Amidst social and environmental dynamic in Ilulissat

We have seen the images of calving icebergs calling our attention to the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. The ground zero for such images is the Ilulissat icefjord near the small town of Ilulissat in West Greenland. The dynamic interaction between ice in its many different forms and the warming climate is also a local issue of high importance, as was clear from discussions in a workshop about the future of this region that was held in Ilulissat April 10 – 11 2018.

The workshop was part of project aimed at starting a dialogue between researchers and local actors, including those engaged in fishing and hunting activities as well as municipal and business representatives.  The locals have seen the changes first hand and many of them commented on the dramatic decline in winter sea ice, which has made travel between the many smaller settlements very difficult. Another concern is that the changing conditions will affect the path of currents in the Disko Bugt, making the ice even more difficult to read and affecting where fish can be found. Shifts in the patterns of ice coverage could also interfere with the interplay between nutrients, light, and ice that have made these coastal waters extremely productive and a strong base for the small-scale fisheries that provide are critical income both locally and for Greenland as a country when it is exported. Even on land, the warming creates problems as melting permafrost shifts the ground and wrecks sewage pipes and roads.

But the climate story is only one of the issues facing area. A hot topic in the workshop discussions was the politics of managing the natural resources, with tensions and different views on issues ranging from fishing quotas to protection of wildlife habitat. A species that triggered heated discussions was Homo turisticus. Tourism has grown by over 300 percent since 2000 when the Ilulissat icefjord became a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 2016, Ilulissat, a town with only about 5000 inhabitants, recorded almost 28000 guest nights. The locals complained about crowding in the town and that they had trouble competing with the tourist for space on the helicopters and airplanes that are critical to transport between settlements and towns. One of the hottest local topics was the pros and cons of expanding the landing strip of the local airport so that it could handle larger planes. Some saw much needed job opportunities in a booming tourism sector while other were worried that the rest of the infrastructure was not dimensioned for the influx of more people and that local needs, priorities, and values would drown. Interlinked was the question whether any local young people would be around to take the jobs as many of them have already left to go elsewhere for education and often do not return.

In images of calving icebergs, this complexity of community life in West Greenland almost always gets lost. Also when planning for future research, the natural environment is often more in focus than issues related to social and economic development. In the workshop, we used a participatory scenario method to get a broader set of issues on the table, and it made for new questions among both researchers and locals. To be able to see the many different perspectives was one of the new insights mentioned at the end of the workshop. Many expressed a wish to continue the discussions.  As a visitor to Ilulissat, I will always be fascinated by the continuously shifting horizon of icebergs in the fjord, but I now also see an equally fascinating and dynamic society at the interface between strong and proud traditions, shifting environmental conditions, exposure to expanding global tourism to the Arctic, entrepreneurship, and political landscape where different priorities for the future have to be negotiated: a society in the process of shaping its future.

Illilssat April 20_Joan_Annika

REXSAC researchers Annika E. Nilsson and Joan Nymand Larsen by the Ilulissat icefjord



The workshop was heavily covered in the Greenland media.

Article 1 in Sermitsiaq

Article 2 in Sermitsiaq

Article 3 in Sermitsiaq


About Author

Annika E Nilsson

Stockholm Environment Institute