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GREENLAND

Greenland takes cautious approach to tourism as icebergs melt

As tourists flock to Greenland to take in its breathtaking icebergs and natural beauty, authorities are mulling ways to control crowds to protect the fragile environment, already threatened by global warming.

Greenland takes cautious approach to tourism as icebergs melt
A boat carrying tourists manoeuvres among icebergs floating in Disko Bay, Ilulissat, western Greenland. File photo: Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

“It’s a dream destination,” said Yves Gleyze, a veteran off-the-beaten-track French tourist in his 60s as he arrived at the airport in Ilulissat.

Visitors to the third-biggest town in the Danish autonomous territory are met by a rugged, austere landscape of grey rock and sparse vegetation.

But mesmerising views of massive icebergs come into view after just a short drive.

Breaking off from the Ilulissat glacier in the neighbouring fjord, the majestic blocks of ice drift slowly by in Disko Bay, the occasional whale making an appearance.

The postcard views attracted 50,000 tourists in 2021, more than 10 times the town’s population.

More than half make only a short pit stop during an Arctic cruise.

Numbers are expected to swell with the opening of an international airport in the next two years, a welcome boost to the island’s revenues but also a challenge, given the delicate — and melting — ecosystem.

In the past 40 years, the Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the rest of the planet, according to a recent scientific study.

“We can see changes every day caused by climate change: the icebergs are getting smaller, the glacier is retreating,” said mayor Palle Jeremiassen.

Thawing permafrost is also threatening the stability of some buildings and infrastructure.

With the immaculate landscape so coveted by tourists changing,  officials are determined to protect it without turning away tourists.

“We want to control the arrival of tourist ships here,” said Jeremiassen, noting the risks posed by the highly-polluting vessels.

In order to protect the environment and community, Ilulissat should only welcome “one ship max per day, max one thousand tourists per ship,” he said.

Recently, three cruise ships arrived on the same day, spewing out 6,000 visitors.

Jeremiassen said the town’s infrastructure is not designed to accommodate such numbers, nor is it able to ensure that tourists respect protected areas, notably in the fjord.

Nearby Iceland, where the tourism industry has been flourishing for two decades, is an example of how not to do things, he insisted.

“We don’t want to be like Iceland. We don’t want mass tourism. We want to control tourism here. That’s the key we have to find.”

Greenland has enjoyed self-rule since 2009 but hopes to gain full independence from Denmark one day.

To do so means it would have to get by without subsidies from Copenhagen, which currently make up a third of its budget. It has yet to find a way to stand alone financially, and for now, its main natural resource is the sea.

In Ilulissat, one in three locals live off fishing, which accounts for most of Greenland’s revenues.

But climate change is having a big impact.

“Back when I was young we had pack ice we could walk on,” said Lars Noasen, the captain of a tourist boat as he navigated deftly between iceberg debris in Disko Bay.

“Now the pack ice is not so solid anymore. You can’t use it for anything, you can’t dogsled on the ice and fish like in the old days.”

In the past two decades, Greenland’s massive ice cap has lost 4.7 trillion tonnes of ice, contributing to a sea level rise of 1.2 centimetres on its own, according to Danish Arctic researchers.

The disappearing ice has affected fishermen.

“The ice conditions are changing. The main fjord used to be closed off by huge icebergs and sea ice and they (the fishermen) were not able to sail in before,” said Sascha Schiott, a researcher at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

Now they can.

Boats are also able to head out fishing year-round now, which has increased fishermen’s hauls.

But the size of the fish they’re catching has decreased, largely due to overfishing, says Schiott.

Ejner Inusgtuk, a craggy-faced fisherman preparing his lines in the port, disagreed and said climate change is to blame.

“The climate is too warm.”

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CLIMATE CRISIS

Europe’s temperatures rising more than twice global average, UN warns

Temperatures in Europe have increased at more than twice the global average over the past three decades, showing the fastest rise of any continent on earth, the UN said Wednesday.

Europe's temperatures rising more than twice global average, UN warns

The European region has on average seen temperatures rise 0.5 degrees Celsius each decade since 1991, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization and the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service found in a joint report.

As a result, Alpine glaciers lost 30 metres (just under 100 feet) in ice thickness between 1997 and 2021, while the Greenland ice sheet is swiftly melting and contributing to accelerating sea level rise.

Last year, Greenland experienced melting and the first-ever recorded rainfall at its highest point. And the report cautioned that regardless of future levels of global warming, temperatures would likely continue to rise across Europe at a rate exceeding global mean temperature changes.

“Europe presents a live picture of a warming world and reminds us that even well-prepared societies are not safe from impacts of extreme weather events,” WMO chief Petteri Taalas said in a statement.

WMO splits the world into six regions, with the European region covering 50 countries and including half of the swiftly warming Arctic, which is not a continent in its own right.

Within Antarctica — which is a continent but falls outside the six WMO-defined regions –only the West Antarctic Peninsula part is seeing rapid warming.

‘Vulnerable’

The new report, released ahead of the UN’s 27th conference on climate set to open in Egypt on Sunday, examined the situation in Europe up to and including 2021.

It found that last year, high-impact weather and climate events — mainly floods and storms — led to hundreds of deaths, directly affected more than half a million people and caused economic damage across Europe exceeding $50 billion.

At the same time, the report highlighted some positives, including the success of many European countries in slashing greenhouse gas emissions. Across the EU, such emissions decreased by nearly a third between 1990 and 2020, and the bloc has set a net 55-percent reduction target for 2030.

Europe is also one of the most advanced regions when it comes to cross-border cooperation towards climate change adaptation, the report said. It also hailed Europe’s world-leading deployment of early warning systems, providing protection for about 75 percent of the population, and said its heat-health action plans had saved many lives.

“European society is vulnerable to climate variability and change,” said Carlo Buontempo, head of Copernicus’s European Centre of Medium-range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF). “But Europe is also at the forefront of the international effort to mitigate climate change and to develop innovative solutions to adapt to the new climate Europeans will have to live with.”

Health concerns

Yet, the continent is facing formidable challenges.

“This year, like 2021, large parts of Europe have been affected by extensive heatwaves and drought, fuelling wildfires,” Taalas said, also decrying “death and devastation” from last year’s “exceptional floods”.

And going forward, the report cautioned that regardless of the greenhouse gas emissions scenario, “the frequency and intensity of hot extremes… are projected to keep increasing.”

This is concerning, the report warned, given that the deadliest extreme climate events in Europe are heatwaves, especially in the west and south of the continent.

“The combination of climate change, urbanisation and population ageing in the region creates, and will further exacerbate, vulnerability to heat,” the report said.

The shifting climate is also spurring other health concerns. It has already begun altering the production and distribution of pollens and spores, which appear to be leading to increases in various allergies.

While more than 24 percent of adults living in the European region suffer from such allergies, including severe asthma, the proportion among children is 30-40 percent and rising, it said.

The warming climate is also causing more vector-borne diseases, with ticks moving into new areas bringing Lyme disease and tick-borne encephalitis. Asian tiger mosquitos are also moving further north, carrying the risk of Zika, dengue and chikungunya, the report said.

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