Diary

Neal Ascherson

On his way to the shore, the patriarch mounted a rock, a flat-topped outcrop of Greenland granite. The people of Ilulissat, who had been standing silently along the skyline above us, made their way down and gathered round him until the flat summit was packed and children clung to their parents’ legs to avoid being pushed down the rock’s sheer sides. He began to speak to them, words in English and Greek translated into Greenlandic. When he had finished, they began to sing to him, Inuit words set to old Moravian mission harmonies.

Below the crowd, I leaned against the granite sides of the rock, hearing only the occasional phrase of what was being said on the summit, staring at the hillsides red and green with the dwarfish growth of Arctic summer. His All Holiness Bartholomew I, ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and spiritual head of the Orthodox Churches of the world, had come to Greenland on his seventh Symposium voyage, repeating his call to humanity to respect and rescue natural creation. These voyages are organised by the Athens-based group Religion, Science and the Environment and bring together marine biologists, ecologists, politicians and representatives of all faiths. Each Symposium visits some of the threatened waters of the world, gathers the experience of local and indigenous people and debates the planet’s future.

The crowd moved on towards the ridge between us and the shore. Then, at the crest of the ridge, we all stopped. Before us, on a motionless turquoise sea, the icebergs towered in the evening light, each vast as a city. I looked at the spectators and saw that every one of us, the Greenlanders as well as the patriarch’s retinue of scientists and theologians, stood like a row of Caspar David Friedrich solitaries, facing the ice as if facing their judge.

The Ilulissat ice fjord leads back to one of the world’s most powerful glaciers, the Sermeq Kujalleq. Its cliff-like face is three miles wide and, counting its hidden underwater bulk, nearly a mile high. The bergs we saw were its children, calving off and then moving imperceptibly out into the ocean, to turn south in the current and then, diminishing and shedding their fresh water mass, to enter the North Atlantic. In the last twenty years, 20,000 cubic kilometres of fresh water has entered the North Atlantic in this way. The Greenland icecap’s discharge influences the sea level and temperature, the direction of ocean currents, the winds and the climate of the entire planet. From that ridge at Ilulissat, you are looking directly into one of the engine-rooms of the world.

But the note of the engine has changed. This year, the Arctic icecap shrank at a pace never seen before. The day we stood at Illulisat, it reached the lowest summer minimum ever recorded, at only 4.12 million square kilometres, down from 5.9 million the year before. The long-term average minimum is 7.7 million, but in the last six seasons the scale of melting has steepened and continues to pick up speed. This August, the Northwest Passage round the north of Canada and Alaska to the Bering Strait opened and became ice-free for the first time in centuries. On the Canadian mainland, the ‘greening of the Arctic’ has begun as the tree line creeps northwards, replacing the sun-reflecting ice with dark forest which retains solar warmth and radiation. The 2007 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that the Arctic Ocean would become ice-free in summer by the late 21st century. Only months later, everyone realises that this was a hopeless underestimate.

The loss of the polar ice is grim enough. But the changes beginning in the Greenland ice sheet, two miles thick, covering 85 per cent of the island, and forming the earth’s biggest store of fresh water, could have even less predictable consequences. There are signs that the sheet is breaking up. Its margins have begun to retreat, and colossal quantities of meltwater are penetrating to its base where it meets the rock. Seismologists are now recording what they call ‘glacial earthquakes’ as the central mass begins to shift and split. The glaciers that snake down to the sea are simultaneously retracting and accelerating. The Sermeq Kujalleq’s nose is further from the sea every season, but the glacier itself – the production line for the icebergs it launches into the sea – is suddenly moving much faster, from 8 km a year in 2003 to about 15 km today. Every day, this fjord alone pushes into the oceans enough fresh water to supply the largest cities on earth.

Back on board the Norwegian cruise ship Fram, the symposium debated the different shapes apocalypse might take. ‘We don’t know how close we are to the edge of this waterfall,’ said Dr Jane Lubchenco from Oregon. She warned that the new inrush of fresh water could lead to a change in the North Atlantic currents, including the Gulf Stream. The global warming that occurred 12,000 years ago, following the brief Younger Dryas glaciation, had shut down the Gulf Stream for two millennia. Robert Corell, chair of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, scorned the prediction of a sea-level rise of up to 0.59 metres; the figure now looked like a metre at the very least, and he showed a map of what that rise would do to Egypt, the Caspian shores and San Francisco Bay. Svend Auken, ex-minister for the environment in Denmark, dismissed the EU’s forecast of a 2º increase in global temperature. It would be nearer 6º, and proposed measures to mitigate it were ‘treating cancer with aspirin’; the carbon-trading solution for emissions had ‘blurred into a massive exercise in creative book-keeping’.

