The new houses built for tsunami victims, as seen from the helicopter route between Qaarsut and Uummannaq
The new houses built for tsunami victims, as seen from the helicopter route between Qaarsut and Uummannaq. Photo by Jessie Brinkman Evans

Residents Displaced by a Mega-Tsunami Can Never Go Home

For survivors of Greenland's 2017 mega-tsunami, the aftershocks of the disaster haven't finished.
January 14, 2021, 12:00pm
tipping point callout
Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.

The summer’s midnight sun hung high above Uummannaq, an island community nearly 600 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle on Greenland’s west coast, when a teacher working at a local child care received a phone call.

The frantic voice on the other end of the line belonged to her daughter, who was at home with her family in a distant settlement called Nuugaatsiaq. Her daughter was scared—something was happening to the water, she said. The tide had pulled far from the shore of their coastal village, and some of the other residents were running for higher ground. Suddenly, the line went dead.

Advertisement

That night in June 2017, Nuugaatsiaq was devastated by a mega-tsunami, the waves triggered by a massive landslide nearly 30 kilometres across the fjord. Though the waves had somewhat dissipated by the time they reached Nuugaatsiaq, their effect on the small fishing village was still devastating. Shaky cellphone footage that emerged in the days and weeks following show homes and buildings lifted from their foundations and pushed inland, before being sucked out into the frozen waters; sled-dogs hastily loosened from the stakes to which they’re chained make a desperate run before being swept up; and pyjama-clad residents hurry for the safety of higher ground.

But the woman who had called her mom was not among them. The day before the tsunami struck, she had telephoned the hospital in Uummannaq, concerned her baby was running a fever. She asked if they could arrange a helicopter for her, but without the necessary funding, the hospital denied the request. 

Nervous to take her sick child out in the cold, the young woman decided to stay indoors while the rest of the community ran up to the hills. She and her family were killed when the wave hit.

Of the 43 people in Nuugaatsiaq at the time of the tsunami, four were killed, and the rest relocated to neighbouring Uummannaq. 

Nuugaatsiaq after the tsunami.

Nuugaatsiaq after the tsunami. Photo courtesy of Awewewe/Wikimedia

More than three years later, those displaced by the tsunami are still unable to return home. Sections of the rock face are unstable and liable to collapse again, a symptom of the warming climate across the region.

“It’s terrible. We never even imagined having to leave Nuugaatsiaq before.”

In August, Greenland’s ice sheet passed a critical point of no return; Ohio State University researchers determined snowfall that replenishes the ice will no longer be able to keep up with the volume it’s losing. In September, a section of ice measuring nearly 110 square kilometres broke from the Arctic’s largest remaining ice shelf in northeast Greenland, due to warming waters. In a December report from the University of Liege, new climate models are predicting a 60 percent greater melting of Greenland’s ice sheet than had previously been forecast.

Researchers who’ve studied the 2017 mega-tsunami say that while events like it are still uncommon, the effects of global warming will result in more landslides and a drastic rise in sea levels, both in Greenland and elsewhere, particularly in already thawing Arctic and alpine environments. Those living directly in their path, however, are already experiencing the trauma, both individually and communally. 

“We are people of the ice,” said Marna Møller on a day in March, as her husband Mikkel brought over mugs of coffee. “In our fjord we have a massive glacier front, so we are used to ice calving in our fjord. But what happened then was something entirely different; these waves were of a massive scale.”

Marna and Mikkel Møller in Uummannaq in March 2020

Marna and Mikkel Møller in Uummannaq in March 2020. Photo by Jessie Brinkman Evans

Marna and her family were in Nuugaatsiaq when the tsunami struck. From their home they watched as the water took on a strange effect, convulsing and receding sharply. Fishing boats which only moments earlier had idled listlessly in the water rocked and swayed as they were pulled back along their ropes. As people left their homes and walked towards the shore, some filming on their phones, the water began to rush back in. 

“When the waves started coming, we fled to the mountains. We had no time to grab anything, no phones, and no clothes,” Marna said, pointing to a painting of Nuugaatsiaq on the wall behind her. “Houses were quickly being swept away from the village.”

Advertisement

The initial run-up—how high the water reaches up the shoreline—measured close to 90 metres in parts along the slope from which 45 million cubic metres of earth tumbled into the waters below. In comparison, the run-up that precipitated the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster measured 40 metres.

A painting of Nuugaatsiaq in the Møller family's new living room, a reminder of the home they've lost.

A painting of Nuugaatsiaq in the Møller family's new living room, a reminder of the home they've lost. Photo by Jessie Brinkman Evans

For nearly six hours, Marna said, she and the others waited at the base of the mountain, too afraid to return to their village even after the waves had ceased.

“We believe the rockslide happened because of the climate changing,” said Marna. “The rock is very muddy up there (on the mountains) and with the warmer climate it affects the conditions up there.”

“It’s not a new phenomenon,” said Hermann Fritz, a professor from the Georgia Institute of Technology, “but obviously freezing and thawing is one of the main mechanisms to really trigger landslides.”

In July 2017, Fritz and a team of researchers travelled to Greenland to collect data following the landslide and tsunami to determine the causes. Through a National Science Foundation grant, the team surveyed the remote location of the landslide, and reconstructed the events with aerial photography. Generally speaking, Fritz said, climate change is responsible for a number of factors behind landslides like the one in Greenland. 

