I used to think that I knew the full story about climate change; melting ice, rising sea levels and catastrophic consequences. Whilst this is the heart of the issue, a recent expedition I undertook to Greenland completely changed my perspective and left me pondering over information that I had never heard talked about before. Amongst the rivers of melt water and receding glaciers of Kangerlussuaq in West Greenland, lies an economy fuelled in part by the positive effects of climate change through tourism and farming.
In the summer of 2014, a team of four of us set off to document the impacts of climate change around the Russell Glacier; one of the main outlets of the Greenland Ice Sheet, an expanse of ice that forms 80% of the country’s land area. Whilst initially working in the physical Arctic landscape, we were struck by the scale and speed at which the area was undergoing change.
Our first objective was to study the speed at which calving events took place, this is where ice breaks off from the glacier. Based on previous studies, we expected to see occasional calvings with quiet periods in between. After setting up several time-lapse cameras, we saw that the glaciers were continuously shedding ice and there was always some small or large chunks breaking off. Despite this being summer, where these events should be expected, the ice can no longer advance again far enough in the winter to counteract summer melting and this has led to the Russell Glacier receding thirty metres in the last ten years.
Whilst researching the area before the trip, we learned of several flash flood events resulting from the calvings and ice melt that caused widespread damage in nearby villages. We therefore wanted to study how this impacted locals. We spoke to ten groups of locals, ranging from three to four people in the tourist offices to individuals in shops and asked them the question: how is climate change affecting your life?
The responses we got were very surprising. It seems that the locals were actually having a very positive experience of climate change. Due to the warming climate, farming can now be practised in certain locations in South Greenland and this is expected to be the case in Kangerlussuaq very soon. In such a baron landscape, where there are very few opportunities for industry, farming could give a huge boost to the local economy and create a product to export.
Without a doubt, the biggest benefit the locals are experiencing as a result of climate change is tourism. Melting ice has put Greenland on the map. As the media presents footage of the Arctic regions in relation to the changing climate, many people are inspired to travel there. Each year, huge numbers of tourists and scientists travel to Kangerlussuaq with the aim of seeing the glaciers. After all, this is the same reason we decided to go there. Whilst in the area, visitors go on excursions onto the ice sheet and stay several nights in the hostels and the hotel in town. A company called Air Zafari, that offer aerial plane tours over the ice sheet told us that their visitors always say that they want to see huge calvings of ice breaking off from the glacier and the colossal melt water rivers from above.
These responses shocked us and also posed a challenge. It appeared that the local Greenlanders focused solely on the short-term implications of their actions and did not look to the long-term dangers. As we left Greenland, we found ourselves asking the question: how do you approach people in places like Kangerlussuaq in the Arctic about climate change when, so far, it has brought them so many benefits?
It became clear that to tackle the global issue of climate change, we first need to develop a worldwide, shared understanding and response through learning more about the cultures that exist right next to the ice bodies that regulate climate change. There are many opportunities for further research into how local people interact with the landscape and the values they place on it. Through this we can develop a mutual appreciation of the importance of the environment between Greenland and the wider world.