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

is disappearing.

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

recover.

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.

– Andrew

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