I was 10 the first time I saw snow. We lived in southern California, and one Saturday morning drove two hours from the outdoor malls just to pull off a mountain highway and gaze wondrously at an icy patch on the asphalt just big enough for a few snowballs. Now beneath my plane there is ice in the sea, lonely islands in an unbroken expanse of cornflower blue. I press my face to the window and then uselessly pick up a camera whose lens oscillates uncertainly between the smudges on the double-glazed windows. The artificial eye can’t grasp what it’s seeing, either.
The bergs are brilliant white. Startlingly white. Nothing in nature ever looks this clean. At their base where water meets ice is a vibrant blue the color of a new state of matter, a color I later learned has its own name in east Greenlandic – dorngujortoq. The color evokes memories of childhood summers at marine amusement parks where otters and orca swam dolefully in tanks painted to mimic this shade.
The airplane is a shadow above a rocky landscape. The landing gear descends. There is a bump, a held breath, and then a taxi along Kulusuk International Airport’s sodden dirt runway. The tarmac is wet and muddy, the air mercilessly crisp.
Greenland is a giant island covered with a sheet of ice two miles thick at its center, and I’ve come here to write about climate change. That ice sheet looms large in the worst-case scenarios of unchecked global warming. Its 5.4 million square miles of ice hold enough fresh water to raise the seas 20 feet and drown the world’s coastal cities. From a remote station at the top of the world it stores immense and terrible power, a fearsome lord in an icy castle looming over the vassals below.
Most of the population of 57,000 lives in west Greenland, where there are restaurants and a U.S. air base and enterprising farmers who have used the longer summers of recent years to grow the country’s first peppers and strawberries. East Greenland, where the ice sheet extends farther to the coast, is described as “wild” in practically all of the few English language websites that describe it at all. I am headed for Tasiilaq, an eastern town of 2,000. The Internet offered a virtual shrug when I searched for information on the area and the lack of expectation is unsettling and exciting. I’ve been drunk with adventure since yesterday’s stopover in Reykjavik, where there were minke whale skewers on the menus, whole racks of Bjork in the record shops and a Big Lebowski-themed bar where a BBC crew barged in and bought everyone there a drink. I wear a spotless new parka and uncreased hiking boots carted home a week earlier from Lillywhite’s in London’s Piccadilly Circus. I’ve even packed a penknife, as if there were any threat on this giant island I’d survive long enough to find time to flick open the blade.
“You are likely to meet someone who grew up in a small fishing village over the next few days,” read my in-flight magazine horoscope en route from London to Iceland’s Keflavik airport the day before. “Stay away from them.” That was only a slight improvement over WOW Air’s ominous advice to Geminis: “It can be scary, sad and lonely. Are you sure you want to go through with your plans?”
There is a sealskin kayak in the Tasiilaq museum and rifles for sale at the grocery store. The sky is as clear as a fresh-painted wall. From time to time I look up to see that the ice in the harbor has shifted, and a floe that was out near the mountain in the morning has crept up behind the warehouse in the afternoon.
The town is both poor and breathtakingly expensive, from the mini-mart’s $2 16-ounce water bottles to the $1,300 iPhone in a locked glass case at the post office. All but the sealskin is flown or shipped from Denmark and Iceland. Once ice seals off the harbor the town faces winter with whatever’s left in the big red warehouse down by the water. Winters in Tasiilaq are long. Alcohol passes the time. A bottle of vodka, a local confides, is almost $200 on the black market. Beer cans shimmer like pearls from the bottom of the glassy harbor.
“Beer is the most important thing. The town never runs out of beer,” a woman tells me at the till of her small cafe offering coffee, books, DVDs and use of a printer. “On the other hand, toilet paper, we sometimes run out.”
At dinner in the hotel there’s a rumor that it will be possible to see the northern lights after dark. This is a treat I had not anticipated. I pass several excited hours pacing until 11 p.m., when I brace myself against the cold, push open the door and there they are, spilling across the sky like iridescent paint.
