On Thin Ice: How Life is Changing in the Arctic Circle

Friday June 07, 2019 Written by Elizabeth Flux with photography by Michael Novotný

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Tucked away on the eastern side of Greenland, between the world’s largest national park and its longest fjord system, is Ittoqqortoormiit, an icy settlement home to just 355 people.

It’s the most isolated town in Greenland, which makes it among the most isolated places on the planet. And while that remoteness keeps the island’s more cosmopolitan residents further south, in metropolises like Nuuk (population: 17,492), it is precisely what attracted photographer Michael Novotný to the place.

Novotný grew up in a small city in the Czech Republic, moved to Prague and then, four years ago, relocated to Iceland for good. Since then he has been almost constantly on the move, documenting the lives of people living in the Arctic Circle. Despite his experience in out-of-the-way places, from Alaska to the far north of Scandinavia, his time spent in Ittoqqortoormiit stands out. “I always wondered how people can live in these extremely remote places,” he says. “So I decided to witness it for myself.”

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Staying in Ittoqqortoormiit’s sole guesthouse, Novotný found that same remoteness also drove one of the most visible aspects of Ittoqqortoormiit life: hunting. The images he captured – of blood on ice and polar bear pelts hanging out to dry – can be confronting, but behind these photos lies a pure motive. “In the Western world, most people who hunt do that for fun,” Novotný explains. “There is no other choice in Ittoqqortoormiit.”

Greenland’s snowy climate doesn’t just make crop farming in the north impossible – importing food is often impractical, too. “Supply ships come to Ittoqqortoormiit just two times a year,” explains local resident Mette Barselajsen. In between these visits, when the fjord leading into the town freezes over, store shelves can grow bare. And while fruit, vegetables, yoghurt and eggs can be delivered from Iceland by plane, they are often prohibitively expensive. Bananas, $2.50 AUD each at the time of writing, have been known to sell for over $10, while a bag of grapes goes for around $20. Meanwhile, fresh meat is free, and in plentiful supply – if you know how to find it.

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Novotný’s photographs capture the harsh beauty of life in Ittoqqortoormiit – the ice, the blood, the solitude, the importance of family. But things are slowly changing for the community. The tourist trade has waxed and waned, community numbers have dwindled as the younger generation look to the bright lights of Nuuk, and though locals speak positively of the World Wildlife Fund, which has worked to preserve the region’s fauna, it has impacted their way of life in difficult ways.

Inuuta Scoresby Hammeken, who has lived in Ittoqqortoormiit his entire life and started hunting when he was 15, has witnessed these changes firsthand. “When I became a hunter in 1987, there was a lot of hunters – maybe over 50. Today we have only about 10.” One of the biggest changes that has occurred in Hammeken’s lifetime has been to the landscape itself. When he was younger, a large icecap would form over the sea. Hammeken and the town’s other hunters would traverse this on a dogsled, making their way to a mountain perfect for hunting. “But over the years, the icecap became smaller,” he says. “Now it doesn’t reach the mountain.”

What happens next for Ittoqqortoormiit is uncertain. As Hammeken says, the ice is melting, which impacts the hunting and, therefore, the town’s food supply. Limitations placed on the hunting of bigger animals, such as polar bears, musk oxen and narwhals, have also had an effect. These restrictions were made in the interests of sustainability, but at the same time, more and more polar bears have been spotted close to the settlement. The WWF argues that climate change is responsible, but many locals attribute their visits to the limitations on hunting – young cubs learn that the town has food, and return when they grow up.

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In Hammeken’s short lifetime he has seen different cycles of economic feast and famine. He describes a time when hundreds of tourists would come through to take part in activities such as dogsledding. These numbers have dwindled over the last 10 years, which he puts down to the change in flight paths. “The opportunity was very big when there was triangle flight between Iceland and Greenland. But then the triangle flights stopped, and the visitors stopped coming.”

It shows that life in such a remote part of the world is fickle; change hinges on the weather, on technology, on the whims of tourists. But this doesn’t mean the town’s future is necessarily grim – only that, like anywhere, it’s impossible to predict what will happen next. In the meantime, Novotný’s photographs preserve life as it is in Ittoqqortoormitt right now: hardy, in a quiet fight for survival, but above all else, starkly beautiful.

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A G7A hunting cabin in the abandoned town of Itterajivit, outside of Ittoqqortoormiit, proves a good spot to warm up and make something to eat after a long day hunting.

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This article appears in Smith Journal volume 31 with the headline ‘On Thin Ice’. Buy a copy from our online store, find your nearest stockist or subscribe.