As the Arctic thaws and glaciers begin to recede, the permafrost holding the earth together melts, and landscapes become more unstable. While freezing and thawing have always occurred, the ongoing loss of permafrost is creating increased instability in areas that were once stable. 

Advertisement

Fritz says that this destabilizing thawing is an issue for the entire Arctic and high alpine environments globally. “All the freezing and thawing, and then the de-glaciation, retreat of glaciers and so forth, the melting of permafrost: all of these things are factors that will result in more likelihood of landslides of all scales.”

For Dr. Annie Kerouedan, the memories of the tsunami still linger. A French national, Kerouedan has lived in Greenland for over a decade, and since 2006 was chief physician at the hospital in Uummannaq, the primary medical hub in the region. 

Dr. Annie Kerouedan sits at her kitchen table in Uummannaq, a day after leaving her position at the hospital.

Dr. Annie Kerouedan sits at her kitchen table in Uummannaq, a day after leaving her position at the hospital. Photo by Jessie Brinkman Evans

She and her team coordinated the evacuation efforts following the tsunami and treated the injured while also worrying about the fate of their own friends and family in the area of the disaster.

While they were able to evacuate 39 residents safely, it’s the memories of those they couldn’t save that stick with her most, like the young mother.

“All the time I’ve been thinking,” said Kerouedan, “if we had said, ‘OK, we’ll send the helicopter and you’ll come to Uummannaq,’ they wouldn’t have been there.”

The fourth individual who died that day, an older man, had a consultation at the hospital scheduled for the following week for his bad leg. Unable to outrun the waves, he never reached the top of the hill where the others had found safety. 

Advertisement

In the days following the tsunami, financial support for those displaced poured in from across Greenland and beyond. The Danish military helped residents retrieve what belongings they could, including any dogs that had managed to survive. 

New houses built for the tsunami victims, located at the edge of Uummannaq

New houses built for the tsunami victims, located at the edge of Uummannaq. Photo by Jessie Brinkman Evans

Following their evacuation to Uummannaq, residents expected to go home once they got word from the government that it was safe to do so. Days later, Marna and others were invited to a meeting where they were told that an area around the landslide was still unstable. Though residents of Niaqornat, a settlement about 90 kilometres away from Nuugaatsiaq,  could go home, the risk of a future slide made it impossible for Marna and her family to return.

Through a lottery selection, the Møllers were placed in a house near the center of Uummannaq, though others from Nuugaatsiaq live further away in a new development. Though they’re happy to live where they do, Marna says their new home is un-insulated in parts, and was missing some amenities. “We didn’t even have water in the beginning,” she said.

The Møller family outside their new home, nearly three years after the Nuugaatsiaq tsunami forced their evacuation to Uummannaq.

The Møller family outside their new home, nearly three years after the Nuugaatsiaq tsunami forced their evacuation to Uummannaq. Photo by Jessie Brinkman Evans

Kerouedan, who left her position at the hospital in Uummannaq in February following restructuring by the regional health authority, now splits her time between the Arctic and France. The morning before her final shift, she was called down to the hospital to treat a patient from one of the other settlements.

“A young girl had tried to cut herself,” she said, gesturing to her arm. “It was big—really big.”

Advertisement

The girl was picked up from a community called Saattut, and was one of those displaced from Nuugaatsiaq. On her way to the hospital, she told a nurse that she still thinks of the tsunami. 

“It’s still difficult for her: she cannot speak to her parents, and she wanted to die,” said Kerouedan.

Kerouedan said that for some, the trauma hasn’t yet ended. “I don’t think it’s finished.” 

Despite initial promises of long-term support, many from Nuugaatsiaq feel let down by the government, who they say never delivered promised compensation for property and expenses. The Møllers had paid out of pocket for everything except the house, including renting a property in town until a permanent home was provided, as well as new furnishings in lieu of what they had to leave behind.

Ultimately, it has been the fragmenting of their once tight-knit community that the family has found most challenging. “Our youngest daughter, who was 12 years old at the time, also experienced a lot of change,” said Marna. “She was bullied in school here for being a ‘refugee.’”

While some from Nuugaatsiaq have relatives in town that they can rely on, the Møllers’ connections are spread out among the villages across the fjord. As their former community grows more separated, Mikkel noted it was that same sense of community which helped them initially cope with the trauma. 

Advertisement

“Grieving together and carrying the sorrow as a community was very important,” Mikkel said. “I look back and I feel so grateful for what we had in Nuugaatsiaq; it’s brought a lot of tears, but also joy in reminiscing of the life we had.” 

Mikkel still smokes fish near his former home. And while there have been rumours in the past of the government reopening the settlement, he says the community must move forward. “The incident is something we eventually need to accept,” said Mikkel. “We didn’t choose to experience it, (nor) did we want to move here and become locals in Uummannaq. We need to accept that now.”

“Ajorpoq, Ajuuvippoq,” said Marna, shaking her head, which roughly translates to “it's bad, very bad” in Greenlandic. “It’s terrible. We never even imagined having to leave Nuugaatsiaq before.”

Conor McCann is a writer and journalist based in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Follow him on Twitter. Jessie Brinkman Evans is an American Australian travel and editorial photographer. Follow her on Instagram. Both visited Greenland in 2020 to document stories of climate change and its human impact.

Have a story for Tipping Point? Email TippingPoint@vice.com