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Inuits grapple with climate change

Melting icebergs and glaciers disrupt animal life and hunting cycles but open Greenland's waterways for tourists.

September 02, 2007|John McConnico | Associated Press

AMMASSALIK ISLAND, GREENLAND — Dines Mikaelsen steadies a .22 rifle against the bow of his gently bobbing boat, loads the chamber and whispers to his companions to keep quiet.

The Inuit hunter has already missed twice.

After a deep breath, he squeezes the trigger. The loud crack echoes off the icebergs and, a football field away, a silver-coated seal collapses, its blood staining the clear blue ice.

Mikaelsen's four companions -- visitors from faraway lands -- are stunned. This is what they had come to see, but when the shot rang out in the Arctic stillness of southeast Greenland, some hoped it would be another miss.

Hunting is the central element of Inuit culture in Greenland, a semiautonomous Danish territory, but that way of life is facing its greatest challenge yet: climate change.

It's transforming their frozen landscape, melting glaciers and disrupting animal life. The number of hunters in the area has dropped in recent years from nearly 500 to about 200.

Since 1995, Greenland's vast ice cap has lost 7% of its mass and 300 feet in height, according to the European Environmental Agency, a European Union body based in Denmark.

But the change also presents new opportunities. Twenty years ago, when visitors were rare, the fjords and bays were clogged with ice through July. Now, those bays are navigable by April or May. That means more tourists -- eager to explore one of the most remote and unexploited corners of the globe.

Eight cruise ships will come to the area for the first time in August and September.

"You could say that the Inuit on Greenland are the early adapters to climate change," said Jacqueline McGlade, EEA executive director. "The people here are determined to embrace a sustainable form of tourism that fosters their traditions and respects their landscape."

No seal is shot for sport or trophies. The pelts are used for clothing, the meat is eaten and the oil is used for lubricants and cooking. No part is wasted.

Now tourism is part of the deal. The hunters bring visitors year-round into the Arctic wilderness. In the fall and winter, they go dog-sledding or ice-fishing. In the spring and summer, the tourists watch how Mikaelsen and others hunt seal, narwhal -- a type of whale -- and polar bear.

The summer hunts take place amid looming icebergs and snow shelves that set a dreamy, somber mood. Reminiscent of the abstract sculptures of Henry Moore, they are constantly melting away only to be replaced by new ones cleaved from the great Helheim Glacier.

In an abandoned settlement built in the 1800s, Mikaelsen treats his companions to a feast of cooked polar bear and narwhal. Polar bear, whose hunt is closely monitored and limited by authorities, tastes like a cross between tuna and venison. Narwhal is more like rubbery sushi, with a twang.

On the ride home, Mikaelsen strokes the fur of the still warm seal lying on the back of the boat and murmurs words of gratitude to it for having made his long journey worthwhile.

At his father's home in Tasiilaq, Mikaelsen displays skull after skull of polar bears and musk oxen. He gazes out the picture window, where 20 sled dogs yelp and cottongrass sways with the hard wind. Holding up a husky pup, he flashes a toothy grin and laughs.

"These little ones are from my two best dogs, and when they grow up, they will lead my team!"

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