. “Twenty years ago, we had a lot of sled dog drivers on the trails but nowadays it is not so much.

“It [climate change] has effects on how we use the dogs because the sea ice is coming later and later and becoming thinner and thinner so you have to be very careful when driving out on the sea ice.”

Young Greenlandic sled dogs. Credit: ITV News

The retreating sea ice and therefore greater accessibility has, however, generated opportunity for people living in one of the most isolated and harsh environments on the planet.

Fishing and tourism are thriving in the western town of Illulissat, with the harbour flooded with vessels and the limited number of local hotels inundated with bookings from wealthy tourists hoping to experience the extraordinary beauty of the region before it undergoes any more drastic change.

Fishing and tourism are thriving in the western town of Illulissat. Credit: ITV News

Plans for a new airport and increased direct flights to the country could further fuel the tourism surge - and contribute more CO2 and damage to the glaciers the new visitors came to see.

But amid all the excitement of an economic boom, it is worth remembering that - just like its disappearing ice - Greenland does not have the most solid social foundations to start with.

There are fears about what psychological impact this transition - environmentally and economically - could have on communities still blighted by disproportionately high rates of alcoholism, sexual abuse and suicide, particularly in the more remote eastern areas of the country.

The sun beams down on Greenland's ice sheet. Credit: ITV News

Panninguaq was once a living embodiment of these problems, battling addiction and mental health problems following a difficult childhood. Her story is not unusual here but the young mother has now made it her mission to ensure the next generation break the cycle and view a future in Greenland with optimism.

She is, however, wary of those - including President Trump - with a desire to exploit Greenland’s strategic location and changing climate at the possible cost of its unique culture.

"We have lived with nature for so many years and we respect nature. I want my children to grow up where there are no mines and everything getting destroyed. I want it to be as it is. If we just start to say yes to stuff, I'm afraid how it is going to look in 10, 20 years.

“We are only 56,000 people - we have to be careful who we open up to. "

The stunning views of towering icebergs floating past the shore cannot mask the conflicts and challenges that lie ahead for this country.

Boats out at sea near Greenland. Credit: ITV News

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