Climate Change Is Transforming Greenland’s Landscapes—and Its Language

Greenland has a rich vocabulary for ice and snow. But what happens to language when those natural phenomena start to disappear?

Climate Change Is Transforming Greenland’s Landscapes—and Its Language

As Greenland’s iconic icebergs begin to melt as the planet warms, how will its people, and language, adapt?

Photo by Carsten Snejbjerg

I came to think of it as the Valley of the Howling Dogs. It was my second day in Ilulissat, Greenland’s third-largest town, and after exploring the modest center, I soon found myself on the outskirts, walking beside a broad meadow carpeted in sled dogs. There were hundreds and hundreds of them, all tied on lengths of chains and waiting desultorily, it seemed, for snow. They paid me no mind, but as I passed the last of them, a sound I had never heard before—half joyful yodel, half demonic despair—rose from their midst: It was feeding time. I continued for a mile or so as the road turned to trail, but without trees to block the sound, the noise of the dogs stayed with me. When I finally reached the edge of the fjord, on Greenland’s western coast, their cries formed an appropriately otherworldly soundtrack for the fathomless spectacle that lay before me. Towering in the bay like some kind of marvelous ghost city were massive icebergs, tinted pink and lavender by the setting sun and floating ethereally on the glassy sea. I tried to formulate words for what I was seeing, but they wouldn’t come.

The beauty of it was awesome, and I don’t mean that in the California dude sense. I mean it in the original sense of the word: wonder tinged with a degree of dread or fear. It was impossible to look across the ice fjord and Disko Bay and not feel reverence for the ravishing beauty of it. But this being Greenland, a land that for at least the past 100,000 years has been largely covered and surrounded by ice, it was also impossible not to feel a certain foreboding. As those spectacular floating sculptures set ominously to the cries of hungry dogs reminded me, the ice is disappearing. However much we may think we know what that means—rising sea levels, extreme weather events, endangered species, including us—Greenland speaks of the climate crisis in a language too articulate to ignore. So it is somewhat ironic that among the many things affected by the disappearing ice is the Greenlandic language itself.

Or at least that’s the theory. Long before I’d landed in Greenland, I’d read an article about the unexpected effects of climate change. The piece included a fascinating hypothesis by linguist Lenore Grenoble, whose work focuses on language shifts in the Arctic. She argues that as weather and nature patterns change, so too does the Indigenous vocabulary that describes them. Could language really be that sensitive? In late summer, just a couple of weeks before the first snow traditionally arrives, I went to Ilulissat, whose very name translates as “icebergs,” to find out.

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Greenland is known for its colorful architecture, a practice instituted in the 18th century to identify a building’s function. Red was for churches, schools, and trade; yellow for hospitals; and blue for fish-related work.

Photo by Carsten Snejbjerg

It’s a cliché that the “Eskimos” have 50 words for snow, and it’s not even true. In the late 19th century, anthropologist Franz Boas was conducting field research among the Inuit, an Indigenous people in the Arctic whom Europeans at that time referred to—offensively—as Eskimos. He observed that the Inuit had four different words for snow: aput (snow on the ground), qana (falling snow), piqsirpoq (drifting snow), and qimuqsug (a snowdrift). Over time, Boas’s intention in describing these words was distorted by other scholars and popular culture, and the number of snow names ballooned into 50 or more. Yet the transformation of the Inuit vocabulary into myth does not mean that its roster of snow and ice words isn’t rich or meaningful. In fact, a fascinating feature of the Inuit language family, which includes Greenlandic, helps explain why the legend has endured: All Inuit languages use polysynthesis to form words, attaching prefixes and suffixes to roots, so that a huge amount of information—what would be entire sentences in other languages—can be conveyed through a single word.

