Shifting Ice and Economy in Greenland

This story was filed by CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips.
(CBS)
Johannes Mathaussen could give Indiana Jones whip lessons. When I first saw him he had parked his dogsled off the side of the trail and was containing his restless dog team by snapping 20 feet of stretched seal-gut alternately to the left and right of them. That he was lighting his pipe with his other hand at the same time only added to the impression of a man completely at home in his world.

Johannes' world is Greenland – what we used to call the frozen wastes of Greenland, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. Johannes lives in a little town called Ilulissat, halfway up the west coast of the country. At this time of the year, the sun never rises in Ilulissat. It won't peak back over the horizon until January 13th, when the town's 45-hundred or so residents climb a hill to see it for the first time in six weeks. I'm told they throw a hell of a party. For now, daylight around here amounts to about two hours of gloom.

Photos: Mark Phillips' Greenland Pictures
Mark Phillips' "Evening News" Report on the Maldives
Mark Phillips' Blog on Climate Change and Maldives

(CBS)
Johannes may have a Danish name, like a lot of his fellow Greenland Inuit, but he is rooted to his land through and through. He's made a living all his life by fishing for the Greenland halibut in summer and hunting seals on the sea ice in the ten month's of winter. These days the hunting isn't too good because there's less ice than there used to be. So he spends a lot of time taking intrepid tourists – and the occasional reporter – on dog sled excursions into the hinterland. If you're ever in the neighbourhood, I recommend it.

The landscape is a bleak but spectacular vista of ice and rock. But it's changing. "Twenty years ago," Johannes says, "In January and February it was 40, 45 below zero. Now, maybe 15 or 20." He's talking Celsius, not Fahrenheit, but it doesn't matter. The two scales meet up to exchange a frigid handshake at 40 below.

Johannes is due in Copenhagen around now to make a speech to the Climate Change conference about how his world is warming and what it means. He invites us back to his house to talk about what he wants to say. The visit was a bit of a shock. Johannes and his wife, who's a cashier at the Ilulissat supermarket, moved into a new house a couple of years ago. The place would fit in nicely in Aspen. It's an 'A' frame, open-plan, chalet-like affair, with a to-die-for view over the icebergs in the fjord, a designer kitchen and furniture we used to call Danish Modern. The walls are adorned with hunting trophies – reindeer antlers, musk ox and narwhal horns – and a 40-inch flatscreen TV sits in the corner. Johannes, who has an interest in a fishing trawler and other investments, has done well for himself. But he's worried.

The Inuit of Greenland have kept a foot in two worlds. They've kept their traditional live-off-the-land skills alive and they've benefited from the modern Danish education and health systems. If you're going to be colonized, try to get the Danes to do it. But as Greenland warms not just the landscape is changing. There's less of a sense of self-reliance.

The economy is shifting here. Receding ice has made rich mineral deposits – gold, iron ore, tungsten, nickel, copper and others -- more accessible. Sea-lanes open for more of the year mean supplies can be brought in and material shipped out more easily. The world's mining companies are falling over themselves to get a piece of the potential action. There are indications of massive oil reserves offshore.

Greenland's economy, which has historically been dependent on fishing and a huge Danish subsidy, is poised to boom. "Is there such a thing as a slow rush?" smirks a mining executive in the capital of Nuuk. "If there is, that's what we're having."

Yet there's concern here too that change and even wealth are not altogether a good thing. Greenland's 57-thousand residents, most of them Inuit, have high education and literacy levels, but they're used to a life of action. Where they've been crowed into the towns – Nuuk is the biggest at 17-thousand – there's been trouble. Alcoholism is the biggest problem with its associated evils of abuse.

Stina Berthelsen is a social worker who's part of the emerging circumpolar youth movement that is building ties with other Inuit communities in Alaska, Canada and Russia. "I hope we don't get rich too quickly," she says. "If get rich too fast I'm afraid we'll just throw it out the window and not feel the quality of it."

Back in Ilulissat, quality of life is what, Johannes Mathaussen is worried about too. He's is feeding his dogs after the ride. He takes a sack of frozen halibut out of a locker – frozen is the natural state of things here – and begins to hack off sections of fish the size of bricks. He tosses them to his howling pack and they tear at the rock-hard flesh with their teeth and gulp down chunks the consistency of ice cubes.

The snow squeaks under Johannes' boots as he walks toward the new house on the hill he's so proud of. He chuckles as I tell him he's going to be a sled dog millionaire. He liked the movie and appreciates a bad pun. The darkness becomes complete and curtains of Northern Lights wave across the sky. The beauty and the stillness are breath taking. Behind him, the dogs curl up on the ice, cover their noses with their tails and go to sleep.
  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips returned to the CBS News London bureau as a correspondent in 1993. He has covered many major stories since then, including the war in the Balkans, the death of Princess Diana and the weapons inspection conflicts in Iraq.

Comments

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.