Global warming is happening faster around the Arctic Ocean than anywhere else. To adjust to this new climate, local communities must change the way they live and work – for better and for worse.
Text: Yves Eudes
All around the Arctic Ocean, the impact of climate change is spectacular: Icecaps melt, glaciers disappear, mountains and rivers move. Some human settlements must be abandoned, others relocated. Fish schools migrate thousands of miles. Some regions lose their fishing fleets and their canneries; others can create a new fishing industry. Oil, gas and minerals buried under frozen ground are now reachable at lower costs. Harbours are being built to service the ships that will be sailing the northern route between Asia and Europe.
Indigenous nations, whose territories have been split in two by geo-strategic conflicts they have nothing to do with, now try to reunite. Foreign investors from various countries, including non-arctic powers such as France and China, move in and bring new money, new activities, new immigrants, new lifestyles, new problems. Some local people welcome these unprecedented opportunities. They have dreams of wealth, power, even independence from their distant rulers. Others fear the disappearance of their traditional culture and lifestyle as well as the destruction of the pristine and fragile natural environment. Here you will find stories of the changing lives in 4 small communities in Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Alaska.
ICELAND: MONEY FROM CHINA
Grimmstadir, in the northeast of Iceland, covers an area of 300 square kilometers, has nine residents and sits among the highlands that are blanketed in snow for eight months of the year. The nearest village is 45 kilometers away.
Of the five houses in Grimmstadir, two are occupied year round. The smallest one is home to a family of seven: Anna Jonsdottir, 38, her husband, Elvar Gudjonsson, 39, and their five daughters, aged between one and six years. During the winter, Elvar drives a snowplow, a harsh job in this part of the world. To keep himself busy throughout the summer months he refurbished two old homes in the hamlet and rents them to tourists seeking solitude.
Two hundred meters down the road sits the prettiest house in the village. It is owned by an elderly couple: Bragi Benediktsson, a 76-year-old retired sheep farmer, and his wife, Siggridur. Commercial sheep herding in the highlands was banned by the government several years ago to slow down erosion. Bragi kept 60 sheep for his own use.
NUNAVUT: FROM CARIBOU TO URANIUM
KIGGAVIK, Canada—Kiggavik consists of several dozen barracks and tents located in an isolated section of the tundra. The terrain is rugged, covered in grass and lichen and permanently waterlogged. It’s the middle of June and snow is still visible in places. The nearest village of Baker Lake is about 80 kilometers to the east. To get here in the winter, you ride snowmobiles or drive in trucks on an ice road, but when the snow melts, the only transport is by helicopter. Thirty-five men and women are moving in for the summer. Kiggavik, a Canadian subsidiary of the French conglomerate Areva, is a prospecting camp. It sits on a well-known but unexploited uranium deposit. If all goes according to plan, authorities will give the go-ahead for Areva to begin work in 2015. The company plans to dig an open pit mine and build an ore processing plant close by to produce “yellowcake,” a concentrated form of uranium used to manufacture nuclear fuel. In the meantime, Areva continues its prospecting operations in a 15 kilometer radius, in the hope of finding other deposits.
In a corner of the camp, samples from previous years are stored out in the open, stacked on shelves. When you approach with a sensor that detects radioactivity, the machine starts to crackle, but the camp geologist assures us that it’s not dangerous because the uranium content present in the minerals is very low. That said, everyone here wears a radiation detecting badge around his neck.
BETWEEN RUSSIA AND ALASKA: DANCING OVER THE BERING STRAIT
Kotzebue, Alaska, U.S.A.— The city of Kotzebue, with a population of 3,000, of whom 80 percent are Eskimo, sits on a peninsula 300 kilometers north of the Bering Strait. Access to the city is by boat or plane. It’s the end of June and the weather is cool and unsettled.
In the middle of town, Vika Owens’ little gray house is packed to the rafters: a dozen Russian travelers, men and women of all ages, are staying here for one week. They come from Uelen and Lavrentia, two villages in the district of Chukotka, in Russia, across the Strait from Alaska. These are the parents and friends of Vika, a Russian from Chukotka who moved here 15 years ago when she married an American.
There isn’t much room to move in the house, but the atmosphere is warm and festive. Until late into this Arctic white night, the Kotzebue residents drop by to greet the Russians, bringing food—dried fish, raw whale meat, salted seal meat and, of course, walrus stew, the national dish on both sides of the Bering Strait. The stew’s strong aroma permeates the house.
GREENLAND: FEWER FISH, MORE VEGETABLES
Qaqortoq, with 3,200 residents, is the principal town in Greenland’s southern district. Situated at the end of an immense fjord and clinging to the side of a mountain, this village of fishermen and hunters is surrounded by nature’s majestic beauty. The population is a diverse mix of Inuits, Scandinavians, and people of mixed blood, but everyone here agrees that global warming, which has impacted this region quite dramatically, is the best thing to have ever happened to Greenland. Folks have become used to milder winters and warmer, drier summers, and don’t care to debate the reasons behind climate change. Of course it all depends on how you look at it: In the middle of July there are enormous icebergs in the bay, but last summer the temperature frequently rose to around 25 degrees centigrade. The older residents never cease to be amazed by the weather fluctuations, while the younger generation see climate change as a reality that brings with it the promise of a better life for everyone