What lessons does this remote island—the world’s largest—have to teach us about climate change?

On a sunny morning in South Greenland the logo on Ib Laursen’s shirt unexpectedly said it all. A simple line drawing depicted an iconic mountain rising behind the village of Narsaq, a permanent snowfield outlined in thread. Amid a field of wildflowers I chatted with Laursen, Narsaq’s one-man tourism department, about the myriad ways global warming was impacting his community. Then I realized the same mountain rose behind him.

It was July and on the real mountain the permanent snowfield had melted.

Usually broadcast in statistics and hunches, the subject of climate change is not generally not so tangible. And although I also have a thing for vistas of steep granite and calving glaciers, I had mainly come to Greenland to see if it might bea station from which to survey the impact of global warming on the planet’s health.

Indeed, Greenland is ground zero for climate change, its physical evolution perceptible to even the casual visitor. The stark, unforgettable beauty of this island—the world’s largest—forces a visitor to confront the planet’s future at every turn, and in unexpected ways.
For those of us who’ve examined Greenland’s immense blanket of ice from an airplane window seat at 36,000 feet, en route home from Europe, it’s hard to deny the buzzy thrill of stepping off a plane and making contact with one of the planet’s most remote places. But before we landed I didn’t quite know what to expect—how did people thrive in what I could only assume was an impossibly bleak environment?

There are virtually no roads connecting one town with another—the longest stretch of asphalt is seven miles. Settlements along the southwest coast are connected by twice-weekly boats that operate during the summer, when harbors are free of ice. Otherwise one flies from town to town, often via Air Greenland’s scheduled helicopter service. But quality of life can be measured in other ways.

“Greenland is a very rich country,” said Aasi Chemnitz Narup, mayor of Greenland’s capital, Nuuk (aka Godthåb). “We have a lot of wildlife, clean water and clean air—the fundamental requisites for life. And we have mineral resources: gold, rubies, diamonds, zinc.” Not to mention oil reserves in Baffin Bay. Combined, they may help Greenland secure independence from Denmark some day, the country of which it has been a self-governing province for almost three centuries.

But global warming is complicating the picture. Warmer waters mean shrimp that once filled the fjords of South Greenland have migrated north, forcing fishing communities to seek their catch in deeper waters. True, longer summers have allowed agriculture and livestock to be introduced in the south—both heavily subsidized. But in the north, seas that could once be counted on freezing over each winter are no longer reliable, meaning subsistence hunting—polar bear, walrus, seal—is undependable.

The budding tourism industry is having success with cruise ships, boasting 35 visits in the summer of 2008, double the previous year’s calls. A Greenland passport stamp is gaining cachet among the been-there-done-that crowd: Last year Bill Gates came for the heli-skiing, and Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page went kite-surfing.

The wooden houses of Qaqortoq ((Julianehåb). Photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen.

Two days in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland and the town where my plane landed, was enough to explore the area, including traveling by boat up the adjacent, glacier-fed fjords. Ostensibly the cruise was a whale-watching safari but when the giants were a no-show we contented ourselves with the tender beauty of a tiny, summer-only settlement called Qoornoq, positively alluring on a sunny afternoon spent picking wildflowers against a backdrop of lolling icebergs. We closed out the day by savoring an elegant meal at Nipisa, a restaurant in—smoked trout, mushroom risotto, filet of musk ox, and berries with curdled milk, walking back to the hotel past midnight without need of a flashlight or major bundling. One of the world’s smallest capitals—population 16,000—Nuuk is short on architectural charisma but it has an array of creature comforts, including an immense indoor swimming facility with a glass front overlooking the harbor.

But it was South Greenland, a 75-minute flight from Nuuk, where I fell in love with the arctic. Narsarsuaq, an international airport and settlement of barely 100 people, is the main jump-off point for villages along the south coast, a region that lies on the same latitude as Helsinki and Anchorage. Thousand-year-old Norse ruins dot the coast, most notably at Brattahlío, where Eric the Red first settled and from where his son Leif Eriksson set off to explore North America, five centuries ahead of Columbus. Brattahlío was re-founded in the 1920s by farmer Otto Fredriksen as Qassiarsuk, and sheep-farming was successfully reestablished.

Today’s visitors can explore a reconstructed church and turf-topped longhouse, both built in 10th-century style. Telling the story of the settlement in Nordic garb, Edda Lyberth served a traditional Inuit lunch of dried seal, cod and whale, boiled reindeer, honeycomb and fresh black currants.

I found seal, in particular, hard to stomach, yet it remains a staple food of many.

