Eintime Conversion for education and research 10-20-2007 @ 07:24:19
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Icebound Greenland heats up

By Laura Bly, USA TODAY

ILULISSAT, Greenland — Straddling a granite promontory above western Greenland's iceberg-strewn Disko Bay, Ilulissat's 23-bed infirmary commands the best setting in town — and what must be the most spectacular vistas of any hospital on Earth.

I've just spent two days here, courtesy of a shattered elbow earned while trying to get a closer view of an Inuit paddler showing off his rolling skills in a pencil-thin kayak.

PHOTO GALLERY: Adventures in Greenland

It was an unplanned detour on the world's largest and loneliest island, a self-governing Danish territory where 56,000 people are scattered along the treeless, largely roadless fringes of an ice sheet that covers 85% of a country three times the size of Texas.

Enticed by Air Greenland's recent launch of first-ever commercial flights from the USA (a five-hour, two-time-zone jaunt from Baltimore), I'd wanted to cruise under a midnight sun, take a musk ox safari from a former World War II American airbase, and follow in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's boot steps for a firsthand look at what has become the hot spot for global climate change.

And like many of the 55,000 travelers who found their way here last year — more than 80% of them Danes — I was eager to experience a quiet so vast and profound it has its own name: the Greenlandic silence.

But my lost weekend in Ilulissat (the country's biggest tourist draw and third-largest town, home to 5,000 people and an equal number of sled dogs) encompasses more than a room with a view of frozen behemoths on the march. It is also a window into a ragged edge of the world where community trumps individuality, and nature's increasingly unpredictable rhythms rule.

Warming trend is evident

Scientists say average winter temperatures on Greenland's west coast have increased about 9 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 15 years, making it one of the fastest-warming places on the planet. (The mean January high in Ilulissat is about 10 degrees Fahrenheit; during July, it reaches 50.) If the ice cap melted — a process expected to take centuries — oceans could rise by 23 feet and drown some coastal cities.

But Ilulissat's Ole Thorleifsen, peering through a persistent blanket of fog and drizzle he says is unusual for early summer, doesn't need Greenland's growing ranks of visiting Ph.D.s to tell him his country's climate is changing.

As little as five winters ago, he could lead dogsled fishing tours across the corrugated expanse of the Ilulissat glacier, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that looms over the southern edge of Ilulissat ("place of the icebergs" in the tongue-tripping, vowel-heavy local language, Greenlandic).

Not anymore.

Illulisat's glacier, which likely spawned the iceberg that sank the Titanic and daily spews enough ice to supply New York with a year's worth of drinking water, "is moving all year round now, so we have to go somewhere else to fish," says Thorleifsen, owner of Inuit Travel. "The period for sledding is shorter, too. We used to be able to go out in October, but last winter we had to wait until February."

Warmer water in Disko Bay means the harbor now stays open through the winter, and local fishermen are working longer. "They're buying more cars (to drive on the area's 15 miles of road) and getting more stressed," Thorleifsen says.

The country's rising temperatures may draw more tourists (a U.S. company is leading an expedition cruise to eastern Greenland's recently discovered and aptly named Warming Island this fall) and new industries, from oil drilling to mining.

But rapid social change has already affected the primarily Inuit population, for both good and bad. Cellphones are ubiquitous, and villagers text-message one another when someone lands a whale. Diabetes and obesity have surged as Greenlanders move from a protein-based diet of native seal, fish and reindeer to expensive, carbohydrate-heavy Danish imports.

And in the wake of a new climate that threatens northern Inuits' ability to hunt on the ice, Thorleifsen worries that "some of our old culture may disappear."

Land of the midnight sun

It's just past midnight on a Sunday morning in Ilulissat, 185 miles north of the Arctic Circle. My mind is reeling, though not from the painkillers prescribed by the Danish general practitioner who had treated my tumble on the rocks.

The clouds that had smothered the town all day have given way to blue sky and a sun that hangs defiantly above the northern horizon. Giving up on sleep, I sip tea on a hospital balcony overlooking Disko Bay, gawk at the passing parade of icebergs and fishing boats and quiz uninngavimmi ningiu (Greenlandic for "head nurse") Karin Skaarup Nielsen about life and medical care on the edge of the world.

In a land where doctors in the sparsely populated north still reach patients with dogsled ambulances padded with reindeer skins, dog bites are fairly common. Purebred Greenlandic sled dogs, chained outdoors and fed with seal or halibut, are more wolflike than canine and can be shot if they run loose after they're 6 months old.

Yet in this fishing town where most families own a boat, on-the-water injuries are rare. In fact, notes Nielsen, most of the local boaters threading the frigid seas don't carry, let alone wear, life jackets: "They say, 'What's the point?' "

A Greenlander's biggest fear, I learn, is dying alone. If patient care requires a transfer to Copenhagen, a five-hour flight away, families make the journey as well. Here in Ilulissat, hospital room doors stay open, and all but the most gravely ill patients get dressed for communal meals in a cheery lounge adorned with plastic geraniums, lighted candles (a national sign of welcome) and a wall poster of Greenlandic whales. Mutual shyness and my dearth of Greenlandic and Danish limits interactions with the hospital's four other residents — but we all manage a grin during the national television station's airing of America's Funniest Home Videos, subtitled in Danish.

Later on Sunday morning, the clouds and rain regroup with a vengeance. But they don't stop a crowd from gathering next door at the 18th-century Zion's Church to celebrate a confirmation class. Resplendent in white, knee-high sealskin boots and tunics embroidered with brightly colored beads, the youngsters pose for photos on the front steps, gazing past their parents' digital cameras to the ice-choked waters beyond.

Musk-ox burgers and calving ice

My abbreviated Greenland odyssey ends with an afternoon in Kangerlussuaq, the former American airbase that had been a way station for World War II bombers and cargo planes flying between North America and Europe. Today, it's the major transit point for international passengers flying to Denmark, Iceland or the USA, to Ilulissat and other points north, or south to one of the world's smallest capitals, Nuuk (pop. 14,500).

After wolfing down a musk-ox burger at the airport cafeteria, I book a last-minute, four-wheel-drive trip to the Russell glacier, about 15 miles up a disconcertingly bumpy but thrillingly scenic track. Peeled down to a T-shirt in the 70-degree June sunshine, guide Joergen Larsen pauses to point out the Sondie Arctic Desert Golf Course. Fashioned from alluvial silt, it's the northernmost permanent 18-hole course in the world. Despite a warm sun and light breeze that keeps the monster-sized mosquitoes at bay, it's deserted.

I'm not surprised.

We've passed clusters of purple and yellow wildflowers, sparkling lakes that had been frozen a week earlier, and a torrent of glacial meltwater studded with ice chunks as big as seals — but encountered only a single car, two mountain bikers and a lone backpacker.

In a week or two, says Larsen, the 200-foot-high spires of the Russell glacier will be calving almost continuously, rumbling like thunder before breaking loose with cacophonies of ice.

For now, they serve as mute sentinels — to the beauty and power of a Greenlandic silence.

E-mail lbly@usatoday.com

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10-20-2007 @ 07:24:19