‘Now that the sea ice is melting, part of my culture is also disappearing’

‘I like to go out in nature with my father. Then he teaches me the traditions of the Inuit, which he in turn learned from his father.’

The Greenland ice sheet is melting at a rapid rate every year. The Inuit, the indigenous people of Greenland, are directly affected by the consequences of climate change. Rising temperatures affect nature and the fragile ecosystem and thus their livelihoods. “Please stop climate change so I can continue to live according to our traditions.”

zlooking at a wooden bench Malik Olsvig (10) beyond Disko Bay, where dozens of small, displaced sea ice flakes lie so tightly packed off the coast that it looks like a mosaic floor. On the waves beyond, countless icebergs float as far as you can see.

The silence is deafening, until a piece of an iceberg suddenly breaks off with a lot of creaking. Frightened, the geese bobbing on the water fly up like a dark cloud in the clear blue sky to disappear towards the snowy peaks on the other side of the bay.

“The only polar bear I ever saw was at the zoo while he was on holiday in Denmark,” Malik begins. ‘According to my father, polar bears have not been seen here for over 25 years. Why?’

He points to Disko Bay. “There is almost no sea ice left. So seals, the prey of polar bears, don’t come here anymore. At school I learn that it is all due to climate change.’

Malik lives in Oqaatsut, a village of less than 50 inhabitants in northwestern Greenland, about 300 kilometers above the Arctic Circle. Nowhere is global warming more visible and tangible than in the Arctic. Here, the effects of climate change are up to three to four times greater than in the rest of the world.

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Research from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) shows that temperatures are rising at an unprecedented rate. That it snows less and rains more often. That the volume and thickness of the sea ice due to the warming of the sea water continues to decrease every year.

In addition, the sea ice period is getting shorter and shorter. In spring, the ice melts earlier, while in autumn it freezes later.

In addition, more ice means less heating and vice versa. The white ice reflects sunlight, and the dark seawater absorbs sunlight, and therefore heat. This causes more ice to melt and the water to absorb even more heat. The melting of the sea ice thus amplifies the warming in the Arctic. That’s bad news for the polar bear, which depends on thick, continuous sea ice to move, hunt and reproduce.

Greenland’s ice sheet is the second largest ice mass on Earth – the largest is in Antarctica – and covers around 84% of the country. A 3D analysis by NASA shows that the ice cap is more than 100,000 years old, is about 3 kilometers thick at the center and contains a total of about 3 million cubic kilometers of ice (about 2.7 million gigatons), enough to raise sea levels by more than 7 meters.

Due to climate change the ‘melt seasons’ are becoming more and more intense, in 2012 97% of the ice sheet had to do with surface melting at some point in the year. Between 2002 and 2016, a mass loss of about 269 gigatons per year was measured. That is 269 billion tons per year.


But not only the polar bear’s habitat is affected. Changing weather patterns and warming of sea and land disrupt the fragile ecosystem and threaten the traditional way of life of Greenland’s original inhabitants, the Inuit.

The sea and the sea ice are the core of the Inuit’s existence. They depend on what nature brings them for their food supply and livelihood.

Malik: ‘With our sled dogs, we travel across the ice to our fishing grounds, where we fish for cod, halibut, lobster, shrimp and crab. Or we go to places where seals and walruses are to hunt for them. But we also use the ice to travel to other villages. There is no road or anything like that here’.

“When I go fishing with my father, he teaches me the Inuit traditions that he learned from his father.”

With a long stick in one hand and fishing tackle in the other, he walks through Oqaatsut, which consists of little more than a handful of yellow, blue, green and red houses, a supermarket, a community center, a fish factory and a church that doubles as school.

Malik goes ice fishing with his father Nuunorujuk Eliassen in Rodebay, a cove on the other side of the village. ‘I like to go out in nature with my father. Then he teaches me the traditions of the Inuit, which he in turn learned from his father.’

It is the beginning of April and the sun has been shining continuously for a few days. The temperature is around freezing, far too hot for the time of year. Every now and then Malik sweeps the snow away and taps the ice a few times with the stick.

“I learned that from my father,” he says proudly. ‘If it cracks, it is too thin and not reliable. Am I afraid of falling through the ice? No, I haven’t known better all my life, but I’m careful. The sea ice is part of my culture, and now that it’s melting, part of my culture is also disappearing.’

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Then he stops and begins to cut a hole in the ice with the metal tip of the stick. Not much later he lowers the fishing line with the hook into the hole. With short tugs, he pulls on the fishing line until he feels that he has bitten.