The Inuit say the northern lights are the spirits of dead children playing soccer in the heavens. An American tourist told me that earlier in the day, as we stomped in the cold while waiting for darkness to descend. In the coming days I hear several interpretations of alleged Inuit myths about the lights – they’re the souls of dead maidens, they’ll come down and behead you if you whistle at them – but this description is the most apt of all. A green mist rises like a languid apparition, and then whoosh! Light streaks across the sky, sending up sparks in its wake like a ball kicked across a dusty field. Another green figure rises to receive it. The lights move and freeze; they fade and revive, for hours.
I have Google. I know about electrons and magnetic poles and solar wind. Still I could be convinced that the sky above me is in the throes of some kind of supernatural possession. I would believe the dead could rise again if I lived with these regularly. I would believe the world spun in the palm of a giant’s hand, propelled by the force of his breath and tears.
“Someone took my harpoon,” Markus grumbles. He’s digging through gear at the bottom of his boat, an open-air motorcraft with a fiberglass hood he welded to the body himself. It’s a perfect day for hunting, clear skies with practically zero wind, and everyone in Tasiilaq who can find a way off work has taken to the water.
Markus is Inuit. He is 35 years old and has four children. The eldest is 16 and schooled in Denmark. He used to be an electrician, but now he works as a guide and translator, supplementing his income by catching his family’s food himself. He taught himself English with Google Translate and American DVDs. He could make more money as an electrician, he says, steering away from Tasiilaq’s harbor and toward the ice-studded horizon, but that’s not really living. The fjord is home. In narwhal season he and his brothers will pilot their boat into the Arctic Circle to spend weeks searching for an animal that can fill their freezers with months worth of food.
It occurs to me that Inuit men have a convenient excuse to get out of the house for a few days. I mention this to Markus. He laughs.
Try weeks, he says. A month.
We are going to the fjord now, just the two of us. It’s September, the beginning of the season in which ice begins to crowd the waters and only the most experienced Inuit sailors go out. Markus thinks we might see orca. There are three rifles in this boat and I don’t know how to use any of them. I really don’t know Markus that well, at least not as well as I’d like to know someone who is taking me to sea with a gun.
How do you know where you’re going? I ask. How do you know where we are?
I just know, he says, and laughs again.
Someone in town told me, in a way that felt much less kind than the person next to me now, that Markus (whose name isn’t really Markus) spent time in prison in the capital, Nuuk, for reasons no one can remember. That might explain his need for an open sky, a boat, and freedom.
The hull shatters a delicate frozen pane across the water’s surface. The ice surrounds us now, rising from the water in shapes as varied as clouds: this one a Viking ship, another a Victoria sponge.
Photographs are no preparation for the Arctic. Images of ice are flat and austere things; this landscape is active, alive. The ice feels like an organ of the earth, like some essential exchange is taking place here, and for the moment the prospect of its disappearance seems as inconceivable as the void after death.
Markus and I have been talking a lot about ice. Everyone is talking about it, how for the last decade the ice and sea and weather have been doing crazy things. The day before, we’d sat on a wooden porch with Markus’s friend Joel.
This is how thick the winter ice used to be, Joel said, standing and leveling his hand six feet above the ground. And this is what it is now, he said, bringing his palms twelve inches apart.
Lakes that used to be frozen solid by September now ripple in the wind in the fall. Fjords that were too full of ice to sail in November are passable now until January or February. The ice that closes Tasiilaq’s harbor each winter isn’t as tall or powerful as it used to be, and it comes much later in the year.
The Greenland ice sheet will not melt in our lifetimes. It’s not possible. There’s simply too much of it. You could train a million industrial air driers on it full blast and centuries would pass before the last drop ran out to sea. Even as it melts now, the ensuing sea rise may not become apparent until the time of our children’s children. That only adds to its power. Every year of inaction and willful ignorance is time borrowed against generations we’ll likely never meet. It’s so easy to spend the inheritance of offspring who don’t yet exist. It is easy to spend their inheritance without much guilt or pause. They don’t yet have faces we can envision at the reckoning.
“Ah,” Markus says, an exclamation of surprise and satisfaction. His gun cocks, there is a moment of perfect stillness, and then a single shot ends the life of a miscalculating seal who nosed up for air 100 yards in front of our boat.