So the bad news went remorselessly on. The Fram began to heave a little on the swell, as she steamed southwards down the Davis Strait. Several of the delegates turned as green as their convictions and vanished below. A small pod of whales passed a mile away, blowing lusty spires of breath. How strange it is that science and religion seem to have changed sides on this matter of apocalypse. Once the priests would have monopolised the prophecies of doom. A hundred years ago or less, the threat to the human race from global warming would have roused a chorus of brimstone sermons, insisting that sinful indulgence and selfish luxury were reaping their just reward at last. They would have denounced as crude impiety suggestions from scientists that human ingenuity might deflect the Lord’s vengeance. But now it’s the materialists – the marine biologists, climate experts and ecologists – who call on the public to repent and understand the justice of their punishment. And it is the religious, if the Fram pilgrims were representative, who proclaim that the battle is not yet lost, and that those who convert to austere green lives may yet save the planet and their souls.

As well as the scientists and theologians (two imams, a rabbi and almost all flavours of Christian), there were Greenlanders on board. For a population only the size of Inverness, sprinkled round the edges of the biggest island in the world, they fielded an impressive team of writers, professors, ministers in the Greenland Home Rule Government and Lutheran clerics, led by Sofie Petersen, bishop of Greenland, in her gaudy neo-Inuit cassock. Greenland, a resentful dependency of Denmark, has its own devolved government running internal affairs. Denmark officially controls foreign affairs and security. This hasn’t stopped the Greenlanders appointing their own foreign minister, the wise and well-travelled Aleqa Hammond, whose ministry is a wooden bungalow in Nuuk, the capital. (The Foreign Office in London would never dream of sharing its duties with Holyrood; foreign policy is supposed to be a ‘reserved power’ under the Scotland Act. But how many London papers noticed that the new SNP government has quietly appointed Linda Fabiani minister for Europe and external affairs?)

The fact is that global warming will make Greenland independent. This is a slightly embarrassing discovery for the Greenlanders, who have instinctive sympathy for the ecowarriors in the rest of the world (apart from Greenpeace, hated for wrecking the trade in sealskins). Climate change is already bringing benefits. Halibut and cod are back and maturing faster; grass in southern Greenland has a longer growing season, so that sheep will not have to eat imported fodder (I met a farmer intending to breed cattle, and saw a field of scrawny barley). Potatoes have become far easier to grow. The melting ice sheet is making bigger rivers, and Greenland will soon have enough hydro-electricity to give up expensive fossil fuel. Mining (gold, diamonds, coal) has become possible again, and oil prospecting has started in newly opened coastal waters.

All this means that Greenland will soon cease to need its block grant from Denmark, which runs at about £300 million a year, provides half the budget and is the last tie to ‘colonial times’. A joint commission is already discussing terms and timing for independence, but the right-wing Danish government is making difficulties. ‘Never mind,’ one unkind Greenlander said. ‘Denmark will soon be underwater anyway, so we won’t have to worry.’

All the Arctic peoples are now receiving heavy doses of toxic contamination which descend from the upper atmosphere. But Greenlanders dread global warming for reasons more emotional than practical. What appals them most intimately is the rapid weakening of the coastal sea ice. The magical white plains which once opened every winter, carrying hunters on dog sledges to harpoon or shoot seals, walrus and narwhal, are growing treacherous, or failing to appear at all.

Most Greenlanders, almost all of Inuit descent with a mixture of Danish and Norse genes, now live in small towns. Only some five hundred of them, up in the far north around Qaanaaq and the huge American airbase at Thule, still live exclusively as hunter-gatherers. But almost everyone has parents or grandparents who were hunters, and they wonder what it will mean to be a Greenlander if the sea ice and its way of life, the arena of four thousand years of Inuit history, fades to a memory. On the edge of Ilulissat, we passed a field where scores of thin, barking huskies waited in their kennels to be harnessed into dog teams and take the sledges skimming across the ice. But this winter, and in winters to come, the ice may never grow strong enough to bear them. The dogs have no future.

