NUUK, Greenland — Few places on Earth have seen starker changes in weather than this icebound island straddling the Arctic Circle. With that in mind, America’s top diplomat arrived here this week intent on calling attention to the perils of climate change.
The problem was that Greenlanders aren’t exactly complaining.
In fact, as Secretary of State of Hillary Rodham Clinton toured snow-covered fjords on Thursday, there were awkward reminders of Greenland’s embrace of the rise in temperatures that began two decades ago. Rather than questioning global warming, many of this island’s 60,000 inhabitants seem to be racing to cash in.
The tiny capital of Nuuk is bracing for record numbers of visitors this year; the retreating sea ice means a longer tourist season and more cruise ships from the United States. Hunters are boasting of more and bigger caribou, and the annual cod migration is starting earlier and lasting longer.
In the far south, farmers are trying their hand at an exotic form of agriculture: growing vegetables.
“Before, the growing season was too short for vegetables,” said Noah Melgaard, a local journalist. “Now it is getting longer each year.”
For Clinton, who was visiting Greenland for a meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council, it was one of several jarring contradictions that threatened at times to distract from the messages she traveled 2,000 miles to deliver. The secretary argued for a global response to climate change but had to acknowledge that the United States — the single biggest source of greenhouse-gas pollution — has failed to ratify international treaties on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Clinton appealed to Arctic nations at council meetings to coordinate their policies on oil and gas exploration near the North Pole. But afterward she was questioned about the U.S. Senate’s refusal to approve the 1982 Law of the Sea convention, the landmark treaty that regulates countries’ rights to exploit mineral resources up to 200 miles from their coastline.
“It’s been challenging in our political system to take the kinds of actions that we know are dictated by the science and by what we see in front of our eyes,” Clinton said at a news conference.
On Thursday, Clinton was able to point to fresh progress on climate change, as members of the Arctic Council agreed to take unilateral action to curb a type of pollution known as “black carbon,” which scientists say is a major contributor to the rapid warming of the Arctic. The Arctic Council also approved the first treaty on maritime search and rescue in the Arctic and pledged to work on procedures to prevent future oil spills in the region.
But much of Clinton’s trip was about the symbolism of a secretary of state traveling to Greenland and, for the first time, attending a meeting of the Arctic Council. Aboard a small cabin cruiser with other foreign ministers, she headed up the Nuuk fjord, a network of ice-covered canyons extending more than 50 miles into the island’s interior. She emerged on the deck for
an impromptu news conference, held against a backdrop of a high glacier that cut a wedge of brilliant white between two rocky peaks.
Clinton pronounced the setting “beautiful” and, flanked by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), pledged greater U.S. involvement as the region seeks a balance between encouraging responsible development and protecting one of the world’s most pristine environments.
“Secretary Salazar and Senator Murkowski and I are determined that we’re going to raise the visibility of Arctic issues back in the United States,” Clinton said as the small craft bobbed gently in the nearly placid water.
Everywhere she went, Clinton was mobbed by throngs of Greenlanders, as workers and schoolchildren turned out to see the most famous visitor to the island in recent memory. Other than a single placard that condemned “U.S. killing of Muslims,” the Greenlanders appeared welcoming and polite, if perhaps anxious to learn how industrial nations intended to address the climate shift that is bringing new economic opportunity to the island.
Most Greenlanders seemed to have personal stories about the climactic transformation that has brought record warmth to the Arctic, far out of proportion to the changes elsewhere in the globe. In the past decade, the ice sheets that cover much of the Arctic basin have grown thinner and smaller, and glaciers have visibly shrunk, local residents say. The weather is generally milder, with shorter, drier winters, but is also more unpredictable, they say.
At the Godthab Bryghus, a popular pub in this ethnically mixed town of 15,000, outdoorsmen talked of growing herds of caribou on the hills above the town, their numbers swelling due to milder winters and more plentiful forage until local officials finally had to ease restrictions on killing them. But one avid hunter, a scruffy-bearded Nuuk native who identified himself only as Louis, complained that the summer caribou season had grown oppressively hot, with temperatures climbing into the mid-70s.
“The heat is terrible,” he said.
Gorm Vold, 33, a lifelong Greenlander who escorted Clinton’s entourage on the boat tour, acknowledged misgivings about weather changes that, while favorable today for most of his countrymen, pointed to a shifting order in the natural world, the consequences of which are not known.
“The cold weather now doesn’t come until much later, yet we get big snowstorms in May,” Vold said. “The whole ecosystem is moving north, and we can no longer say what’s going to happen.
“Things seem to be tipping,” he said. “Exactly how, I don’t know.”