The Arctic Is Changing … Or Is It?

Icebergs such as this one in the Davis Strait have been both changed by and changing Arctic ecologies since their formation several thousand years ago (Photo by Hunter Snyder)

The Arctic is a terribly exciting region for science, media, and the public. That the Arctic is undergoing a period of complex, visible, and consequential environmental change gives us ample reason to care about it. But this is only one kind of change.

On Monday, August 24th, 2015, several major news outlets vied for our attention with headlines such as, “Satellite images show fast-melting glacier lose perhaps the biggest block of ice ever.” At the GLACIER conference in Anchorage, Alaska held just a week later, United States Secretary of State John Kerry urged a distinguished group of global leaders and the public to consider the enormity of the threat posed by climate change and the need to act.

While glaciers in Greenland continue to eject chunks of ice the size of Manhattan, it is critical for all environmentally-minded readers to reflect on what exactly we mean by “change.” There sure seems to be a lot of it occurring in the Arctic, but there’s more to life for the people here than just temperatures and ice thickness, and there are different kinds of changes they’d be happy to see.

The Broader View

I have been living and conducting anthropological fieldwork in Greenland for the past 14 months. My observations make me think about the different things people mean when they talk about change. Arctic change spans involves more than just the environment, it also touches society, politics, and public policy, as well as technology and countless other domains. In Greenland, you can experience this change firsthand. However, what is most striking is how some dimensions of Arctic life—both human and nonhuman—are changing at an exceptionally rapid pace whereas other areas appear to stand still.

Tuttu (caribou) is dried in Qeqertarsuatsiaat, Grenland in preparation for long winter ahead (Photo Hunter Snyder)
Tuttu (caribou) is dried in Qeqertarsuatsiaat, Grenland in preparation for long winter ahead. (Photo Hunter Snyder)

While thinning sea ice limits hunting activities for both humans and polar bears, bringing negative change, there are other areas where a change would be welcome. One such area among the Inuit of Greenland involves the living conditions in the small settlements that stipple the coasts of the country.

Like the large ice blocks that are breaking off in Sermeq Kujalleq, the speed with which living conditions are changing in the Arctic also deserves attention; the unfortunate paradox is that while Greenland’s climate appears to be changing rapidly and garnering the world’s attention, the conditions in which many Greenlanders and other Arctic peoples live could not change rapidly enough.

When Greenlanders were relocated from the land to settlements and towns under Danish colonial rule in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, they received education, healthcare, and improved living conditions that were generally considered positive for that time. Now though, these fields generally lag below the standards south of the Arctic Circle, especially in the smaller settlements.

Despite ice, Inuit fishers cast their longlines day in and day out in the mouth of Sermeq Kujalleq (Jacobshavn Glacier) in Ilullissat, Greenland (Photo Hunter Snyder)
Despite ice, Inuit fishers cast their longlines day in and day out in the mouth of Sermeq Kujalleq (Jacobshavn Glacier) in Ilullissat, Greenland. (Photo Hunter Snyder)

In the presence of staggering change, scientists, politicians, journalists, and the public have been transfixed by what is changing, and unaware of what is not. As we read frightening news headlines and conduct research in the Arctic, it remains critical to understand that the Arctic is a place that is in a perpetual state of environmental, social, technological, and political change.

The combination of various states and speeds of change is what gives Greenland and many other parts of the world such rich cultural, environmental, and technological diversity. As scientists, explorers, politicians, journalists, and readers, we are enraptured by their levels of complexity.

Change is, in its essence, interesting, right? Yet when we encounter change in an area to which we’re paying a lot of attention, let us probe a bit further and ask ourselves, what isn’t changing, and why not?

Follow @HunterTSnyder on Twitter and watch for more from him here on the Explorers Journal.

Changing Planet