Dpt of Geography, McGill University, Montreal

Climate change vulnerability and adaptation in resource dependent communities: a case study from West Greenland 

Focusing on the subsistence economy of Qeqertarsuaq, the research highlights that changing climatic conditions on the one hand are constraining access and availability of key wildlife resources and exacerbating the dangers of hunting and fishing, while also creating new opportunities.

Indeed, the future of small settlements has long been debated in Greenland, with policy encouraging depopulation of smaller settlements and investments largely channeled to major centres with their economic functions.

Although winters lacking ice present opportunities for commercial fishers and those with large boats, they do not benefit all. Hunters and fishers with small boats, who are typically self-employed subsistence hunters or fishers, are particularly sensitive to changing climatic conditions, a fact exacerbated by their existing financial vulnerability, and report implications on their winter income due to days lost to bad weather, in addition to safety concerns. Access challenges are an additional stress to the settlement where considerable outmigration has accompanied closure of the local fish factory.

Unpredictable and sudden changes in wind strength and direction have caused hunters and fishers to return back to the community for fear of being stuck in unsafe conditions. In addition to safety considerations, economic pressures on hunting and fishing livelihoods resulting from significant decreases in safe harvesting days have led some to travel in conditions they would have otherwise avoided. Recent climatic conditions augment existing pressures on hunters and fishers stemming from government regulations, quotas, and licence restrictions to create a highly stressful and challenging context in which hunters and small fishers are struggling to earn a living. Economic stresses stemming from the combination of these factors have prevented some from fixing damaged equipment, or updating outdated safety gear for travel.

In an effort to avoid hazardous weather conditions in Disko Bay, fishers are applying for licences further north in the Upernavik area or to the south near Sisimiut. The spatial limitations imposed on licences restrict the mobility of fishers who wish to take advantage of favourable conditions in neighbouring districts. Movement outside the municipality to fish requires additional fuel and larger boats suited to overnight travel on the open sea, thereby necessitating additional cost. Larger vessels require significantly greater capital investment to purchase and operate, though they are also able to pull in far greater quantities of fish. These regulations limit the possible income earned through non-occupational hunting and fishing and have been a significant source of conflict within the community and across Greenland. They also discourage occupational hunters from seeking secondary sources of employment as these changes would necessitate attaining a non-occupational licence. Many fishers also described a desire to upgrade safety gear and diversify hunting and fishing equipment to better exploit open water winters lacking sea ice, such as through the purchase of larger boats, yet this option is often precluded by the considerable cost involved. Another consequence of Home Rule has been the promotion of industrial development as a centrepiece of nation building, with the ultimate aim of achieving full independence from Denmark (Nuttall 2008, 2009, Sejersen 2009). This is reflected in the HRGs position on climate change where the economic benefits (mining, oil and gas) of changing ice regimes and melting of the ice cap have been widely promoted. In this framing, the larger scale benefits of climate change outweigh the negative implications for small resource-based settlements, reinforcing the HRGs focus on economic development.


However, the communities are not powerless victims in the face of climate change, and adapt in numerous ways. This may involve taking advantage of new opportunities, such as fishers with large boats in this study or the local snowcrab factory which has been able to extend its season of operation with reduced sea ice cover. For others, adaptations involve behavioural modifications such as changing the location, timing, and species harvested; managing risks through the use of new equipment; and acceptance of risk. Such flexibility is based on environmental knowledge and land skills, and has evolved in the context of historic climatic variability. Some have begun working in the tourism sector, leading dogsled tours on the nearby Lyngemark glacier. The seasonal nature of tourism is desirable for those who wish to remain active in their hunting and fishing livelihoods, and provides a regular opportunity to run your sled dogs in summer months. However, these positions are few in number and require English or Danish language skills that hunters and fishers do not always have. Indeed, despite the overall economic health and employment opportunities in Qeqertarsuaq, hunters and fishers often do not have the requisite skills and training, making it additionally difficult for them to supplement income with secondary employment. Hunting and fishing regulations and harvesting quotas were consistently identified as constraining adaptive capacity. Full-time hunters and fishers expressed frustration regarding income restrictions that currently limit their ability to find part-time waged work.

While women in Qeqertarsuaq reported gaining jobs in the community and supporting the hunting and fishing livelihoods of their partners, a lack of job opportunities in Greenland has encouraged an out- migration of educated women from other coastal communities. The respondents emphasized increasing freedom and choice for women in recent years that they associated with education and job opportunities. Working women are able to bring home valuable cash income in hunting and fishing households, sustaining their family and the livelihood of their partner within circumstances that would have otherwise been very difficult.

Last but not least, residents also characterized the presence of sea ice as contributing positively to their mental health and sense of well-being, and described increasing feelings of isolation on Disko Island in winter months without access to ice-based trails.