Greenland: Love in a very cold climate

Kari Herbert grew up among the Inuits of Greenland. Thirty years on, pollution and global warming have forced her 'family' away
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The Independent Online

Piuartoq cracks his 20ft sealskin whip over his team of 12 semi-wild huskies and urges them to stop. The dogs hold back, whimpering at the smell of the sea. Ahead, cutting right through the trail leading to his family's traditional hunting grounds, is an open lead of water, gleaming darkly like a fresh wound in the ice. Piuartoq turns to me, concern etched in his face. In just a few hours, he says, the whole ice pan could break up.

Until recently, the Inuit hunters of the Thule district in north-west Greenland have relied on the ice to reach the remote areas where they can find game to feed their families. Now with the effects of global warming, the ice is unstable and unpredictable. Sometimes it doesn't appear at all. Without the ice, the Inuit are confused and unsettled. They have lived with it for centuries; without ice they are lost.

My first memories are of Greenland and its people; my first words were in their language, and my first steps were taken on their frozen shores. Thirty years later, I had returned to my childhood home, to discover how life had changed for my friends and "family", and to rediscover my connection with this raw and hostile place.

I was 10 months old when my father - pioneer and polar explorer Sir Wally Herbert - first took my mother, Marie, and myself to live in the Arctic. My father's affinity with the polar regions stemmed from 14 years of mapping the barren wilderness of both the Antarctic and the Arctic, and from his British Trans-Arctic Expedition - the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole, and the first expedition to reach the North Pole on foot.

His skills for such an epic journey were learnt during his many long journeys and winters spent with the Inuit (otherwise known as Inughuit, pronounced "In-oo-hoo-it") of the Thule district, but even then, in the early 1960s, he was aware that their unique way of life was changing fast. His distress that their traditions should disappear without record spurred him to write several books and film a documentary about these people, for whom he had developed a great respect and admiration. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to take his young family with him.

Our destination was Herbert Island, a small sliver of land off the extreme north-west coast of Greenland; home to one of the last surviving hunting villages of the Inughuit. The ways of these hunters were those of their ancestors. Clothing was still made from furs; the men wore knee-high sealskin kamiks (boots) with long polar-bear trousers and tugto (reindeer) parkas; the women wore long, thigh-skimming kamiks, short fox-fur pants and parkas made from fur. The men still hunted with harpoon in skin kayaks in the summer, and drove dog teams for hundreds of miles across the sea ice in the inky darkness of the four-month-long winter. While the men were away the women would prepare and sew furs and skins for clothing, tend to the children, and cure or cook seal meat, whale and fish. These people lived on the very brink of civilisation, and were completely in tune with the environment in which they lived.

A great bond soon developed between us and the villagers. Soon I spoke only Inuktun, the local dialect of Greenlandic, and thought of our neighbours as family. I learnt, as all Inughuit children do, to scream at the huskies if they broke loose, as they have been known to devour young children. I preferred seal meat to baby food, and by the time we left Herbert Island - over two years later - I believed that I was a little Inughuit girl.

We returned twice to Greenland during my childhood. With each visit I encountered more changes but, being still young, I had a naïve appreciation of how things were different. Gradually I forgot how to speak Inuktun, and my early childhood in north-west Greenland began to seem more of a dream than a reality.

When I reached 30 I concluded that something was missing from my life, and that something I could only find in the Arctic. I had to go home. For the next six months these old friends welcomed me back into their close-knit world and confided to me their stories, dreams and fears of the future.

I returned expecting much to have changed, but I was unprepared for the extent of those changes. Herbert Island is now deserted. The community, which had become used to relying on imported goods to supplement the meat and fish caught by the hunters, found that life became simply too hard on the island and had moved to Qaanaaq on the mainland in the 1980s.

Qaanaaq is a modern place, with bright Scandinavian-style huts nestling between snakes of steel service pipes, supplying electricity and running water to the prefab houses. Although life for the Inughuit has become easier in some respects, like many tribes these polar hunters have suffered the ill effects of modernisation. The hunting community has been crippled by hunting restrictions and embargoes on the sale of pelts and ivory throughout America and Europe.

