The return of the Sun in Qaanaaq, Greenland

The 11th of February 2020, I arrived in Qaanaaq, the northernmost town in Greenland with 632 inhabitants. It was a few days before the sun returned on the sky after three months of Polar nights. For a few weeks the light was slowly coming back and some days you could sense the sun casting glimpses of sun rays and orange sun set colours as it moved behind the mountains in the horizon.

Picture 1: Qaanaaq town a few days before the sun became visible in the horizon

Picture 2: Qaanaaq a few days before the Sun appeared on the sky

Picture 3: Return of the Sun celebration decoration

Each year 17th of February they celebrate the return of the sun in Qaanaaq. The children from the School walk up the hill, here they play around, sledging down from the places with good slopes. Most had cut sun decorations from cardboard that they were wearing in their woolly hats, around the arm or carrying one as a banner. One of the teachers makes a speech and afterwards everyone sings. 

Picture 4: Return of the Sun celebration with the school children

Picture 5: Return of the Sun celebration (unfortunately it was cloudy that day, so we couldn’t see the sun)

In the evening there was a gathering in the local sports hall. There was coffee, tea, cakes and buns for the approximately 250 people joining. The buns were homemade and baked by volunteers in town. There were lots of games and different competitions including balloon dance for children, throwing rings on a target board, and playing dice in competing on who about who would be the one to untie the last knot on a 3-meter-long rope with a lot of knots.  

The local choir sang a couple of songs, and there was a price to best cake of the evening. 

Picture 6: Evening games in the sports hall

Picture 7: Children playing, balloon dance

The first day where the sun becomes visible above the mountains in the horizon. 

Picture 8: First day the sun appeared on the sky coming above the mountains in the horizon

People describe Qaanaaq as a town of hunters and trappers although the number of full-time hunters/trappers decreased since the 1980s with the young generation pursuing education and wage labour and mainly go leisure hunting in their free time. The municipality estimates the number of licensed full-time hunters to approximately 50 people (70-80 when including surrounding smaller villages). Most of the employment is in public and private sector (e.g. municipal office, local school  with 1st to 10thgrade, small hospital/health reception, old people’s home, fishing factory, grocery shop, electricity and water supply centre Nukissiorfiit, polar oil, town’s dump and sanitarian care, Tele Greenland contact point, youth club, craftsman, local hotel). A group of people (usually men) sustain themselves from hunting and fishing. Most employed people also go hunting and fishing supplying their other income with local fresh food resources.

Picture 9: Afternoon trip moving the fishing hut in the hope to get more catches in the new area

Picture 10: Afternoon trip finding new location for fishing hut

Picture 11: One of the fjords nearby Qaanaaq town where local hunters go for halibut fishing in February and March

History of Qaanaaq

Qaanaq is a young town. It was established in 1953 as part of a relocation from Thule (Old Thule/Pittufik). The United States AirForce constructed an air defence site near that village and the Danish government forcibly relocated “Old Thule” with about 130 inhabitants to a new village approximately 97 km north. Today there is still a military base operating with soldiers from US, Canada and Denmark and the base host a weather station and also a number satellite networks (21st space Wings global network of warnings of space surveillance and space control) collaborating with American Aerospace Defence command (NORAD) and Air Force Space Command (AFSPC).  

In a Danish Supreme Court judgment of 28 November 2003, the move was considered an expropriative intervention. During the proceedings it was recognized by the Danish government that the movement was a serious interference and an unlawful act against the local population. 

Picture 12: Interview with women that experienced the forced relocation from old Thule to Qaanaaq. Today she lives on the elderly care home.

Water supply in town

Water in town is supplied during the four summer months directly from the river. In the fall ans winter the town receives water from tanks that were filled up during summer. The remaining months, the trucks go out on the sea ice and dig out huge pieces of inland ice that is melted in a big water plant. Approximately 40% of the houses get water through pipes, while 55% of the house get water from a water tank that is filled once a week. The remaining housesdon’t have water installations and go to get water in town. There are two public water taps from where people can get water. There are no flushing toilets in town, instead people use black waste backs. Used backs are placed outside and picked up in a truck twice a week by the sanitary department. 

Picture 13: Truck bringing the inland ice to the smelter Nukissiorfiit

Picture 16: Antenna providing internet, radio and television to inhabitants in Qaanaaq

Picture 14: Inland ice that will melted and provide drinking water to habitants in Qaanaaq

Picture 17: Permafrost monitor a bit outside Qaanaaq town

The natural environment 

The climate in the area is classified as cold tundra climate. Winter is cold and dark while there are 2-3 months 24 -hour daylight in summer. Peak temperatures occur in July and seldom exceed 10 °C. The town is located by the North Water that is a polynya- an area of open sea, which never freezes completely, but is circumscribed by sea ice. Every summer the sea ice melts, and the polynya disappears. During fall and winter, it reappears when the surrounding sea freezes. 

One can see a polynya as an area, a phenomenon, or a kind of Arctic oasis. The North Water Polynya constitutes a unique ecosystem, which is not only abundant in wildlife, but has also been an essential hunting area for humans for millennia. 

Local observations

Hunters from Qaanaaq experience that the sea ice has changed from being a stable infrastructure for their hunt to become more unpredictable because of global warming. They observe that the fast ice boundaries are retreating towards the coast, and that the ice has become thinner and forms later each winter. Twenty years ago, it would be stable in October/November but now this winter (2019-2020) the ice was not stable before January.

This has led to challenges for both the wildlife and the people who are dependent on the living resources of this area, thus, destabilising the relationship between hunting areas, hunting seasons, and the management of these. This tendency has had severe economic consequences for several families relying on hunting/whaling. These circumstances are further challenged by restrictions on international trade with certain by-products from animals such as seals, polar bears, narwhals, and walruses. 

In general, the weather is less predictable, and each year is different. This also impacts the ability for the local hunters to get good catches, e.g. in 2018 only half of the quota for Narwhals were used. According to the local hunters it was due to bad weather with many stormy days. When a hunting quota for one year is not used it is transferred to the year after. For 2019 the full quota including the transfer from 2018 were catches and informants reported how they could feel more people in the town were happier and they correlated with the fact of the extra income gained that year compared to the year before. 

People in Qaanaaq also mention the change in snow. Many places rocks on the ground are visible because of the shallow snow cover. People mention that more snow comes later in spring i.e. April and May. The lack of snow also impacts the dogs, they don’t run as well without snow, it starts to hurt their paws, so the hunters must go on shorter dog sledding trips in the periods in winter that lack snow. 

Picture 15: Qaanaaq town, seen behind pieces of sea ice

To sum up, climate change is clearly experienced by people in Qaanaaq. Each hunter and each household adapt differently and where some pursue the strategy to become less dependent on subsistence activities others change the species, they catch e.g. many hunters are now getting income from small scale halibut fishing. Tourism is also popular during spring and summer, however, with the current outbreak of COVI 19, all planned dog-sledge trips with tourists are cancelled for spring 2020. Other activities for the seasonal calendar in Qaanaaq are narwhale hunting and the hunters still make use of their kayak and harpoon’s keeping an old Inughuit tradition alive.