Field Notes from Greenland: The Muskox Economy

A muskox decorates the roof of a house in Kangerlussuaq. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

A muskox decorates the roof of a house in Kangerlussuaq. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

“I just had muskox Thai curry at the only restaurant in town,” I messaged my friend after dinner one night in Kangerlussuaq at the Polar Bear Inn.

“Greenland has restaurants?” she replied.

Yes, Greenland has restaurants. This isn’t so surprising once you consider that 57,000 people inhabit this Arctic island. Those restaurants often serve muskox, a staple of Greenlandic cuisine and an important element of many local economies in this corner of the world. In Kangerlussuaq, the furry bovine is even the mascot for the annual “Running of the Moskus,” a 5K/Half Marathon whose proceeds benefit the local school trip to Copenhagen. Muskox originally lived in northern Canada and northern Greenland, yet the species has been introduced to southern Greenland, where it now thrives. It’s common to spot the animals from the main road up to the ice, grazing together in small herds.

Five brown lumps, actually muskox, sitting on the banks of the Watson River. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Five brown lumps, actually muskox, sitting on the banks of the Watson River. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Fishing and mining are often the first things that come to mind when discussing Greenland’s economy, for they are the sectors that bring in the most money. Fishing, mostly of shrimp and halibut, generated 89% of exports in 2010. Mining, which resumed in 2006, only constitutes a small amount of exports. Megaprojects like aluminium smelters and iron ore mines grab all the headlines even though more local, artisanal sectors like hunting and knitting – both tied in many instances to muskox – are still of vital importance. Hunting, in fact, employs 10 percent of the population directly and indirectly [1].

A dead muskox hunted by trophy hunters in the back of a truck. © Daniel Nichita, August 2014.

A dead muskox hunted by trophy hunters in the back of a truck. © Daniel Nichita.

In Greenland, hunting takes place under the categories of both subsistence hunting and trophy hunting. Hunters from Denmark, the U.S., Russia, Poland, and Germany, among other countries, pay up to $8,650 to companies like Greenland Outfitters for the privilege of hunting and keeping an animal head. The price which includes the fee for the “trophy,” lodging, flights, food, etc. With trophy hunting, the parts of the body that the hunter doesn’t keep are often used for food or fur in Greenland.

Nowadays, the government prohibits the pursuit of muskox or caribou from an ATV, making it more difficult to provide luxurious trophy hunting trips. This restriction didn’t sit well with some hunters who have felt at odds with the government, especially since pro-mining Siumut became the largest party in parliament (though shy of holding a majority) in 2013. With Greenland’s new tourism slogan “Be a Pioneer,” it’s clear that the government wants to look forward to modern, industrial development schemes like mining rather than backward to hunting and fishing.

Curious curries

Greenland in a nutshell: Muskox panang, a pepperoni pizza, and Coca-Cola. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Greenland in a nutshell: Muskox red curry, a pepperoni pizza, and Coca-Cola bottled in Nuuk. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Muskox meat is sold to restaurants like the Polar Bear Inn in Kangerlussuaq, which feeds locals, scientists, and members of the military staying in town, and also the high-end restaurant Roklubben (Row Club) on the shores of nearby Lake Ferguson, which caters to the more well-heeled tourist crowd. The Polar Bear Inn is run by Thai people, originally from a village northeast of Bangkok [2]. The fact that Thai people are running a restaurant in the Arctic isn’t that unusual, for there is also a large Thai population in Svalbard, the archipelago north of Norway. The Polar Bear Inn’s restaurateurs have adapted their home cuisine in order to work with Greenland’s limited provisions. Most of the vegetables are frozen, the rice is plain, never coconut, and you can forget your Thai iced tea. But on the menu, next to the typical “Chicken,” “Beef,” and “Shrimp” sections is the “Musk” section, which features delights such as muskox curry and muskox tom yum soup rather than the boring old fare of pad thai and chicken satay. You can choose between the standard options of red, green, or yellow curry – though personally, I found the muskox panang to be a real winner.

