The Ilulissat Art Museum is a charming red house with robin’s egg blue trim nestled up against a grassy hillside in the town of Ilulissat, Greenland. Almost 5,000 people live in this seaside town, including the art museum’s cheerful and friendly curator. His face lights up at the prospect of new visitors, and he enthusiastically greets us as we enter. This kindly curator shows us around the museum, offering us a wealth of knowledge about the paintings and the artists. He tells us that the lower level is primarily for paintings by Emanuel A. Petersen, a Danish painter who spent time in Greenland in the early 20th century. His paintings depict tranquil yet breathtaking scenes of the landscape surrounding Ilulissat and other Greenlandic villages. Many show icebergs stoically floating in the fjord, and tall, snowy mountains colored pink from the alpenglow. Some paintings have boats and kayaks out at sea, while others depict sleds led by teams of thick-coated dogs. While each scene may be different, each of Petersen’s paintings is so uniquely Greenland.
It’s no wonder Petersen produced enough paintings to fill an entire floor (not to mention the 150+ pieces of his artwork at the museum in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk). The landscape around Ilulissat is an alluring contrast of rounded green hills and blue-white icebergs. No more than 20 kilometers inland, the Greenland Ice Sheet spills out into channelized outlet glaciers like Jakobshavn Isbrae–the fast-flowing ice stream that produces the icebergs occupying Ilulissat’s fjord. Up and down the coast of Greenland, glaciers flow from the ice sheet and fill the valleys and fjords with ice.
Many local Greenlanders travel over this ice, including our friendly museum curator. He has a team of six sled dogs–which we’re told is a relatively small team–that pulls his sled across snow and ice. For years, he and his wife have been traveling with their sled dogs to a spot along the margin of the ice sheet. There, an outlet glacier flows into a water-filled valley with rocky hills forming the sides. Just a few years ago, the curator and his wife arrived at this spot and were met with a great surprise: a barren, rocky island protruded from the water in the middle of the channel. Had they never been there before, this would not have seemed odd. But this was a brand new island that was recently uncovered as the nearby glacier retreated up the fjord. Up until then, that spot had been covered with ice year-round, and no one had known that a small rocky protrusion lay beneath.
I was fascinated by his story and as I listened, I mentioned the words “ice retreat.” At that, the curator’s eyes lit up and with both passion and relief, he said, “Exactly.” It was clear that he needed us to understand his personal relationship with climate change. This was the first time I had met someone who has been so directly affected by warming temperatures and melting glaciers.
The island hasn’t made it on all the local maps yet, but it now has a name that means something like “the bald one” in English. In fact, this isn’t the only new island that has been uncovered by retreating ice. In the past twenty years, Steenstrup Glacier in northwest Greenland has also revealed a handful of new islands (2014 article, 2017 article). The effects of climate change in Greenland are complex–both for the ice sheet, the people, and the wildlife. In some cases, melting ice actually benefits certain Greenlandic industries like mining, fishing, or tourism. But shifts in these industries pose new problems and controversy. This guide to climate change in Greenland discusses what a warming climate means for people and for animals, and what new challenges may arise. Whether you’re a museum curator in Greenland or you’re somewhere else in the world, the effects of climate change will become more complex, more personal, and more prevalent. The burden of our future climate may seem daunting, but there are some small, every-day changes we can make to lessen our negative impacts. Check out this BBC article, Ten simple ways to act on climate change, to see how you can make a difference.