As a result, there has been a massive increase in unemployment, and many women are having to work in the municipal offices, or as cleaners or teachers to supplement the family income. Relationships are becoming strained as the Inughuit men and women try to make sense of their changing status, and as a result domestic violence and alcohol abuse has become a serious issue.

Perhaps even more worrying, however, are the effects of climate change and pollution on the community. For centuries the Inughuit have survived on a marine diet of seal, walrus, fish and whale, rich in iron, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and essential vitamins. It is a diet that until now has prevented heart disease and ensured that the people can withstand the rigours of such an extreme climate. Yet this diet that has given them life, and defined their culture, now threatens them.

The Arctic has become a dumping ground for the world's toxins. Currents drive industrial chemicals, pesticides and other emissions to the Far North, where they are unable to break down, and enter the polar ecosystem. Recent studies have found that the fish and animals that the Inughuit hunt carry some of the highest levels of toxic compounds on earth, and as a result, the Inughuit also have dangerous levels of mercury, PCBs and other highly toxic pollutants in their bodies. Inughuit women have been advised to stop breastfeeding as the level of chemicals in their milk is toxic.

"They tell us that we must not eat mattak [whale blubber]," my friend Tekummeq tells me, "but this is all we know. Eating Inughuit food makes us who we are, and anyway we have nothing else to eat!" She swings her arm towards the ice, normally busy with hunters and dogs, but now deserted. "And now the ice is changing, too."

Even as a child I understood that the Inughuit had a special relationship with the ice: it was their lifeline. Freshwater icebergs were melted for drinking water, and the sea ice formed the highways between settlements and hunting grounds. As reliable as the seasons, the ice came and went at specific times of the year. In the 1970s the ice would always form in Thule on 24 October - my father's birthday - and would not melt until April the following year.

Since then conditions have changed dramatically. The temperatures in Greenland have risen by more than 2F (1.1C) - twice the global average - and the vast ice sheet that covers five-sixths of the island's landmass is melting at an alarming rate. Last year the sea ice around Qaanaaq did not form properly until December, and even then large areas remained as open water.

The people are becoming increasingly disorientated because their way of life is constantly in a state of flux. Hunters who have the ice in their blood are more cautious than ever when travelling on it. The ice, they say, is not as truthful as it once was. "When you were a child," an old hunter friend of my father told me, "the ice was strong and faithful; now it tricks us, many fall through the ice. Some do not come home from hunting."

A hunter's senses are his most infallible guide in an environment where the weather is famed for its unpredictability: blizzards and thick fog often obscure landmarks. The scent of the air, for example, can advise him of conditions and how close he is to land, while his super-developed eyesight can distinguish whether cloud is over land or water or even what type of ice lies in the distance by looking at the patterns in the sky. The bend of the ice beneath his feet will usually tell him its depth, age and density; he can taste snow on the air and even hear the vibration of the land itself.

However, changes in currents and temperatures mean that ice that has all the signs of being solid may have been invisibly corroded, and areas where the ice was once known to be several feet thick and stable is now rotten. Hunters are forced to take boats or kayaks on their sledges to hunt, but worry at the possibility of the ice breaking up and carrying their dogs away before the hunter returns.

"I think we are very strong people, because the weather is so strong," Tekummeq says. "But now your weather is coming to us. Soon maybe we will have no ice. If we have no ice, we will have no dogs. Who will we be then?"

Kari Herbert's book 'The Explorer's Daughter' is out in paperback (Penguin, £8.99)

At the end of the earth

* Greenland is the world's largest island, after Australia.

* Currently, less than one-sixth of its land mass is ice-free.

* If the 2.5 million cubic km of the Greenland ice cap were to melt, seas worldwide would rise by seven metres.

* The icecap holds 10 per cent of the world's fresh water.

* The average levels of PCBs and mercury in women's breast milk in Greenland are 20 to 50 times higher than in Europe and the US.

* The country is known to the Inuit as Kalaallit Nunaat, or "White Earth".

* Denmark has sovereignty over Greenland, although it does have a Home Rule government.

* Temperatures in north-west Greenland range from minus 35C to around 10C.