Talking with Greenland’s National Museum director
by Guest Blogger
August 11, 2005
Nuuk is home to the Greenland National Museum, which has displays on
Greenlandic art and Greenlandic history. Its most famous artifacts are
the Qilakitsoq mummies from the 15’th century. According to our
guidebook, these were found in 1972 by two brothers out hunting, but
left in place until 1977 when the museum heard about them.
What caught my attention were the replicas of qajaqs (kayaks) and umiaqs
(rowboats, used mostly by women). It is amazing how people survived,
and thrived, in such a harsh environment for thousands of years, using
only the resources available locally.
Since farming is not much of an
option up here, the culture that developed was largely dependant on
hunting for food. While over the centuries this culture has always
adapted to changes, now it is in danger of dying out – and according to
Daniel Thorleifsen, director of the Greenland National Museum, the
rapidly warming climate is partly to blame. If hunters cannot catch
what is needed to keep the economies of their remote communities going,
people will have to move elsewhere.
“There is no doubt that with a changing climate the hunter societies
will have to move to other places,” he told us when we visited the
museum. “Mostly, they will move to the cities as climate refugees.”
The problem for the hunters is two fold: They need good strong sea ice
to get out to where the animals are; and some of the animals they hunt
rely on the ice as part of their habitat. So the fate of the hunting
culture in Greenland has always been tied to the ice, and now that ice
It is normal for Arctic sea ice to melt in the summer, but what both
scientists and Greenlandic hunters are telling us is that the sea ice
now melts earlier in the summer and freezes later in the winter. 2002
was a record low year for sea ice, with 2003 and 2004 close behind. And
it looks like 2005 may set yet another new record low for sea ice.
According to NASA, not only is the summer sea ice diminishing, but it
has begun to decline in the winter as well.
Ice reflects light and heat better than open water, so there is a
feedback effect – the more ice that melts, the higher the chance of more
ice melting. Some scientists worry that a threshold will be crossed
(and perhaps has already passed) beyond which the Arctic sea ice cannot
This sort of news is alarming for Thorleifsen. He warned that if the
climate continues to heat up, “The Greenlandic sophisticated hunting
culture will become something that exists only in museums.”
Nothing, however, is certain. The industrialized countries most
responsible for human caused global warming can still choose a new
energy future – based on efficiency and renewable energy. Some have
already begun investing in large-scale wind farms, and other projects.
Almost all have signed the Kyoto Protocol. But a lot more work is
needed to pull off this energy revolution – especially in the US where
the Bush administration has opposed they Kyoto Protocol at every turn,
and clings to an outdated fossil fuel and nuclear based energy
strategy. If you’re from the US, be sure to sign up for the Thin Ice
Contest to help.