Exploring Climate Change in Greenland

Updated: Sep 10, 2018

After organising and leading a four-person expedition to Greenland to research the changing Arctic environment, we found ourselves asking the question: how do you approach people in places like Kangerlussuaq in the Arctic about climate change when, so far, it has facilitated agriculture and boosted tourism? The findings of our expedition shocked us and made us realise how important it is to see the issue of climate change from the perspective of locals.

The Greenland Ice Sheet

In the summer of 2014, a team of four of us – all undergraduate students from across Scotland – took on the challenge of organising our own expedition to Greenland. We wanted to study how climate change is affecting the landscape and people of the Arctic.

Our research in Greenland aimed to investigate how climate change is impacting both the landscape and local people of the country. Our findings posed a challenge; we discovered that the people of Greenland had a very different attitude towards environmental issues than we did. But, as climate change is a global issue it requires a global, unified response.

Our journey began in late 2013, as we began to develop plans for the trip. Nine months later, funding and logistics were in place and were ready to set off. In July 2014, we flew from Edinburgh to Kangerlussuaq in West Greenland. From here we travelled east to the Russell Glacier where we set up a basecamp and began our studies. 

The Russell Glacier is one of the main outlets of the Greenland Ice Sheet, an expanse of ice that forms 80% of the land area in Greenland. This ice is up to 100,000 years old and is home to some of the world’s biggest glaciers.

Due to human activities, these processes are undergoing a colossal change. The warming air temperatures mean that the glaciers can’t advance enough in winter to counteract the summer melt so are continuously retreating. This can be seen in the Russell Glacier, which has receded thirty metres in the last ten years and, with 2014 being the hottest year on global record, we can only expect these processes to get more pronounced in future.

In Greenland we wanted to see exactly how fast this was happening and compare the Russell Glacier to other models based on glaciers elsewhere. To do this we used several time-lapse cameras. These are small robust cameras that can be pre-programmed to take pictures at set time intervals for up to several weeks. We stationed these facing the Russell Glacier for our time in Greenland. Once home we stitched thousands of photos together to create a fast motion account of the 2014 summer calvings. 

We saw that the glaciers were continuously shedding ice and there was always some small or large chunks breaking off. This caused a huge amount of ice to be added to the melt water streams as water and icebergs that flowed towards the town of Kangerlussuaq.

It was here, in Kangerlussuaq that we knew of a flash flood event in 2012 that caused the locals' bridge to be washed away and have to be rebuilt. We therefore wanted to study how this impacted locals. We spoke to ten groups of locals, ranging from three to four people in the tourist offices to individuals in shops and asked them the question: how is climate change affecting your life?

The responses we got were very surprising. It seems that the locals were actually having a very positive experience of climate change. Due to the warming climate, farming can now be practised in certain locations in South Greenland and this is expected to be the case in Kangerlussuaq very soon. In such a baron landscape, where there are very few opportunities for industry, farming could give a huge boost to the local economy and create a product to export. As the media presents footage of the Arctic regions in relation to the changing climate, many people are inspired to travel there. Each year, huge numbers of tourists and scientists travel to Kangerlussuaq with the aim of seeing the glaciers and give a huge boost to the local economy.

As we left Greenland, we found ourselves asking the question: how do you approach people in places like Kangerlussuaq in the Arctic about climate change when, so far, it has brought them so many benefits? To tackle the global issue of climate change we first need to gain a shared understanding of how the cultures that exist right next to the ice bodies that regulate climate change perceive the issue and respond accordingly.

Sunset in Kangerlussuaq

© 2019 by Cameron James Mackay