Epidemics and Population Decline in Greenland’s Inuit Community

The dynamics of climate and environment have a large and growing influence on our culture, practices and health. Climate change is expected to impact communities all over the world, requiring people to adapt to these changes. A recent study by Kirsten Hastrup in the journal Cross-Cultural Research looks at the history of health and environment of the Inuit people of Greenland’s Thule community. Global warming has impacted the hunting economy in the region, and increasing sea contamination is negatively affecting the Arctic ecosystems and human health. Kirsten Hastrup locates these recent changes in the context of earlier dynamics, identifying the social and environmental factors contributing to Inuit development over time.

Effects of Early Exploration and Trade

Colorful houses in the Thule community (Source: Andy Wolff/Flickr).

The Thule community is located in the far northern region of Qaanaaq, Greenland. It is called Avanersuaq, or “Big North,” in the Inuit language of Iñupiat. The Little Ice Age, which lasted from the 14th to 18th century, isolated this small population of 140 from other communities and regions in the south. Waters opened with melting sea-ice in the 19th century, allowing European explorers and whalers to contact the region and the Inuit people. The explorers engaged in trade with the Inuit, exchanging wood, guns, and utensils for fur. Unfortunately, trade and the arrival of whalers introduced new diseases to the community, leading to epidemics and population decline.

Hastrup explains that the Inuit also suffered from famine at the time due to the grip of the Little Ice Age. Expansion of inland ice and glaciers and persistent sea ice made it hard for the Inuit to hunt for food sources like whales, walruses and seals. A lack of driftwood used to make bows, sleds and build kayaks for hunting also contributed to the Inuit’s hardship and further population decline. Natural hazards from living in the Arctic environment led to the decline on a smaller scale. Some of these deaths were due to instabilities of the icy landscape, accidents while traveling across expanses of ice, and large animal attacks during hunting.

Cold War Implications on Health and Identity

Although the risk of disease was great, Hastrup recognizes the impacts of diseases. She also identifies the benefits of trade, which brought resources necessary for hunting and overcoming famine. Development of formal trading stations and greater access to wood allowed for increased hunting capability. Fur trade became quite profitable for the Inuit toward the early 20th century, much to the benefit of the local economy.

However, this did not last long, according to Hastrup. During the Cold War period, the Arctic became a sort of frontier between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. An American airbase was established in the early 1950s, and this had long-lasting effects on health and Inuit identity. Transport vessels, airplanes, and heavy activity at the airbase disturbed the Arctic animals, damaging important Inuit hunting grounds. The population had to relocate to make room for the airbase. This forced movement to new housing sites left a sense of dislocation among the Inuit community.

Fighter aircraft at the Thule Air Base,1955 (Source: United States Air Force/Creative Commons).

A new health risk was introduced in 1959 with the launch of Camp Century, a scientific military camp built under the ice cap. This nuclear-powered camp was also secretly designed to house missiles during the Cold War. The movement of the ice sheet led to an abandonment of the camp in 1966; however, the nuclear threat continued. In 1968, a plane carrying plutonium bombs crashed, going right through the sea ice outside of Thule. Three bombs were retrieved from the waters, although reports in European news media suggest a fourth bomb remains. A nearby fjord was also later revealed to be contaminated by nuclear radiation. According to Hastrup, the people in the region continue to fear risks from radiation-related illness and contaminated food.

Impacts of Changing Climate

These activities and the historical implications of outside contact have left a deep-rooted concern for health and well-being among the Thule community, one that is felt even today. According to Hastrup, many fear that changes in the environment may expose them to further ice-trapped radiation. Camp Century was eventually buried within a glacier, and continued warming is causing movement within the ice. Some Inuit worry that leftover radiation might be released if the glaciers were to retreat, harming the health of their community, Hastrup reports.

Seal meat drying on a platform safe from sled dogs. Qaanaaq, 1998 (Source: Judith Slein/Flickr).

Warming trends impacting the Arctic regions are influencing Inuit practices in certain ways. No longer able to subsist as hunters, for example, the Inuit have adapted to halibut fishing for income. Hastrup argues that in its own way, this adaptation adds a sense of dislocation from tradition. Sharing of game was a longtime tradition among the community, which provided a feeling of unity.

Sherilee L. Harper, associate professor at the Public Health School of the University of Alberta, told GlacierHub about how changing climate might continue to affect the Inuit community. “Research, based on both Inuit knowledge and health sciences, has documented impacts ranging from waterborne and foodborne disease to food security to unintentional injury and death to mental health and wellbeing,” she said.

Despite shifts in traditional practices, Inuit appear ready to meet the challenges of their changing environment. As oceans continue to warm and threaten this Arctic ecosystem, Inuit residents continue to work with governments and climate scientists to monitor changes, deploy conservation efforts, and manage local development. Their openness to change is shown in their shifts to commercial fur collecting in the past to new forms of fishing in the present. Harper added that the Inuit have shown resilience to climate change and continue to be international leaders in climate change adaptation.

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