Over the last 10 days I have been travelling by ship up and down the west coast of Greenland, enjoying the spectacular sights this country has to offer and getting a taste of the long history of human settlement in the region from the excellent museums that have been established in various towns.
Perhaps more than any other place I have visited, the human presence in Greenland appears to have been shaped by climate change; not the anthropogenic changes currently underway, but the natural changes that have occurred over the last 10,000 years.
The original spread of humans form Africa was some 200,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until 15,000 – 20,000 years ago that they crossed the land bridge that existed between what is now Russia and Alaska (lower sea levels) and headed south through the Americas. This was presumably because the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of North America were still largely covered in glacial ice as the world emerged from the most recent glacial era and into the current Holocene period. As the glaciers receded and North America became what we see today, settlers moved north and eventually into Greenland, arriving there some 4,000 years ago.
From what I saw, Greenland sits on the edge of habitability, with limited areas for any form of agriculture and a hardy population who engage in hunting and fishing to maintain their livelihoods. This has been the case for 4,000 years, but with small variations in climate the population has waxed and waned, sometimes vanishing completely (the Dorset people) and at other times expanding as new settlers arrived (the Vikings) to make the most of slightly warmer periods. There are almost certainly other contributing factors to the changes, but climate appears to be an important one. Living on the edge can be perilous as small changes in conditions can mean that settlements must be abandoned rather than attempting to adapt to the change. This is a story playing out today in some parts of the world as anthropogenic climate change takes hold.
Today Greenland appears as a growing economy, with towns and villages expanding to become small cities, such as in the capital Nuuk. Below are some of the images I captured during my trip.
But there are also signs of a warming climate, such as the recognition that glaciers are visibly retreating and previously sold permafrost becoming unstable and leading to landslides. These are signs that can’t always be captured in a single image, but come from observations by locals and regular visitors over a long period of time. However, one glacier we visited showed real signs of retreat. A debris field of rocks (moraine) sat well in front of the glacier face, implying that these rocks had been deposited as the glacier retreated.
On a day at sea we had perfect weather and were fooled by a Fata Morgana mirage, which appeared to show icebergs floating in the air or appearing highly distorted relative to the actual berg (which we couldn’t see as it was over the horizon).
The energy transition is also making progress in Greenland with EVs starting to appear on the roads and recharging facilities available, at least in Nuuk, the capital.
But the transition may also impact Greenland in another way; the country has perhaps the largest available deposits of rare earth minerals outside China. Metals such as Neodymium are essential for wind turbines. How might a warming climate and a world hungry for rare earth metals impact the development of Greenland?
On the flight back to London we were treated to spectacular views of the ice cap and surrounding glaciers feeding from it.