Greenlanders stay chill as the world reacts to heatwave

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An aerial view of melt water lakes on the edge of an ice cap in Nunatarssuk, Greenland in June. Some Greenlandic people say they are aware that climate change is happening, but amidst the dramatic headlines, they’re describing subtler changes. (Keith Virgo/The Associated Press)
It’s not the warm days from a summer heat wave over Greenland that stress out Taatsi Pedersen. Rather, it’s how the slow burn of climate change has changed the community he knows.

Near-record rates of melting of Greenland’s ice sheet made headlines this summer, as a pocket of heat from Europe migrated to the Arctic nation. Many Greenlanders say they are aware that climate change is happening, but amidst the dramatic headlines, they’re describing subtler changes to the place they call home.

Pedersen, who lives in Ilulissat, says he and others on the coastal town have been “thriving” in the hot weather.

“It has been pretty nice,” said Pedersen. “But on a global scale it’s not going to end well.”

In Greenland’s colder months, things get more complicated. In spring and fall over the years, thinning sea ice in Pedersen’s region has been making it more difficult for people in town to ice fish and travel on sleds.

Adventure tour guide Vilhemine Nathanielsen, 37, is focused on adapting.

On a global scale, it’s not going to end well.​​​​​

Taatsi Pedersen

Nathanielsen, who has been living in Ilulissat her whole life, says her home has been changing. Greenland winters used to be much more dry, she says, but Ilulissat has become more often beset with a wet cold that gets in her bones — which she believes is due to a changing climate. She says as a child, she was more used to extensive sea ice around her — but now, she stays focused on “new possibilities,” like how open water can allow for more boating.

She knows that’s not so easy for other Greenlandic people, like hunters, who depend on sea ice.

“It’s more difficult for them,” said Nathanielsen, as she prepared to take clients on a kayaking tour. “It became easier for us.”

Her Danish colleague Thomas Bruun has been doing tours in Greenland for years, including in Kangerlussuaq — a community known for its Volkswagen-built road to the ice sheet. Built in 1999, it was once used to test cars in extreme climates. That’s where people would go up a moraine and head down onto the ice, Bruun says.

“Now it’s only used for tourism,” Bruun said. He says the growing distance between the end of the road and the ice cap shows how the ice has retreated.

Northern life can be misunderstood

That retreat was on the front of minds across the world this summer when on one day alone during the heatwave, more than 10 billion tonnes of freshwater ice melted into the oceans.

Marco Tedesco, a scientist at Columbia University who works closely with models that predict melting, says the melt was as bad as scientists had feared.

“Melting occurred at very high elevations … places which are historically called the dry snow zone of Greenland because it never melted.”

This photo of dogs pulling a sledge on water-covered ice near Qaanaaq, Greenland, drew eye’s and made headlines. Danish scientist Thomas Juul Pedersen says it’s an example of how northern life can be misunderstood through headlines. (Steffen Olsen/Danish Meteorological Institute via Reuters)

About a month ago, Greenland also drew the eyes of the world with a photo of sled dogs running in meltwater on top of the sea ice.

For Danish scientist Thomas Juul-Pedersen, who lives in Greenland and works with the climate research centre at the country’s department of natural resources, it’s an example of how northern life can be misunderstood through headlines alone.

“They took this photo and they looked at it and said, oh, the sea ice is melting in Greenland much faster than it usually is and this is catastrophic,” he said. “No, we have this every year. We have always observed this.”

The difference, said Pedersen, was that the ice had melted earlier than usual.

It is so important to remember the long-term trends rather than focus on short events.

Thomas Juul Pedersen

That’s not to say Pedersen is unconcerned about either situation. When it comes to the ice cap, for example, he says it’s possible that as the inland ice cap shrinks further inland with continued melt, it could subtract from the biodiversity of the seas and fjords it melts into each summer.

“It is so important to remember the long-term trends rather than focus on short events lasting days, weeks, months or even a year,” he added in an email.

In some ways, that’s one of the greatest challenges of covering — and responding to — climate change.

“We notice people and locals are having a great summer,” said Konrad Seblon, a project co-ordinator with Ilulissat’s business department, in an email.

“This climate topic and headlines have been going on now for two decades. Should we be more worried now? Is the melting ice now about to put most of the European countries below water?”

Related stories from around the North:

Antarctica: Could snow cannons in Antarctica help avert catastrophic sea level rise?, Eye on the Arctic

Canada: Warming Arctic shrinking Canadian glaciers at alarming rate says study, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Reindeer struggling to stay cool as unusual heat hits northern Finland, Yle News

Iceland: Iceland glacier lost to climate change to get memorial ceremony this month, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Arctic summer 2019: record heat, dramatic ice loss and raging wildfires, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Nearly 3,000 people, 50 aircraft mobilized to fight wildfires in Russia, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Local councils in Sweden more interested in climate change preparedness, Radio Sweden

United States: 2019 Arctic wildfire season ‘unprecedented’ say experts, Eye on the Arctic

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Katie Toth, CBC News

Katie Toth, CBC News

For more news from Canada visit CBC News.

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