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.

First Year of Camp Century Climate Monitoring Programme

This post was originally published by Camp Century Climate on August 23, 2018.

One year has elapsed since the successful GEUS expedition to Camp Century to establish instrumentation in the summer of 2017. Three automated instruments were deployed, 175 m of ice core was drilled, and nearly 100 km of ice-penetrating radar imagery was collected on the expedition.

This video describes the expedition.

Data from the First Year

Ice and climate data are satellite-transmitted from stations on the ice-sheet several times per day and the daily averages are shown in real time online here.

The minimum average daily air temperature measured in the first year of the programme was -47.2°C on 10 March 2018. The maximum average daily air temperature was -0.8°C on 31 July 2017. The average temperature for the first year was -24°C.

The daily averages of ice and climate data (Source: Camp Century Climate).


The minimum average daily wind speed measured in the first year of the programme was 0.6 m/s on 31 August 2017. The maximum average daily wind speed was 16.0 m/s on 25 October 2017.

The instruments were in complete darkness – polar night – for approximately three and half months. During this time, the solar-powered instruments relied on their battery reserves and transmitted measurements less frequently.

New scientific article

The scientific article, “Initial field activities of the Camp Century Climate Monitoring Programme in Greenland,” has been published in the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland Bulletin 41 – Review of Survey Activities 2017. Read the article here.

The article documents that surface melt briefly occurred – less than one week – in both summer 2017 and 2018. Additional refrozen melt layers from the past decade are identifiable in the ice cores. When Camp Century was built in 1959, no summer melt occurred at the site.

Plans for 2019 and Beyond

The next fieldwork at Camp Century is scheduled for summer 2019. Existing instruments will be raised above the accumulating snow, and a fourth instrument to measure the speed of ice flow will be installed. This year’s maintenance was postponed due to bad weather and logistical issues in Northwest Greenland.

Analysis of radar imagery to map the precise extent and depth of the Camp Century debris field and active layer footprint is ongoing. A complete site map is expected to be published in 2019.

The refined knowledge of the sub-surface debris field and data on the overlying snow and ice will form the basis for modelling of the likelihoods of meltwater interacting with abandoned materials at the Camp Century site over the next century. The first updated preliminary projections based on the new data are expected at the end of 2019. In time, this will lay the foundation for a science-based discussion of the future of Camp Century.