Down the fjord lies Qaqortoq, its wooden houses dappling steep hills that create a pointillist rainbow curling around the dainty harbor.

This is South Greenland’s largest town, population 3,500, and its main ice-free harbor in winter. Twice-weekly container ships make Qaqortoq the region’s shipping hub. Primary export: frozen prawns. A number of Qaqortoq’s charming structures date from the 1930s, the period when Charles Lindbergh came through while searching for a trans-Atlantic re-fueling stop for Pan Am. Ironically, the hilly town still lacks an airport—it’s reached by an exciting, low-flying 20-minute helicopter flight from Narsarsuaq (cue Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” please), or four-hour ferry journey in summer.

South Greenland lodging options are limited to one or two per town, and fairly basic, yet sufficient for worldly travelers. Restaurants serve Danish-accented continental cuisine; surprisingly delicious reindeer and musk ox are often on the menu, and sometimes whale meat (considerably leaner than I expect, but also richer). To meet the new demands of tourism the government is stepping up to the plate with a vocational hospitality school in Narsaq, where attendees can study as future chefs, bakers, butchers, waiters and hotel front desk receptionists.

The weather was perfect during my visit—clean blue skies, warm enough for hiking in shorts—allowing maximum flexibility with my sightseeing. It’s easy to join a day trip by boat from Qaqortoq to Upernaviarsuk, a two-and-a-half acre agricultural research station where the summer crop included leafy, root and cruciferous vegetables. Continuing up Einars Fjord we reached Igaliku, a village where the remnants of a Norse settlement are surrounded by cheerful cottages. We swung by the ruins of Hvalsey, a site Greenlanders are lobbying for UNESCO status. The stone walls of its church dating to the 1100s are relatively intact.

Before leaving Greenland I met charismatic French ex-pat Jacky Simoud. A resident since 1976, he’s the jacky-of-all-trades in Narsarsuaq, running the town’s café, a hostel and outfitting company, all under the name Blue Ice. He also does boat trips to the nearby Qooroq Fjord, where a glacier extrudes 200,000 tons of ice per day.

“It’s one of the smaller ones,” said Simoud, steering his rugged boat through a minefield of icebergs toward the foot of the glacier. “The biggest produce 20 million tons [of ice] a day.” When he had motored as close as the bobbing ice would safely allow, Simoud shut down the engine and one of his crew served martinis poured over nuggets of fresh glacier ice. Unavoidably, amid the utter tranquility, the conversation shifted to global warming.

“A good winter is a cold winter,” Simoud explained. “The sky is clear, the snow is firm and we can get around the fjord by snowmobile or even car. But the last four of five winters have been warm. Or alternating warm and cold.”

Up the fjord, the ice cap loomed between mountains like a featureless blanket of fog while the bergs around us writhed and crackled in the sun. For all its extremes, visiting Greenland was a haunting journey to the evanescent intersection of our planet’s past and its future.
I can’t speak for winter. But I can say a good summer is a Greenland summer.

If You Go

Greenland has three international airports. In addition to Nuuk and Narsarsuaq, there’s Kangerlussuaq, which lies between Nuuk and Ilulissat (the entry point for touring Disko Bay, a major tourist destination with a huge glacier, icebergs and dog-sledding). Air Greenland flies several times a week to the airports from Copenhagen, year-round. In summer, there are flights from Iceland to Nuuk and other destinations on Icelandair and Air Iceland. Available late-May through early September, Iceland routings are less-expensive than flying via Copenhagen, and save about 12 hours in travel time from the U.S.

Summer visitors can embark on hiking, kayaking and fjord cruises; the trout and salmon fishing is said to be outstanding. In winter, dog-sledding, snowmobiling and skiing top the list of activities, often set against a backdrop of the northern lights. Most tour operators, like Scantours, package hotel and airfare but sell day tours a la carte based on weather conditions. Scantours’ eight-day trip to Narsarsuaq and Narsaq is priced at $2,972 including air from Iceland, or $3,768 from Copenhagen. Jacky Simoud’s well-connected Blue Ice company is adept at assembling tours and packages from his base in Narsarsuaq.

Because of the high cost of getting from town to town in Greenland—many of which are reached only by helicopter or boat—cruise ships can be a more efficient way to tour. The main company offering Greenland itineraries is Hurtigruten. Eight-day cruises for summer 2010 start at just upwards of $4500 if booked by September 30.

David Swanson is a Contributing Editor to National Geographic Traveler and writes the “Affordable Caribbean” column for Caribbean Travel & Life magazine.