In the case of Greenlandic, which is spoken by roughly 50,000 people in Greenland and Denmark, polysynthesis results in words like isersarneq, which translates roughly as “a wind in the fjord that comes in from the sea, and makes it hard to get home, but once you get out of the fjord, it’s nice weather.” There may not be 50 or 100 root words for snow or ice, but Greenlandic can articulate precise detail where detail matters. Yet the details themselves are under pressure, according to University of Chicago–based Grenoble. “Climate change is causing massive cultural disruption,” she said. “And that is changing the language.

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With few inland roads and highways, boats are the primary way people travel around Greenland.

Photo by Carsten Snejbjerg

More than 80 percent of Greenland is covered by an ice sheet that, in some places, is nearly two miles thick. In the past decade, an estimated 3.5 trillion tons of it have melted. The sea ice that surrounds the island is also thinning. The impact on Greenland’s fauna is already detectable: Polar bears starve as the ice becomes too thin for them to hunt on; caribou are forced to flee the grasslands where they graze in summer, because the mosquitoes have multiplied.

From Ilulissat, you can practically watch climate change happen. The town is positioned on a spit of land where the ice fjord connects the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier with Disko Bay. Sermeq is nearly 40 miles long and three miles wide, though it was once much larger—for the past 20 years, it has been Greenland’s fastest-thinning glacier, a dubious distinction. This, however, hasn’t scared off travelers. Though Ilulissat’s population is less than 5,000, the town draws roughly 36,200 visitors a year who want to see the glacier in action.

Because the shrinking glacier is actively calving, creating icebergs, the fjord is full of floating chunks of ice moving slowly toward the bay. (In fact, legend holds that the fjord is the birthplace of the iceberg that sank the Titanic.) Before they reach the open sea, the icebergs bunch together in that marvelous ghost city I witnessed. Eventually, they break free, and many float around to Ilulissat’s harbor. They are slimmed down but still sparkly and wondrous, and it is impossible to do them justice with the paltry word beautiful.

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One of the many icebergs on the way to Eqi Glacier.

Photo by Carsten Snejbjerg

The hotel café where I met Nivi Pedersen a few days later overlooks that miraculous bay. She is a young actress and filmmaker, and after discussing her current shoot, we turned, almost inevitably, to the ice and its associated words. “Language describes the necessary,” she said. “Which is why we only have one word for ‘snake’ [there are none in Greenland] but many for ice. At one point in our history, it was extremely necessary to vocally distinguish between the condition of the ice: Is it safe? Is the snow we see on top hard or soft?” Pedersen’s comments reminded me that there’s something about naming that makes the ineffable real. For English speakers, schadenfreude might be the best example. We know what it means to take joy in others’ suffering, even if we must borrow a word from German to describe it. But there are so many others. Once, in a poem translated from Sanskrit, I came across a single word that means “the feeling you get when you know your lover is going to leave you, but he hasn’t left yet.” I recognized the sentiment immediately. I just hadn’t realized, until I learned it had a name, that others felt it too.

Perhaps that’s why it feels so important to name the linguistic threat facing Greenlandic. Receding ice has made Greenland’s vast reserves of minerals and other resources more accessible, a development that may bring new wealth to the island. It also means that when Greenlanders migrate to larger towns, they now encounter a language challenge not only from Danish speakers—when Greenland gained home rule from Denmark in 1979, the government removed Danish as an official language, though it’s still widely spoken—but also from international workers whose lingua franca tends to be English.

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Left: Colorful dwarf birch flowers. Right: Aron Petersen is a park ranger at Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Photos by Carsten Snejbjerg

For Pedersen, who listens to Greenlandic music, reads Greenlandic novels, and shoots her films in Greenlandic, the language is simply part of her daily life. She once had a professor who believed Greenlandic got some of its power from the island’s antagonistic relationship to Danish. “I don’t know if people are going to oppose English in the same way,” she said.

And as lifestyle changes, so too does vocabulary. Climate change has made life in coastal villages more difficult in some ways, contributing to the decline of traditional means of sustenance, including hunting. That, in addition to other factors, has spurred continued migration to the capital, Nuuk, and other towns where people are more likely to be exposed to the colonial language.

