Letter from Greenland — From the April 2015 issue

Rotten Ice

Traveling by dogsled in the melting Arctic

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It was in Qaanaaq in 1997 that I first experienced climate change from the feet up. I was traveling with Jens Danielsen, headed for Kiatak Island. It was spring, and six inches of snow covered the sea ice. Our fifteen dogs trotted slowly; the only sound was their percussive panting. We had already encountered a series of pressure ridges — steep slabs of ice piled up between two floes — that took us five hours to cross. When we reached a smooth plain of ice again, we thought the worst was over, but the sound of something breaking shocked us: dogs began disappearing into the water. Jens hooked his feet over the front edge of the sled, lay on the trace lines, and pulled the dogs out. Afterward, he stepped down onto a piece of rotten ice, lifted the front of the sled and laid it on a spot that was more stable, then jumped aboard and yelled at the dogs to run fast. When I asked if we were going to die, he smiled and said, “Imaqa.” Maybe.

Ice-adapted people have amazing agility, which allows them to jump from one piece of drift ice to another and to handle half-wild dogs. They understand that life is transience, chance, and change. Because ice is so dynamic, melting in summer and re-forming in September, Greenlanders in the far north understand that nothing is solid, that boundaries are actually passages, that the world is a permeable place. On the ice they act quickly and precisely, flexing mind as well as muscle, always “modest in front of the weather,” as Jens explained. Their material culture represents more than ten thousand years of use: dogsleds, kayaks, skin boats, polar-bear and sealskin pants, bone scrapers, harpoons, bearded seal–skin whips — all designed for beauty, efficiency, and survival in a harsh world where most people would be dead in a day.

Cottages in Siorapaluk © Andrea Gjestvang/Panos Pictures

Cottages in Siorapaluk © Andrea Gjestvang/Panos Pictures

From 1997 to 2012 I traveled by dogsled, usually with Jens and his three brothers-in-law: Mamarut Kristiansen, Mikile Kristiansen, and Gedeon Kristiansen. The dogtrot often lulled me to sleep, but rough ice shook me to attention. “You must look carefully,” Jens said. From him I began to understand about being silanigtalersarput: a person who is wise about things and knows the ice, who comes to teach us how to see. The first word I learned in Greenlandic was sila, which means, simultaneously, weather, animal and human consciousness, and the power of nature. The Greenlanders I traveled with do not make the usual distinctions between a human mind and an animal mind. Polar bears are thought to understand human language. In the spring mirages appear, lifting islands into the air and causing the ice to look like open water. Silver threads at the horizon mark the end of the known world and the beginning of the one inhabited by the imagination. Before television, the Internet, and cell phones arrived in Greenland, the coming of the dark time represented a shift: anxiety about the loss of light gave way to a deep, rich period of storytelling.

In Qaanaaq the sun goes down on October 24 and doesn’t rise again until February 17. Once the hood of completely dark days arrives, with only the moon and snow to light the paths between houses, the old legends are told: “The Orphan Who Became a Giant,” “The Orphan Who Drifted Out to Sea.” Now Jens complains that the advent of television in Qaanaaq has reduced storytelling time, though only three channels are available. But out on the ice the old ways thrive. During the spring of 1998, when I traveled with Jens and his wife, Ilaitsuk, along with their five-year-old grandchild, installments of the legends were told to the child each night for two weeks.

That child, now a young man, did not become a subsistence hunter, despite his early training. He had seen too many springs when there was little ice. But no one suspected the ice would disappear completely.

The cycle of thinning and melting is now impossible to stop. The enormous ice sheet that covers 80 percent of the island is increasingly threaded with meltwater rivers in summer, though when I first arrived in Greenland, in 1993, it shone like a jewel. According to Konrad “Koni” Steffen, a climate scientist who has established many camps on top of the Greenland ice sheet, “In 2012, we lost 450 gigatons of ice — that’s five times the amount of ice in the Alps. All the ice on top has pulled apart. It used to be smooth; now it looks like a huge hammer has hit it. The whole surface is fractured.”

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’s latest book, Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami, won the PEN USA Award in creative non-fiction. She is the recipient of a 2015 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Fellowship for work on a multimedia theater production about climate change.

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