Climate Change Is Making Life Even Harder for This Remote Village

For people who live near the Arctic, melting ice may signal the end of their world as they know it.

by Mike Pearl
Apr 19 2017, 4:00am

All photos by Ken Bower

Back in November, environmentalist Twitter had a giant collective freakout when a graph showing the amount of sea ice in the Arctic went viral (or at least as viral as a graph about global warming can go). It showed that while sea ice levels were once trending downward, they went off a cliff last winter. The graph has since been updated, and the results are even more horrifying. 

But numbers and colored lines fail to convey a really crucial part of the story: Higher temperatures from climate change are here and so are their impacts on human civilization. In short, when the ice around the North Pole didn't materialize over the winter, people's lives were torn apart.

All photos by Ken Bower

This past March, photographer Ken Bower was in eastern Greenland visiting his friend, an Inuit hunter named Kunuk, giving him the rare chance to witness and document the damage climate change has already done to the way of life in this area, about 68 miles south of the Arctic Circle. 

VICE: Tell me a little about your friend in Greenland.
Ken Bower: Kunuk is native Inuit, and he's 25, in the village of Kulusuk, which has about 250 to 260 people. He and his father have about 20 dogs, and he has to go hunting to feed all of his dogs. It's too expensive to feed 20 dogs solely on dog food. Twenty dogs that weigh 80 to 90 pounds eat quite a bit. Also they rely on hunting to feed the family as well. Hunting provides about half of their food, and then there's a little store where they can subsidize their daily food.

Hunting seals has had some very bad PR in the past. Can you tell me a little about their hunting practices?
The Inuit subsistence hunting in Greenland is extremely different from commercial seal hunting. The Inuit have relied on seal hunting for thousands of years for food and clothing. They don't take what they want but rather what they need to get by and nothing more. Today, in the world of overpriced imported goods and food insecurity, the traditional hunts still continue.

What goes on during traditional hunts?
What Kunuk told me about hunting is that everything gets used. They're basically against clubbing. They don't hunt baby seals, because they think it's a waste of resources. That seal would grow up to be a larger seal and potentially breed and create more seals, so they only hunt the adult seals. They use primarily rifles now because it's a quicker kill. Once they get the seals, they use everything. They use all the meat, and feed the liver, and other parts they can't eat, to the dogs. Sometimes the very large seals, which don't taste so good, they'll use solely for the dogs.

Why keep so many dogs around?
The village has no vehicles, so really the only form of transportation is dogsled. That's the primary means. A few people have snowmobiles, but they're pretty expensive. Most people can't afford it.

How has Kunuk's lifestyle been hit by climate change?
Normally all of these areas are completely locked in with ice, three to five feet thick, but when we go out on a dogsled, it would be a relatively short trip—20 minutes to a half hour—and then we would hit the edge of the ice. The open water prevented them from going to their other hunting spots and limited their hunting to one area when I was there. They'd go there and wait for seals to pop their heads up. After they would shoot it, they'd go out in a kayak or small boat to retrieve it.

Wait, do people in this village normally go around carrying a boat with a dogsled?
It was incredibly unusual to use such a large boat and to have it dragged by the dogs. Actually when Kunuk was hooking the dogs up to the front of the boat, he said that he didn't know how they would react, because he never did this before, but the reason he decided to bring that boat was that he just couldn't make it out to the other areas. By boat, with the engine, he'd be able to get to other hunting spots.

In the photos, it looks like the boat is cutting through the ice like Shackleton or something. Was that a challenge?
It was a small 19-to-20-foot boat with a 75-horsepower engine. He would just drive it right through the ice, which is about a half inch to about an inch and a half thick, which is still far too thin to walk on.

How's the village coping?
The direct impacts are on his dogs—and other peoples' in the village. Because it was so difficult this winter, and in previous winters, [other people in the village have] gotten rid of their dogs completely, and abandoned this tradition of using the dogs to go hunting for good. And my friend Kunuk told me that at the end of this winter, it's been so difficult for his dogs that he might have to get rid of probably seven or eight of them.

What else happens when they can't sled across the ice?
It prevents them from going to the other five villages in the area. Kunuk's uncle is in one of the other villages. And they can't see him until the summer, when they can reach him fully by boat. They're essentially separated throughout the winter. 

Other than getting to other villages and hunting, is there any other use for a dogsled?Kunuk's father was going to go on a one-week expedition with tourists, but they had to cancel because they couldn't bring them by dogsled to where they needed to go. They were limited to such a small area, you could see it in an afternoon. That's had a huge impact—preventing tourists from going there for dogsledding. Dogsledding has been such a tradition in this village and the others in Greenland that it's really sad to see this fade away.

What happens to the dogs now?
He'll try his best to give them away, but since everybody's trying to get rid of their dogs, because they can't feed them, they'll either starve, or he'll unfortunately have to put them down himself.

Check out more of Ken Bower's photos and videos on Instagram.

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