“Climate change is causing massive cultural disruption,” Grenoble said. “And that is changing the language.”

“Some people there use Danish all the time. If there’s one kid in a class who only speaks Danish, they’ll all switch to it,” Grenoble, the linguist, explained to me. “That alone affects the language ecology.”

Grenoble has already encountered Greenlanders who, unable to relay the names of sea ice, tell her she must go farther north if she wants to learn them. “The problem is that sea ice doesn’t look like it did 10 years ago, let alone 40,” she said. “There’s going to be no reason to use these root words for very thick, old sea ice when it doesn’t exist anymore.”

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Despite its polar climate, Greenland is rife with plants and greenery.

Photos by Carsten Snejbjerg

Not everyone sees that as a bad thing. Diminishing sea ice has brought new opportunities: Cruise ships muscle their way into Ilulissat harbor, and the town is full of places selling adventure gear and Thai food to travelers. The Icefjord Centre was built with them in mind. A glorious wood-and-glass swoop of a building, it is as much a part of the landscape as it is a frame for it. Inside are exhibitions about ice: how it forms, where it has been, what’s happening to it now. An inner chamber features sounds of the ice, directly transmitted from several research stations. Outside, paths lead to the fjord and its frozen metropolis.

I found myself drawn back repeatedly to the Icefjord Centre and the trails around it. On my second afternoon I followed a slatted wooden path, passing women drawing red plastic rakes across the low brush; they were, I learned, collecting tart crowberries. One morning I got up early and hiked past a cemetery whose views would surely take the edge off being dead. And one day, I met Aron Petersen, a park ranger.

He is 67 years old, with a weathered face and eyebrows that meet in a sharp V. When I asked if he was seeing any effects of climate change yet, he was alarmingly precise. “In the 1980s, it would be –30°[C] for a long time in winter,” he responded. “And there would be ice on the sea as far as you can see. Now, it gets to maybe –20° for one week, and by June, the standing sea ice is gone.”

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The Greelandic word for iceberg is “fjells,” which comes from the Norwegian word for mountain, “fjell.”

Photos by Carsten Snejbjerg

To be clear, the alarm was on my part; Petersen, I discovered, is less concerned. He knows that Greenland’s melting ice is raising sea levels—“like what happened in Louisiana in the United States,” he said—and thinner ice has meant he can’t use dogsleds as much. But he’s found a work-around. “We just take the boat more often when we go fishing,” he told me.

The melting ice has had an impact on his work, though. When I asked him about his days, he said that, in summer, he spends most of his time collecting trash. I was surprised to learn that people still litter in this breathtaking landscape. “Oh, it’s not all from now,” he replied. “Most of it is old glass that was left a long time ago. It’s just now, when there’s no snow, that it comes out.”

Shouldn’t there be a word for that? For the kind of trash that surfaces a season or decades after it was first dropped? For the things we believe to have disappeared, but that linger?

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Left: Captain Jørgen Kristensen helms a boat that leads day trips to the Eqi glacier, located on Greenland’s west coast. Right: It may look remote, but Disko Bay is the most visited place in Greenland.

Photos by Carsten Snejbjerg

I thought about disappearances the whole way to Eqi. Located 37 miles north of Ilulissat, it is among the most active glaciers in the world, which means that pieces of it frequently break off into icebergs, and travelers who make the journey north by sea are practically guaranteed to see it calve. Yet the trip would have been worth it even if there weren’t a glacier shedding chunks of itself at the end. Until then, I had only seen icebergs from land, but the experience of meeting them, as it were, on their own imposing terms, turned up the awe dial. It wasn’t just the size of them, though some are massive—300 feet tall (from the ocean’s surface) and just as wide. They are also astonishingly varied, coming in an array of shapes and textures that, though entirely and magnificently nature’s work, hint uncannily at the humanmade.

