A collection of notes and reflections on where I do my research.
In early March 2015, on a sunny day with cloudless skies, I flew from Pituffik (Thule Air Base) to Savissivik on the northwestern shore of Melville Bay. On my previous visits to the village, I had approached by dogsledge, travelling from the southeast from Kullorsuaq and from the west from Kap York on sea ice during trips in late winter and early spring, and by boat during summer. This time, travelling in the scheduled Air Greenland Bell 212 helicopter from Qaanaaq, following an overnight stop at the air base, the route took us low over the inland ice and south along the Dead Fjord. I looked east and southeast over a vast plateau of ice stretching to the horizon. Glaciers descended to meet the frozen sea ice which, at their termini, caught icebergs at their serrated edges and arrested them in the process of calving. Sunlight rippled over scree and moraine. Nunataks rose above the ice.
In the early 1990s, the Upernavik area underwent a major transition from hunting to fishing. Not all hunters abandoned seal hunting, but the opportunities apparent by turning more or less full-time to fishing for Greenland halibut were difficult to resist and soon many people were giving up their sled dogs in favour of snowmobiles and were moving away from standing for hours on end at a seal’s breathing hole to fishing camps on the sea ice in the winter and were establishing new summer camping places near good fishing prospects deep in iceberg-filled glacial bays. Several communities became known as fishing villages, whereas once they had reputations as exclusively hunting settlements, such as Innaarsuit, Aappilattoq, Kangersuatsiaq, Tasisusaq and Nutaarmiut, drawing people there either as seasonal residents or as permanent relocatees. The Greenland halibut fishery has been subject to an individual transferrable quota (ITQ) system for some years now, itself part of recent reforms in Greenlandic fisheries more generally which aim to propel coastal fisheries towards greater economic profitability. Contested ideas of property rights vested in fish stocks have come to the fore in discussions of the economic development of the district, which reveal an ongoing conflict between those advancing the interests of the small settlements and the interests of the national government and those who oversee and run the fishing industry. Exploratory activity related to extractive industries has also brought different kinds of pressures and anxieties, as well as hopes for economic benefits in the Upernavik area. Mining companies are engaged in prospecting and developing plans for a number of projects in northwest Greenland, but Baffin Bay and Melville Bay have also been the focus of recent international interest in the prospects for the discovery of oil.
Like other areas around Greenland’s coasts, the Nuuk Fjord region is a place saturated with human presence and habitation, full of named locations, tent rings, old winter houses and more recent evidence of settlement, and hunting and fishing sites used for generations that bear witness to long-standing social relations, use and experience. It is a gateway between the inland ice, glaciers and the open ocean, an area which historically and in the present has had the largest human populations, a place significant for both its Inuit and its medieval Norse settlements. Place names and local narrative accounts of seal hunting or fishing, tracking reindeer and hunting ptarmigan, setting fox traps or gathering berries, or travelling by boat, walking across the land, and camping, all attest to the historical and contemporary use of the area, and inform multi-spatial thinking about its future use.
In summer and early autumn 2014, I travelled in Melville Bay (Qimusseriarsuaq) with hunters from Savissivik and Kullorsuaq and marked on charts the extent of glacial melt. My companions pointed out just how far some glaciers had receded in recent decades, based on their experience and that of community memory. Some glaciers are used occasionally as crossing places in winter and spring when the sea ice does not make for safe dog sledging, otherwise people do not venture into Melville Bay to ascend or travel on them. However, the hunters remarked that just as these bodies of dense ice are disappearing, so too are the names given to them. As one put it to me, “Peary Glacier is disappearing and so is the name. New land is being revealed and we can name it in a Greenlandic way.” Climate change not only erodes features of the environment, it erases commemoration of particular views of Arctic landscapes and icescapes. Some may lament the disappearance of the Peary Glacier as the loss of polar heritage inscribed in a mass of ice formed from the accumulation of snow, but from a local Greenlandic point of view the movement of a glacier, its surging and receding, and either the covering or undraping of land is entirely consistent with the world as undergoing a process of constant becoming.