National Geographic : 2015 Nov
106 national geographic • november 2015 of them, live their lives facing seaward, with a vast, uninhabitable interior at their backs. No roads cross the glaciers and plunging fjords that separate the scattered coastal towns. These days planes, helicopters, and fast motorboats help connect them—but traditionally, at least in more northerly places like Uummannaq, it was sea ice that brought an end to isolation and autumnal little-town blues. In winter dogsleds, snowmobiles, even taxis and fuel trucks can ma- neuver across what had been open water. For as long as the Inuit have been in Greenland, winter has been the time for visits, journeys, and hunts. Of the 2,200 people who live along Uumman- naq Fjord, more than half are on its namesake island, on the slopes of a 3,840-foot-high peak called Heart-Shaped (Uummannaq in Green- landic) Mountain. The town has steep, narrow roads with cars on them; it has stores, a hospi- tal, and bars. It’s the region’s commercial and social hub, the place where people in the seven outlying settlements, including Niaqornat, send their children to high school and come to shop. In Uummannaq you can work as an auto me- chanic, social worker, or teacher. In the settlements people make a living by hunting and fishing. Whale and seal meat are an important part of the diet, but their export is largely banned. The real moneymaker is halibut. Many settlements have a fish factory operat- ed by Royal Greenland, a government-owned company that processes and packages the hal- ibut for export. Halibut fishing is a year-round occupation. When there’s no ice, fishermen set out long lines in the fjord with hundreds of baited hooks. In the winter they cut knee-deep holes in the sea ice, sink their lines, which are hundreds of feet long, and reel in their catch with a winch. On a good day a fisherman might load his boat or dogsled with a quarter ton or more of the flat, dull-brown fish and sell them to Royal Greenland for several hundred dollars. Although fishing provides a good income for many families, the smallest settlements wouldn’t survive without generous government subsidies. Even the most remote communities have heliports, cell towers, grocery stores, clin- ics, and elementary schools—all subsidized by an annual block grant from Denmark, which stands at $580 million and accounts for a quar- ter of Greenland’s gross domestic product. Greenlanders who dream of full independence from their former colonial master—right now Greenland is in charge only of its domestic policy—pin their hopes on mineral wealth and offshore oil. But the oil fields haven’t been de- veloped yet, and according to one recent study, mining would require so many immigrant work- ers that Greenlanders might become a minority in their own land. Climate change is making the economies of the settlements even more precarious. It has lengthened the periods in winter and spring when ice is too thick for boats to leave harbors yet not thick enough to support sleds or snow- mobiles. The unsafe ice affects fishing, but it hurts the region’s hunters more. “In the 1980s we had cold winters,” says Uunartoq Løvstrøm, a lean 72-year-old hunter and one of 200 residents of Saattut, a small is- land near the head of Uummannaq Fjord. “And ice was this thick,” he says, rising from a sofa and placing his hand even with his hip. We’re in the living room of his blue wood-frame home, a short, slippery walk from Saattut’s harbor. On the low table between us are some polar bear claws, souvenirs from a long-ago hunt. A large flat-screen television is temporarily muted. Sled dogs nap outside in the early gloaming. At the height of winter in recent years, says Løvstrøm, ice in the fjord might be only a foot Now a culture that has evolved here over many centuries, adapting to the seasonal advance and retreat of sea ice, is facing the prospect that the ice will retreat for good.