Castles, skyscrapers, geodesic domes. A jester’s hat, a fighter jet, a Rajasthani fortress. In one stretch we passed a series of what resembled renowned opera houses: Oslo, New York, Sydney. The side of one iceberg was so cleanly cut it looked like it had been shaved by a guillotine; another was as swirled and airy as cupcake frosting. A striated third looked for all the world like a Hasselback potato. It was hard not to think of each one as alive, like some kind of fantastic aquatic plant that sucks sustenance from the frigid water and blossoms above the surface.

When words themselves are insufficient, we reach for metaphors. Which is probably why, once we finally reached Eqi, all I could think of was Game of Thrones. Like the Wall, the glacier is daunting: a chiseled front that is two miles long and 656 feet high. Anywhere from 98 to 590 feet of that height is visible above the water’s surface.

Will there be fewer words for snow and ice, and more for rain, flood, and heat?

The boat idled several hundred feet from the front, far enough to protect us from falling ice. As we waited, I struck up a conversation with the ship’s captain, Jørgen Kristensen. He is 57 years old and, it turns out, a dogsledding champion. But what really excites him is the stuff that was all around us. “People think my first interest should be dogs,” he said. “But actually, it’s ice.”

I couldn’t believe my luck: Kristensen collects Greenlandic words for sea ice. His face lit up when I told him I’d like to learn some of them. “It’s going to take a while,” he warned.

He pointed to a small, clear chunk floating near the boat and wrote down kassoq. “It’s what we call ‘black ice,’ because you can’t see it,” he explained. It’s different from ice that is actually black, at least in stripes: That is called anarluk talik, literally “shit ice.” There is inguneq, the ridge of ice created when cracked pieces are pushed together. There is qaanngoq, which is the thick ice that forms near the coast, and ilulissap eqqaa, the ice that forms around the base of an iceberg. As he wrote, I could see that in some cases he was combining root words with suffixes, but every now and then an outlier would pop up. For allu, he drew what looked to be a small hill with a head poking its way out beneath it. The word, which fittingly sounds like aluu or “hello,” refers to the holes in the ice that seals use to breathe.

We were interrupted by what sounded like a shotgun crack as a piece of glacier tumbled into the sea. It was both mesmerizing and terrifying, and though he had witnessed it thousands of times before, Kristensen seemed just as entranced by it as I was. He wrote down one more word for me: imarorpoq, which means “the sea ice disappears.” It prompted me to ask him about linguist Grenoble’s theory of climate change and its impact on Greenlandic. “Am I worried that we will lose the words along with the ice?” He shrugged. “Maybe we’ll make new words.”

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Only 10 to 15 percent of an iceberg is visible above the surface of the water—icebergs can stretch more than half a mile beneath the sea.

Photo by Carsten Snejbjerg

All languages change. But my time in Greenland made me wonder what its new words would be. Will there be fewer words for snow and ice, and more for rain, flood, and heat? Will the old vocabulary endure, outliving the ice it once described? Or will we somehow overcome the limits of language to persuade each other of realities—the flooded cities, the extinguished polar bears, a frozen Arctic that exists in memory only—that we sense but perhaps cannot make ourselves act upon until we have named them?

Alongside the glacier was a small lodge, also called Eqi, where the boat left me and a handful of other passengers. That night, one of the staff members told us that, when she took her first hike of the season to the inland sheet, she noticed it had shrunk from the previous summer. The following morning, on a walk to the glacier’s edge, another staffer would tell me that it is retreating so quickly, “in 10 or 15 years, you won’t be able to see it from the camp.”

But I already had an inkling of that. In my cabin was a photo of the glacier taken in the first half of the 20th century, and I could see for myself how much farther into the sea it had reached. That night, I sat on the porch and watched the northern lights ripple in time to the rumbles and crashes of its calving. It was terrible and beautiful, and I found myself, once again, at a loss for words.

Lisa Abend is a journalist based in Madrid and the author of The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià's elBulli. She is also a contributing writer at AFAR and correspondent for Time magazine.
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