The bullet took off the back of its head. Markus leans over the side with a hook and unceremoniously plucks the brainless corpse from the water, draping it across the hull so its innards gush through the wound. Seals contain an astonishing amount of blood. I have never seen anything die before. I am not a vegetarian, and as Markus shakes the seal by the tail to drain what’s left inside I consider all the blood that’s been shed for my dinner plates, all the sausage pizza and bits of rubbery deli chicken that have their roots in violence.
This is a ringed seal, Markus explains, the tastiest and most plentiful of the five species in these waters. In the Arctic food chain, seals occupy the unlucky space that zebras hold on the veld. Everything eats seal. Orca eat seals, and orca swim these waters at this time of year. Orca meat gives dogs the most beautiful silky coats, Markus says. It would be great to find one today. I am not so sure. I went to Sea World in the blissfully ignorant pre-Blackfish days, and I can tell this boat is smaller than the possibly deranged animal I watched swimming in its tank.
A call comes in over the radio. Markus speaks back to it in his language, which to my ear sounds slow and low and catches frequently on q’s and t’s. We drive to an inlet whose name translates to The Place Where We Used to Hunt in the Springtime. There is no ice in this inlet, only glassy water surrounded on three sides by tall bare hills. The sky is gray and heavy above us. A flat rocky shore slopes to the water, and a minke whale lies on the rock in a pool of its own blood.
The animal is so newly dead that the innards steam in the cold. Five two-man teams took it down with bullets they now pick from the carcass and flick onto the stone. Men with long knives are butchering the animal with quick and experienced hands, peeling away the flesh and carving out cubes of dripping red muscle so heavy a single man strains to lift it. Without ceremony they chuck the meat into 10 equal piles, one for each hunter. Those who heard the call on the radio and came to help can take a cut home too.
Markus steps forward with his knife and shaves a thin strip of slate-gray skin from the inner crescent of the whale’s tail. He hands a piece to me.
Take it, he says. Eat.
It’s cold, rubbery, and tastes of a part of the ocean that is not meant to be consumed. Shards hide in my teeth, dislodging hours after I’ve swallowed to return the marine taste to my mouth. Markus chews his like beef jerky. He wanders off to help hold a piece of whale skin taught so the throat can be cut away.
Men in sweatshirts and rubber wellies cut and carry meat until their grip is slippery with blood, then wash in the icy water and carry on. The air is freezing, and they sweat. I answer the door for the grocery delivery service and place plastic packages in my refrigerator, and somehow I too claim I am feeding my family.
A man steps over to the rock, hands held aloft, slick to the elbows with blood and blubber. A friend places a lit cigarette between his lips. He lifts a chin in thanks, and goes back to his work.
We are driving back to Tasiilaq. The ice glows softly in the moonlight. I am cold in my bones. Markus steers with his knees while scrubbing his hands with the towelettes I stole from the airplane bathroom. The whale’s half-digested last meal spurted across the rock when the stomach was cut. It’s pungent.
“When it’s cold, the smell is not so bad,” Markus says, nose wrinkled. “But when it’s warm like this, it’s terrible.”
Of course people fall through the thinning ice, the men told me earlier. They did not seem alarmed by this the way in the way one might be alarmed if you were raised to take for granted that the ground will not disappear beneath your feet. People here are unsentimental, adaptable. They will change their lives in response to conditions their lifestyles have done little to bring about.
I have been living in this place for a week without really living in it. I feed myself from a hotel buffet and tour landscapes I don’t understand under someone else’s protection, helpless and useless as a child. I have managed in Greenland at all, even for this very brief time, thanks to an artificial infrastructure constructed for my comfort and convenience.
But then again, that’s how I live on this planet. I drive cars powered by subsidized fuel, eating food that should be as rare and foreign as strawberries once were in Greenland, subduing the slightest uncomfortable fluctuation in indoor air temperature with the press of a button. I’m paying for this – we all are – in thinning ice and rising seas. It’s been so easy to run up that tab, secure in the knowledge that it won’t be my world that falls apart first. That will happen here, where there are no illusions of how hard it really is to live on this rock we share.
Corinne Purtill is a journalist who has reported around the world for publications including GlobalPost, CNN, Salon and Quartz, where she is currently a staff writer. She is the author of Ghosts in the Forest, a Kindle Single, and lives in California with her family.