South Greenland at a Crossroads

More local magic may be needed to adapt to a changing climate and a changing economy while retaining South Greenland’s vibrant culture

South Greenland is a magical place. A hot spring sits on an open hillside above an iceberg-filled fjord. Inuit sheep farmers have restored an agricultural practice first introduced by Erik the Red and other Norse settlers from Iceland. The sea abounds with fish, seals and whales. A hydroelectric dam provides local power. Brightly painted houses rise above the harbor in Qaqortoq, a community of 3,000 that is the largest in the region. It’s no wonder 45 cruise ships came to visit in the summer of 2022.

The influx of tourists is only the latest group of newcomers and only one of the recent changes South Greenland has experienced. As mentioned, Norse settlers arrived more than a millennium ago, fleeing conflict in Iceland and then realizing the bounty of green pastures. Inuit had arrived in northern Greenland at around this time, and eventually the two cultures met. Competition and cooperation ensued, but eventually the maritime Inuit were better suited to a cooling climate than the farming Norse, and Greenland became an Inuit homeland. The arrival of Danish colonizers in the 18th century created another legacy, the disruptive, multi-generational consequences of which persist today in ways large and small throughout Greenlandic society.

During World War II, Greenland was strategically located for air travel from North America to Europe. In July 1941, the United States built Bluie West One, an airbase that is now the Narsarsuaq airport serving all of South Greenland. Planes and troops were ferried back and forth, and one valley was home to a hospital for treating the wounded before their return home.

Fishing, hunting and farming continue as the local economic mainstays. As with small communities everywhere, however, remaining competitive in a globalized economy is difficult at best. Fishermen often have difficulty selling their catch if the local processing plant is not fully operational. Innovative local products, such as herbs and jams, are filling some of the gap, but the populations of smaller settlements are declining. Enrollment at the sheep farming school has declined, too. 

Today, Greenland is often in the news in relation to climate change. The Greenland Ice Sheet is melting faster than snowfall replenishes it. In 2022, the melt season extended into September for the first time ever—the effects will be felt around the world in the form of sea level rise. 

glaciers calving into the see in southeast Greenland, from the air

What happens in Greenland has hardly ever stayed in Greenland. The Norse continued on to Vinland, making a strong claim to be the first Europeans to reach North America. Inuit traveled back and forth to what is now Canada, sharing ideas and technologies such as innovations in kayak design. World War II and the Cold War made Greenland a strategic hub, pushing communities aside. Fish exports, tourists and interest in mining potential create economic links, which in turn generate geopolitical interest from China, the United States and others. A new airport is under construction in Qaqortoq, creating economic opportunity and a better connection within Greenland and beyond.

The Inuit of South Greenland now navigate between icebergs and between traditional livelihoods and new opportunities such as tourist homestays on sheep farms or guided hunting trips led by formerly full-time fishermen. Greenland has achieved self-rule status within the Kingdom of Denmark, a major step away from colonial status, though much remains to be done. De-colonization is a major motivator for further innovation and the reclaiming of traditional ways. Now, more local magic may be needed to adapt to a changing climate and a changing economy while retaining the region’s vibrant culture.

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