An image of vast swathes of melting ice in Greenland has been repeatedly cited since mid-June as an example of the dire consequences of climate change, though residents of the island say the reality is far more complicated than the image would have us believe.

The picture was taken by scientist Steffen Olsen of the Danish Meteorological Institute on June 13th, and shows a team of sled dogs running over a melting pool of water near the Inglefield Fjord in the country’s northwest. Dogs slush through water that is high enough to cover their paws.

A photo taken by Steffen Olsen in mid-June circulated widely by reports that said it showed climate change.

Reports about the image, which went viral online, started appearing June 14 and were shared by outlets such as Britain’s Sky News, which said “Dramatic photo shows husky dogs walking on water in Greenland” and the American site CNet, which wrote, “This photo from Greenland says everything about climate change.” The image was used for the Friday, July 26 front page of French newspaper Le Monde, which also used it in an article about a scientific study of how the current warming period differs from the last 2,000 years.

However, those who live and work in Greenland say that the situation is more nuanced than the representation in European and North American media.

“This situation is not as unusual in Greenland as the hype would lead us to believe. It is, in fact, common for pools of meltwater to collect on sea ice in the early summer, and dogs and their mushers are used to traversing the ice in these conditions,” read a post from June 24 on Visit Greenland, a government site that supports tourism to the island.

The page added that the amount of water was unusual, more typical of late June or July, and was most likely due to an unseasonably warm beginning of summer this year.

The dissonance between the perception and reality is part of a general disconnect between discussions on the island and portrayals in foreign press, which often use pictures of glaciers or polar bears in Greenland to illustrate the dire effects of climate change.

“This is in fact not all the ice melting, it’s just the top layer”

Signe Ravn-Højgaard, a lecturer in journalism and researcher at the University of Greenland in Nuuk, told the France 24 Observers that the publication of visit Greenland changed how she saw the photo.
It made me realize that maybe I was looking at that picture with too local eyes because of course it’s unusual for this to happen in June but this is in fact not all the ice melting, it’s just the top layer. It’s early for it to happen, and that’s how I saw the picture. I didn’t realize before reading that text that actually people abroad see it in quite another way, that the ice would be completely gone.“

Maybe one of the reasons why this story about the dogs was not covered that heavily in Greenland, mainly just covered by foreign media, is because that picture in itself is not so surprising to Greenlanders. Formerly there were videos of some people water skiing on sleds and having fun. This is something that happens but it’s early.

While some of the articles about the dog photo mentioned that it shows the melting season beginning earlier than normal, the Danish Meteorological Institute also released an explanation of the photo where it reminded readers that there is a difference between weather events, such as a warmer than usual summer in Greenland, and climate change

International media cast Greenland as the frontier in the global struggle against climate change, though Ravn-Højgaard said that Greenlandic media often only focus on the most local angles, such as how polar bears ranging farther south could endanger schoolchildren or the need to change hunting or fishing quotas.
The media in their stories on climate change are very much locally focused on consequences for villages and individuals, not so much the larger structural stories.

Of course it’s not nice to have bad stories about your country but I think [larger, more broad stories about climate change] definitely should be told in Greenland so that we can become more conscious about what we are doing and have politicians take responsibility.

“The most powerful story you could talk about now is the normalization of climate change in Greenland’s economy.”

Mikaa Mered, a professor of Arctic and Antarctic geopolitics at the Institut Libre d'Etude des Relations Internationale in Paris, told the France 24 Observers that there are other stories that foreign media could cover in Greenland beyond photos of melting ice.

“The most powerful story you could talk about now is the normalization of climate change in Greenland’s economy.”

Mered specifically mentioned rare earth and uranium mining that has become possible with warmer temperatures and attracted international investment. The government of Greenland’s tourism page, though, calls the situation a “slight paradox” in that pursuing mining would increase Greenland’s carbon footprint and its own contribution to climate change.

Mered said that instead of “falling into this intellectual short cut” of using a stunning image to grab people’s attention, reports on climate change can also grab attention by discussing the economic costs of the problem.