A (Greenlandic) dog’s life

A chorus of ghostly howling envelops Uummannaq island daily as chained sledge dogs anticipate a dinner of scraps from the seal hunt. Listening to their lament it’s not hard to imagine they’re rueing an increasingly tenuous (and mostly tedious) existence.

The only breed allowed above the Arctic Circle here, the Greenlandic Dog’s numbers have almost halved since the turn of the century, edging them towards functional extinction. Unreliable sea ice makes breeding and keeping sledge dogs a gamble: you may or may not be able to use them for more than a month or two, but you must feed them for 12 months regardless, unlike a snowmobile or boat.  Both of the latter are noisy in operation, which is bad for hunting, while a dog sledge is silent but for the sound of its runners on ice and the whip for steering (the dogs are not whipped but veer away from whichever side it’s cracked).

Lacking roads, and with the Arctic Line supply ship sailings suspended from Christmas til May, fjord transport and access to hunting grounds by one means or another is important for a community that’s largely subsistence-based. If Uummannaq strikes visitors as oddly full of taxis it makes sense when one remembers they can drive to all the neighbouring settlements in the fjord (pop. 2300) across the sea ice if and when it stabilises.

Last century the ice would form in November/December, but in the last decade climate change has pushed that into February; this year (2022) there was only sledge-ready snow atop the fast ice around 10 March. This trend follows a 2ºC rise in air temperatures 2000-2010 and subsurface water temperature rises of more than 1.5ºC. As traditions integral to Inuit culture disappear, so do people’s identities and bonds to these smaller settlements, with knock-on effects in youth suicide, alcoholism, and populations ebbing away to the capital Nuuk, making the settlements increasingly unviable.

The fate of the sledge dogs is inextricably linked to that of the disappearing sea ice on which they work and, in turn, to the Greenlandic people and culture which uses sea ice as a platform existence.

And so I leave you with a cautionary tale of what can happen when you mix modern and traditional technologies:

Music for these clips: “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone” and “Simpsons” respectively, by Martin Fondse