We heard stories about friends or relations who set out on sledge journeys to fish or hunt seals and were never seen again. Now these have become stories about the toll of global warming. Patricia Cochran from Nome in Alaska wept as she spoke of the fate of her friend Mary, who had vanished through rotten ice: ‘The look and feel of the land and the ice is different; there are plagues of flies and worse storms; climate change for us is a dangerous reality.’ Yet death as the sledge plunges through weak ice has always been a part of the harsh Arctic experience. Global warming comes as a sort of excuse, an external explanation for change that evades the fact that Arctic people are themselves choosing to live differently, as the outboard motor replaces the kayak paddle, the snowmobile begins to take over from the sledge pulled by dogs, and the children of hunters move into concrete apartment blocks and work in fish-processing factories.

On the shore of a long fjord in south Greenland, there are patterns of tumbled stone: the remains of a house and a byre, and the turf outlines of a tiny church. This was Brattahlid, the settlement founded by Erik the Red just over a thousand years ago when he ventured west of Iceland and discovered an unknown coast. His son Leif went for education to Norway and disgusted Erik by bringing back the Christian religion. Later Leif, like his father, set off westwards and founded a short-lived settlement on an even more distant shore where trees grew: ‘Vinland’ in North America.

Erik’s people farmed around Brattahlid for more than four hundred years. Then the climate went cold, the ice moved south and they were forgotten. Nobody really knows what became of them. Centuries later, when Europeans rediscovered the place, there were only silent ruins and a graveyard round the turf and driftwood chapel built by Erik’s wife, Tjodhilde. Archaeologists identified the chapel site and Erik’s house and took the bones away to Copenhagen, where they lie in cardboard boxes in a basement somewhere. The Greenlanders, who loudly demand the repatriation of Inuit remains and relics, don’t mind what happens to the bones of ‘Norsemen’.

Some years ago, the place was repopulated by Greenlander sheep farmers, who built a jetty and a village called Qassiarsuk. Here the patriarch went ashore and moved in procession up the hill to the ring of turf that marks the site of the first Christian church in the western hemisphere. Assisted by his black-robed deacon, he began to sing and chant an Orthodox mass while the curious villagers pressed around him.

His bass voice, loud and tuneful, intoned a Byzantine liturgy. It was a peculiar, unreal moment. Behind the patriarch was an enormous fjord littered with ice fragments; before him, a sere hillside of rock, peat and wizened heather. It felt and smelled like a Protestant landscape rather than a Greek one, the Butt of Lewis rather than the hills of Attica. I wondered what Bishop Sofie was thinking, but her quiet eskimoid face gave nothing away. Orthodox theology, a seafarers’ religion full of water imagery, carries a mariner’s sense of the unity of all nature. Maybe she reflected that it had something in common with Inuit beliefs, recognising souls in walruses, cliffs, winds and stars.

Some of us climbed the hill until the group around Tjodhilde’s chapel was a dab of colour on the grey-green shore. Up here, a flock of redpolls swooped about drying cod nailed to posts, and a raven croaked. Inuits have another belief, not quite translatable, in what they call ‘Sila’: the force that brings alarming, unexpected things. Sudden storms are part of it, and disastrous changes in the ice, and caribou migrations shifting out of reach. Sila is also a spirit, and occasionally warns shamanic children that it is coming.

Down below, a few pathetic stones told of a community that heard no warnings from Sila and disappeared because it did not adapt to climate change. The Norse were European subsistence peasants. When the cold and darkness crept over them, and their crops and beasts perished, they might have taken on the lifestyle and equipment of their Inuit neighbours and survived as hunter-gatherers. But they would or could not, and at some moment early in the 15th century the last of them died.

Some impacts of climate change can be prevented: the ozone hole is being closed and the rainforests could still be saved. Some can be mitigated, by measures to stem carbon emissions and save energy. But more and more impacts are becoming unavoidable, and can only be met by adaptation. We must prepare for the rise in sea levels, the new aridities, the necessary migrations. And we can at least be mentally ready for the onrush of the unknowable, the compound outcomes of the colossal, accelerating transformation to be seen in the Arctic.

Adaptation is not surrender, but overcoming, as the survival of the Inuits through continuous climate changes has shown. And it’s important not to identify the ‘fate of the earth’ with the crisis facing our particular species. The earth and its biosphere will carry on, but in a shape we find unfriendly. A young Greenlander intellectual put it brutally: ‘Life on the planet could not care less about what is happening. It is just that we, the humans, may have to adjust our own way of life.’

Neal Ascherson