Rising temperatures mean shrinking villages in coastal Greenland

Abandoned houses in Kulusuk, a village in the east of Greenland. Photo: Jóhanna Björk Sveinbjörndóttir
Abandoned houses in Kulusuk, a village in the east of Greenland. Photo: Jóhanna Björk Sveinbjörndóttir


Each summer, more and more people move away from Kulusuk, leaving behind rows of abandoned homes in the streets of this small town in Greenland. During her yearly visits to this coastal village, our Observer has witnessed this migration trend firsthand as increasing temperatures impact the ability of the residents to earn their livelihood and practise local traditions.

Johanna Björk Sveinbjörndóttir is an Icelandic anthropologist. Most of the year, she lives and works in Berlin, Germany. However, every summer since 2013, she has traveled to Greenland where she has a seasonal job working in a hotel in the small village of Kulusuk. She also studies life in this small village, especially widespread emigration of its residents. Since 2015, she has been developing a photo project documenting this trend. She shares her photos on Facebook and Instagram under the hashtag #abandonedkulusuk. Many of her images capture the empty homes in the town.

Greenland experienced unprecedented temperature spikes in 2016, causing the country's huge ice sheet to melt. Scientists warn that if it melted entirely, global sea level would rise by at least seven metres.

Photo: Jóhanna Björk Sveinbjörndóttir

"In 2016, all of the ice had melted by mid-April, which is much earlier than usual. The locals felt very disorientated"

Since 2013, I’ve been spending three to four months a year in Kulusuk. I’ve seen many local people leave the village, especially in the summertime.

When they go, many people don’t even bother to pack up their homes. Instead, they leave them in the same state, because they want to believe that they are only leaving the town on a temporary basis. However, in reality, many of them never come back. People from Greenland are very spontaneous and they don’t plan anything. They don’t even plan what they are going to eat for their next meal, let alone thinking about where they might live tomorrow.

This electricity meter is in an empty home, abandoned by its former owners. Photo: Jóhanna Björk Sveinbjörndóttir

It’s quite strange to see the homes in this state. Last summer, I counted 81 abandoned homes, which is out of out of a total of only 149 homes in the entire village. There are only 250 people left in Kulusuk and the number keeps dropping.

I was struck by this migration. I started taking pictures of it and asking residents to tell me their story and the reasons that they were leaving. Most of them leae Kulusuk to go to Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, in hopes of getting a job there.

Photo: Jóhanna Björk Sveinbjörndóttir

"Many young people dream of discovering the ‘modern world'"

There are hardly any opportunities for employment in Kulusuk. The local airport is one of the only big employers. It runs flights to Iceland, which brings tourists, especially in the summer. There is also a good school in Kulusuk that employs ten teachers. A third source of employment is rubbish collection, but that is hardly inspiring.

In 2009, the Kulusuk municipality fused with Nuuk, which meant that several town hall jobs were moved to the capital city, which is on the other side of Greenland. Despite the distance between Kulusuk and Nuuk, this kind of regrouping is quite common in Greenland as the municipalities are so small.

Inside an abandoned home. Photo: Jóhanna Björk Sveinbjörndóttir

Young people from Kulusuk don’t see any reason to stay. Previous generations grew up hunting, but these traditions are being lost with the onset of climate change.

Young people who go to school dream of discovering the “modern world" that they hear so much about. In reality, they don’t have any concrete knowledge of what lies beyond their village and so their imaginations run wild. The only news they get is from Greenlandic media sources and, occasionally, Danish ones.

However, even the oldest people in Kulusuk are starting to leave. One of my friends, who is 60 years old, left for Denmark because she felt too lonely in the village.

"The ice is melting, so we can’t really teach our children our traditions"

Climate change explains a lot. Everything is changing rapidly. Now, it freezes over later in the year and the ice melts earlier. Winter is growing shorter. Because of these environmental changes, it is becoming difficult to pass on traditions to the children. For example, locals can no longer go to certain islands by sled because the ice isn’t solid or thick enough. It doesn’t extend far enough either. Residents are so used to doing everything on ice that they find it hard to adapt.

This year, the ice had all melted by mid-April. This is much earlier than usual and people feel quite disorientated. However, I do think that the locals are starting to connect what is happening in their village with the idea of global climate change. More and more researchers are coming to the region and asking the villagers questions about it.

I want to emphasise the fact that locals aren’t overly concerned about losing their traditions; they are just wondering how to adapt. The fear that climate change will destroy the culture of indigenous peoples is really more of a concern of educated people who don’t actually live in the Arctic.

The temperature of the ocean is slowly rising, which means that new species that local people are not used to hunting are moving into the waters around Greenland.

Abandoned factory. Photo: Jóhanna Björk Sveinbjörndóttir

The emigration trend continues

Currently, there are about 55,000 people living in Greenland, which is part of Denmark, but remains largely autonomous.

Many villages across Greenland are experiencing the same situation as Kulusuk. With few or no employment opportunities for local people, these villages are losing the ability to remain self-sufficient.

The population of Nuuk has doubled since 1977. Some of this population increase is from Danes who have moved there for work. However, many more people from all across Greenland have also sought work in the capital.

An estimated 500 people leave Greenland each year, according to a survey published in 2012, which was cited by French news agency AFP. Many young people go to Denmark. However, several Greenlandic experts have said that many of these young people eventually return to Greenland after their studies because they don’t feel able to adjust to life in Denmark.

In 2008, Greenland held a referendum on its autonomy. As a result, Denmark recognized Greenland’s right to increased home rule, and the country's official language was changed from Danish to Greenlandic in June 2009.

One day, Greenland’s economy may benefit from its mineral riches (among others, it has the third largest deposit of uranium in the world), which has drawn increased interest from large multinationals. However, for the time being, this Arctic territory is highly dependent on subsidies from Copenhagen, which supplies more than half of its budget.