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Climate change hurting, helping Inuit hunters

8/28/2007
Associated Press

AMMASSALIK ISLAND, Greenland — Dines Mikaelsen steadies a
.22 rifle against the bow of his gently bobbing boat, loads the
chamber and whispers to his companions to keep quiet.

The Inuit hunter has already missed twice.

After a deep breath, he squeezes the trigger. The loud crack
echoes off the icebergs, and a football field away, a silver-coated
seal collapses, blood turning the clear blue ice red.

Mikaelsen's four companions — visitors from faraway lands — are
stunned. This is what they came to see but when the shot rang out
in the Arctic stillness of southeast Greenland, some hoped it would
be another miss.

Hunting is the central element of the Inuit culture in
Greenland, a semiautonomous Danish territory, but that immutable
way of life is facing its greatest challenge: climate change.

It's a double-edged sword for the Inuit. It's transforming their
frozen landscape, melting glaciers and disrupting animal life. The
number of hunters in the area has dropped in recent years from
nearly 500 to about 200.

Since 1995, Greenland's vast ice cap has lost 7 percent of its
mass and 300 feet in height, according to the European
Environmental Agency, a European Union body based in Denmark.

But the change also presents new opportunities. Twenty years
ago, when visitors were rare, the fjords and bays were clogged with
ice through July. Now, those bays are navigable by April or May.
That means more tourists — eager to explore one of the most remote
and unexploited corners of the globe.

Eight cruise ships will come to the area for the first time this
month and next.

"You could say that the Inuit on Greenland are the early
adapters to climate change,'' said Jacqueline McGlade, EEA
executive director. "The people here are determined to embrace a
sustainable form of tourism that fosters their traditions and
respects their landscape.''

No seal is shot for sport or trophies. The pelts are used for
clothing, the meat is gathered for food and the oil used for
lubricants and cooking oil. No part is wasted.

Now tourism is part of the deal. The hunters bring visitors
year-round into the Arctic wilderness. In the fall and winter they
go dog-sledding or ice-fishing. In the spring and summer, the
tourists see how Mikaelsen and others hunt seal, narwhal and polar
bears.

The summer hunts take place amid looming icebergs and snow
shelves that set a dreamy, somber mood. Often resembling the
abstract sculptures of Henry Moore, they are constantly melting
away only to be replaced by new ones cleaved from the great
Hellheim Glacier.

In an abandoned settlement built in the 1800s, Mikaelsen treats
his companions to a feast of cooked polar bear and narwhal. Polar
bear, whose hunt is closely monitored and limited by authorities,
tastes like a cross between tuna and venison. Narwhal is more like
rubbery sushi, with a twang.

On the ride home, Dines strokes the fur of the still warm seal
lying on the back of the boat and murmurs words of gratitude to it
for having made the long journey worthwhile.

At his father's home in Tasiilaq, Mikaelsen displays skull after
skull of polar bears and musk oxen. He gazes out the picture
window, where 20 sled dogs yelp and cottongrass sways in time with
the hard wind. Holding up a husky puppy, he flashes a toothy grin
and laughs out loud.

"These little ones are from my two best dogs, and when they
grow up, they will lead my team!''