As the Arctic loses ice at dramatic rates, people in Qaanaaq, the northernmost town in Greenland, are finding their homes, livelihoods, customs and very survival at risk.
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Many of the town’s 650 inhabitants live on permafrost – ground that remains at sub-zero degrees Celsius for two or more consecutive years. Historically, permafrost has provided a solid foundation for buildings and infrastructure in the Arctic. But as the temperature has warmed, the ground has become less capable of supporting Qaanaaq’s homes, which can become dangerous to inhabit.
Other Arctic towns are built in permafrost areas, too. But they’re built on rock. Established in the 1950s before climate change was a consideration, Qaanaaq, meanwhile, is the only town in Greenland built on finer material: clay, silt and sand. "Unlike rock, these sediments contain water, which poses a major challenge," says the University of Copenhagen's Sebastian Zastruzny, who has been studying permafrost in the region for several years. "When the ground freezes and then thaws, it moves up and down – causing houses and infrastructure to sink, slide and collapse."
Changes in the permafrost have damaged the home of local resident Orla Kleist. His living room and bathroom have developed cracks in the wall. In the bathroom, the floor has become so uneven from the house sinking that the tiles are breaking; in his kitchen, shown here, the walls have cracked so much that air flows in. Many residents have resorted to taping the cracks in their homes to try to keep out the cold and damp.
In September 2018, there was 26.6% less ice coverage in the Arctic, referring to the area of ice measured by square kilometres, than the 1981-2010 average. This is a trend: 2017 was 24.8% below average, 2016 was 29.4% below average and 2015 28% below average.
“Each year, the conditions on the sea ice are different,” says Jorgen Umaq, a local hunter. Because warming temperatures mean the sea ice is no longer as thick as it used to be, he says, hunters have had to change their long-held hunting routes and can’t travel as far as they could before. The hunting season in Qaanaaq also has got shorter each year.
As well as for hunting, Qaanaaq’s residents must brave the sea ice to get potable water. During the summer months, they get their water from a nearby river. But during winter it is simply too cold for the river to flow. Instead, they collect icebergs, bringing them to a special facility where the ice is melted and distributed to all of Qaanaaq’s houses by a water tanker.
This means that even the simple task of collecting fresh water has become more dangerous.
“The situation here isn’t new and surely can’t get any worse,” say Inukitsorsuaq and Genovira Sadorana, a local couple who rely on hunting for their livelihoods.
But the science shows that, unfortunately, this may be optimistic. And as the climate changes, it isn’t just their homes and landscape that are at risk – it is their customs, cultural identity and very survival.
This story was reported with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Photographs by Anna Filipova. Words by Anna Filipova and Amanda Ruggeri.