‘We only take what we need from nature.’

‘We eat the fish we catch ourselves. If it’s too much, we give it away or we feed it to the dogs. We never throw food away, but always share. We only take from nature what we need.’

Nuunorujuk looks on approvingly as Malik takes a freshly caught fish off the hook. ‘When I was Malik’s age, the sea ice was about six feet thick and you could dog sled to Queqertarsuaq, the island opposite Disko Bay. Now the bay is an open sea and there is almost no sea ice. And what is there is too thin. In many places it measures no more than 50, sometimes even 10 centimeters.’

Like most of the Inuit, Nuunorujuk was a fisherman, but at one point he could not get to his fishing grounds with his dogsled. He switched to fishing with a boat, but even that was not without danger.

“On the sea, more and more smaller icebergs and detached sea ice flakes float and move in the current and wind. Therefore, it can just happen that you get your boat stuck between the icebergs and ice floes when the wind suddenly changes.’

“At worst, you will be stuck for days. We fish with small boats, there is no cabin to hide in. And there is always a chance that your boat will be cracked by the ice and sinking. You have no range at sea, you can’t warn anyone.’

© Nicole Franken

“Less ice also means that the sea is more turbulent, there are more and higher waves. Together with the cold wind and low temperatures, this presents a danger. In addition, the drifting ice flakes damage your nets. Then both the catch and the material are lost, and that means costs instead of income.’

‘When I had a family, I stopped fishing. I now work at the fish factory.’

Due to the rising sea water temperature and the open water, the fish are constantly changing direction. Fish used to be in fairly fixed places, now they move away in search of colder water. Although the fishermen try to adapt to this, it makes their work more difficult.

“When I had a family, I stopped fishing,” Nuunorujuk continues. ‘I thought the dangers were too great and I had myself retrained as an electrician and plumber. I now work at the fish factory.’

less worth

Not only sea ice, but also land ice is rapidly declining, according to research from Ohio State University and the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado.

According to new climate models, the Greenland ice sheet is melting 60% faster than previously predicted. The snowfall is no longer sufficient to replenish the volume loss of the ice cap.

© Nicole Franken

That global warming is going strong is also evident from the breakdown of a piece of ice of almost 110 square kilometers – larger than the city of Hasselt – in September 2020 from the largest remaining ice shelf in north-east Greenland. The consequences are severe, leading to global sea level rise, extreme weather conditions and land degradation.

But hardly anyone seems to care about the effects on the 50,000 Inuit in Greenland. Nuunorujuk: ‘We live from the sea. We pass on our language, our traditions, our stories on the ice. The sea and the ice make us who we are, without it we would be a different people.’

It is not in the Inuit’s nature to look far ahead, they follow the rhythm of nature and adapt to it as best they can. But their ancient knowledge of the ice and nature is becoming less and less valuable due to changing weather patterns.

Because fish look for colder places, they no longer know exactly where the fish are. “It’s a continuous process of searching and adapting, and that makes fishing more difficult. Before, there were fish everywhere, and we could catch more in less time’.

Always summer?

After a few days the weather suddenly changed, a strong wind from the sea blows the snow horizontally past the school windows. It is -20 degrees outside, comfortably warm inside. When the class is over, the six children aged between 9 and 14 run from school to the church hall, where they play table football. Malik says: ‘I’m proud to be Inuit, but climate change affects my future.’

He stops playing and looks out. ‘I don’t know better than that there is always ice, but nature will change more and more. Greenland will look very different, less snow, less sea ice, as if it were always summer. It seems very strange to me.’

© Nicole Franken

In recent decades, the Inuit have tried to adapt as best they can, have shown their resilience and learned to cope with the situation. But how long do they last?

Malik: ‘I don’t think it’s fair that we have all these problems when it’s caused by others. Only 56,000 people live in Greenland, of which 50,000 are Inuit.’

‘The Chinese, Europeans and Americans are the biggest polluters, they cause climate change. Not us. They emit a lot of CO2 out with their big industries, they drive polluting cars, they have air conditioners that use a lot of electricity. As a result, it will be much warmer all over the world, but especially here, and soon I will no longer be able to ice fish, no longer sled with the dogs, no longer hunt for my food.’

‘What will I say to these people? Please stop polluting, stop climate change so I can continue living according to Inuit traditions.’

This article was made possible with support from the Pascal Decroos Fund for Special Journalism, the Postcode Lottery Fund of Free Press Unlimited and the Special Journalistic Projects Fund.

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