August 12, 2009

Sled dogs, taxicabs and a midnight sun

Assistant Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Science at City College

ILULISSAT, Greenland | First things first: The boat is with us. Hallelujah! And the nice person with the airline charged us for only half the excessive weight.

The flight to Ilulissat was three and a half hours, with gray skies all the way–so no chance to see the ice sheet below. The fog and clouds disappeared only about 300 feet before landing, just enough to give us a glimpse of small icebergs in the cold, dark sea. Our contact picked us up and brought us to the apartment we will be sharing with a National Geographic writer and a freelance photographer. (The National Geographic Society is one of the organizations supporting our work with a grant.)

It is my first time in the Arctic. I have been in colder places (we
spent a week in Stanley, Idaho, this past February for a field
experiment with wind chill of -25 F) but never in the Arctic. While my professional interest is in the Greenland ice sheet, I’m personally curious about the people and their culture up here. Most are Inuit. They
speak Greenlandic and Danish and dress in modern winter clothes, commonly of famous brands such as Northface and Patagonia. I was surprised to see so many young people and very few elderly. The
dominant activity in Ilulissat is fishery. Most of the men own many
boats (from old fishing vessels to fast, modern boats) and they go
fishing or hunting seals. Tourism has been increasing the last few
years and it is driven by the town’s proximity to one of
the most important Greenland glaciers, the Jacobshavn Isbrae. It is
estimated that this glacier drains 10 percent of all the water generated by the melting Greenland ice sheet.

What’s really not missing in Ilulissat are dogs—sled dogs. They are
not husky but derive from the Siberian wolf. The town is literally
flooded with these dogs and they are all over around the houses,
chained to large rocks. Every now and then the dogs start howling and barking for food. It’s amazing what thousands of hungry dogs sound like together.
Another major presence in Ilulissat is, of all things, taxicabs. Coming from New York, I didn’t expect a town of
3,500 people, two miles long, and well above the Arctic circle to have such a high ration of taxis to people. Our guide tells
us that some of the local people have up to three incomes: the fish,
the cabs, and the tourists. Many rent parts of their houses during the tourist season.

After walking around the town we head home to cook dinner. The
midnight sun is disorienting. It is already 10 in the evening
but the sky is as bright as 3 in the afternoon. We go to sleep in the bright light, surrounded by our piles of equipment, as tired as if we had walked from New York to Greenland.

(See the latest photos by clicking on the Flickr link over there to the right.)