Greenland’s Inuit falling through thin ice of climate change

As the ice melts, the hunters in the village of Ittoqqortoormiit—home to one of the last Inuit hunting communities—worry where they will get water.

On a headland of barren tundra some 500 kilometers (310 miles) from the nearest settlement, Ittoqqortoormiit’s 350 people get their fresh water from a river fed by a glacier that is melting fast.

“In a few years it’s gone,” said Erling Rasmussen of the local utility company Nukissiorfiit.

“The glaciers are smaller and smaller,” he said after the warmest July ever recorded at Summit Camp atop Greenland’s ice sheet.

“We need our own meat. We cannot only buy Danish frozen meat,” said Jorgen Juulut Danielsen, a teacher and the village’s former mayor.

But as rising temperatures weaken the ice, traditional seal hunting by stalking their breathing holes on the ice has become progressively more difficult and dangerous for the local hunters.

Polar cod in question

Framed by the rust-colored mountains of Rode Fjord, the breathtaking blue walls of glaciers that rise from the sea in the Inuit hunting grounds are vital to the ecosystem.

Glaciers that terminate in the sea trigger “upwelling”—pushing the nutrient-rich water from the bottom of the fjord upwards with their cold meltwater.

But as the glaciers melt, they recede inland and the ecosystem loses these nutrients for the plankton that feed the polar cod, which in turn feed the seal and bear that the Inuit of Ittoqqortoormiit rely on.

On the deck of Kamak, Bouchard checked the contents of her nets, as the bright Arctic sunlight illuminated the myriad of sealife on her Petri dish.

“If you suddenly crash the polar cod population, what’s going to happen with the ring seal, what’s going to happen with the polar bear?”

The potential collapse of polar cod could have catastrophic consequences for the local population that relies on both for their food from hunting.

“It’s not just Ittoqqortoormiit that we lose. It’s a unique way of life.”

Red algae melting glaciers

In the warming fjord, a reddish hue is spreading across the ice that has been dubbed “blood snow”.

It is from a snow algae only formally discovered in 2019, Sanguina nivaloides, which develops a red or orange pigment to save it from the sun. But the pigment also lowers the reflectivity of the snow and speeds up melting.

Once aware of it, even an inexperienced observer can see how the crimson veil blankets extensive sections of the snow in the fjord.

Researchers say it is responsible for 12 percent of the total annual surface melt of the Greenland ice sheet, a “colossal” 32 billion tons of ice.

With the algae seemingly spreading, scientists say we face being caught in a vicious circle—rising temperatures speeding glacier melt and promoting the growth of the algae which further accelerates the melting.

‘We need to wake up’

“We are facing a catastrophe,” said Eric Marechal, the director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

To scientifically demonstrate a phenomonen on the scale of the algae, 30 years of data is needed, he said, a luxury the world might not have.

“The risk we have here is the disappearance of the complete ecosystem,” he said.

“Can this process be stopped in time? I don’t think so.”

“We need to wake up and address this question seriously,” Marechal said. “What is happening in Greenland (is key to) the disruption of the global water cycle, and the major melting that is causing the oceans to rise.”