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A mystery tent and a dog sled

Nick Clark and a WWF expedition along the Greenland coast are puzzled a lone tent on a beach.
Last modified: 18 Aug 2012 04:44

This blog is Nick Clark's third dispatch from his journey with a World Wildlife Fund expedition exploring some of the last regions of near-constant sea ice.

We’ve headed 25 nautical miles up the Greenland coast towards the northernmost civilian settlement on earth, Siorapaluk. But gusty winds and a nasty chop have stymied progress, so we’ve holed up in the lee of a headland.

And through the lashing Arctic rain, there on a sandy beach, is a lone tent buffeted by the wind. We thought at first there was a kayak next to it – we’ve come across a couple of French kayakers making their way round the coast already - but binoculars reveal it to be a dog sled.

Speculation is now rife on board: How could a dog sled be there on this remote beach in summer, with the pack ice long gone? Is someone inside the tent? Where are the dogs? If the weather improves, maybe we’ll get a chance to investigate.

For a while it looked fifty-fifty whether or not we could carry on. Transmission issues with the engine necessitated the expertise of Qaanaq’s power plant chief to give things the once over. His view confirmed that of the skipper – things are not serious enough to stop our progress yet.

But caution is the name of the game in these parts, so we’ll not now be heading quite as far north as first planned. Given the weather, that’s no bad thing.

Oil potential

While the boat’s mechanics were being dealt with, we had a chance meeting with a geologist from the Danish Geological Survey on shore. Christian Knudsen is carrying out research for the oil companies trying to determine what petroleum possibilities there are beneath Baffin Bay.

He’s been flying in a helicopter around the islands, taking sandstone samples. The view is that the sandstone could hold reservoirs of oil and gas. Already, Shell is leading a consortium doing submarine research.

"The US Geological Survey estimated there's enough oil in Greenlandic waters to supply the whole of the globe for a year," Christian said. "That's a lot of oil which could transform the country's economy."

But as Christian acknowledged, herein lies the problem.

"If there is oil here on that scale, then Greenland’s traditional way of life could disappear just like that," he said.

The other side of the coin is that Greenland wants independence from Denmark. Natural resources could be the key to the door and the government is pushing in that direction.

Clive Tesar is the WWF’s Arctic expert on board the Arctic Tern.

"Of course local people need to make the decision about their future," he said. "Our view is so long as there are healthy populations of wildlife and the ecosystems remain healthy, then we certainly don’t oppose development. It’s only when that development interferes with the balance of the environment, that we have a problem."

The collision of interests, it seems to me, is not far away.

The view may be different in the city but out here among the more remote communities, the traditional way of life is something to fight for. Mads Ole Kristiansen is continuing an almost endless line of hunters going back generations.

Throughout the year he hunts narwhal, reindeer and seal. We filmed him tossing hunks of narwhal meat to his baying sled dogs.

"Without my dogs I am nothing. Without his dogs the hunter is nothing," he said.

Mads told me how evident global warming is becoming. He gestured high above his head to demonstrate how deep into the ice he used to hunt seal 10 years ago. And now? He measured from the ground, to his hip.

I proposed a scenario where one day the sea ice disappears in winter, completely. Mads, like other hunters we spoke to, could not countenance this. He could only talk in terms of snow and ice as an absolute definite.

“I always believe the ice is coming,” the hunter said. “I cannot imagine no ice. There will always be cold, cold winters.”

Read Nick Clark's earlier dispatches from Greenland:

August 14: Contortions, communities and climate

August 8: On the frontline of global warming