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Here, climate change benefits the Inuit

world Updated: Aug 27, 2007 03:09 IST

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 from nearly 500 to about 200.

Since 1995, Greenland’s vast ice cap has lost seven per cent of its mass and 91 metres in height, according to the European Environmental Agency. 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.

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.

The summer hunts take place amid looming icebergs and snow shelves that are constantly melting away.