Air conditioning for Eskimos as the Arctic warms up

Climate change melts ice, enables broccoli to be grown in Greenland, and brings wildlife for which the locals have no native names


Selling ice-cream to Eskimos used to be the definition of a tough sales pitch - but now it has been put in the shade. For as the world heats up, the Inuit are scrambling to install air conditioning, and electricity prices north of Quebec have been slashed specially to enable them to do so.

The new need to chill out in the Arctic is just one of the bewildering changes being forced on one of the world's last remaining hunting peoples. Their snowmobiles have been falling through the melting ice, and the Inuit are finding themselves lost for words as new species for which they have no names in their language appear. And, in places, they have had to dig wells, as they can no longer rely on snows for water.

Temperatures in the Arctic have been rising twice as quickly as in the world as a whole. Sea ice has shrunk by a quarter in area and a half in thickness since 1978, and its decline is now accelerating. Last May and June a heatwave sent temperatures soaring into the low 30s Celsius in the 2,000-strong village of Kuujjuaq, 2,500km north of Montreal, which has just installed 10 air conditioners to cool 25 office workers. "It is getting pretty hot here, even though we are in the far north," said its mayor, Larry Watts. "When I was growing up, I did not notice these kinds of temperatures."

And this followed a winter in which the Inuit of Pangnirtung, Baffin Island - right on the Arctic Circle - basked in February temperatures of 9C, when they should be -30C. "We were just standing around in our shorts, stunned and amazed, trying to make sense of it," said villager Donald Mearns.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, said: "The far north now has to have air conditioners to function." The Inuit's buildings - originally constructed "airtight for the cold" - are now turning into heat traps.

Hydro Quebec, the province's electricity utility, has drastically cut its prices as a result. They used to be set very high at a "dissuasive rate" to stop people from using electricity to heat their homes as it has to be generated from expensive diesel in the far north. But now they have lowered them for air conditioning in schools, hospitals and offices.

Farmers in Greenland are beginning to grow broccoli, cauliflower and Chinese cabbage. Salmon are also appearing in Inuit waters but the people have no name for them - or for such other newcomers as the barn owls, hornets and robins - in their language, though they have more than 1,000 words for reindeer.

In Chukotka, northern Russia, Inuit have drilled wells for water because there is too little snow to melt, and everywhere the people are finding it hard to hunt as their traditional prey disappear. Metuq, a hunter and fisherman from Baffin Island, whose fishing shack fell through unexpectedly melting ice last February, said: "The world is slowly disintegrating."

And Simon Kohlmeister, a hunter from Labrador who lost his snowmobile in the same way, added: "Some day we won't have any snow. We will no longer be Eskimos."

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