Musk Section.Thai food is not all that the Polar Bear Inn serves. No town in the world is a town without a pizzeria, even in the Arctic. So naturally, the restaurant also dishes out personal-size pizzas with all sorts of toppings, including muskox. The muskox supreme seemed to be a favorite with the visiting Danish soldiers. A strange combination of thinly sliced muskox, gorgonzola cheese, canned mushrooms, peppers, and chili sits atop a circle of pizza dough. The Guardian recently published an article on Britain’s crimes against international cuisine, but I think it is high time for a follow-up story on the abominations of Greenlandic cuisine, the muskox supreme being one of them.

Out of the frying pan, into the weaving loom

Dyed muskox wool. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Dyed muskox wool on a workshop table and two headbands in the bottom right. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Aside from being chopped up into curries or sliced on top of pizzas, muskox is also used for its wool. The brown, fluffy, and incredibly soft fiber is cleaned, shipped to Denmark, where it is turned into yarn, and then sent back to Kangerlussuaq. There, a local artist dyes or hand-paints it, with the colors inspired by scenes from Greenlandic nature. A red, orange, and purple painted yarn recalls the sunset, while the pinkish-purple yarn evokes the niviarsiaq, a flower that grows throughout the tundra. Sweaters, hats, headbands, and mittens are just some of the muskox wool accessories you can purchase at stores like Niviarsiaq. A hat costs about DKK 500 (USD $88 USD), while a sweater goes for about DKK 3000 DKK (USD $528).

Muskox fur. © Mia Bennett.

Fluffy muskox fur. © Mia Bennett.

Having only visited Kangerlussuaq, I can’t say if the muskox economy is as prominent elsewhere in Greenland. But I can say that muskox is not the only animal product sold in Kanger. Dog fur is turned into mittens. Bone is carved into miniature toy dogsled sets. Raw caribou meat is sometimes sold on a tarp right outside the local outlet of Pilersuisoq, the national grocery store chain. (In fact, on second thought, it may be better to say that in Greenland, no town is a town without a Pilersuisoq. Just look at their incredible store locations map – yes, they are even in Siorapaluk, the world’s northernmost inhabited settlement, which is even north of Thule/Qaanaaq.) Sealskin is turned into leather for boots and coats, a product whose export has declined by 90% after the European Union banned its import in 2010 despite limited exemptions for certain Inuit production. The ban has caused significant hardship for people who once depended on sealskin products for part of their income.

Caribou meat for sale outside Pilersuisoq. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Caribou meat for sale outside Pilersuisoq. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Much of the talk about Greenland’s economy focuses on the fish and minerals, but it’s also the large mammals romping around its tundra and swimming in its seas that provide for many peoples’ livelihoods. This is a fact of life in many places in the Arctic, and one that does not mesh well with the insatiable resource demands of industrialized capitalist economies. In a story from March 2014, the Arctic Journal quoted Leif Fontaine, chairman of the hunting and fishing lobbying group KNAPK, as testifying to the Danish parliament’s Greenland Committee:

“Imagine if the activity you and your ancestors had lived off for centuries was labelled as deplorable and barbaric. That is the label we feel the EU has put on our hunting.”

While the EU bans imports of seal products, it hasn’t outright banned imports of products like gold, diamonds, and rubies, even though there are just as many concerns over their provenance and production. Mining causes large-scale devastation to the landscape and its flora and fauna in a way that is arguably more harmful to the overall health of the environment than sealing. Under the current system of global capital, industrial processes and mega-projects that have the capacity to both generate (and lose) huge sums of money, such as mining, tend to triumph over small-scale, lower-return sectors like hunting and sealing. The irony of discourses surrounding Arctic development is that mining can be marketed as sustainable while sealing is considered barbaric.

The muskox economy versus the Arctic Economic Council


Sealskins awaiting processing. © Mia Bennett.

The Arctic Council’s newly formed sub-group, the Arctic Economic Council (AEC), is having its inaugural meeting in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada today and tomorrow. Already, Canada, whose priority as Arctic Council chair is “development for the people of the North,” views the AEC as one of its leading accomplishments during its chairmanship, which will end in spring 2015. Looking at the list of representatives from each of the Arctic Council member states and permanent participants who will attend the meeting, it’s clear that mining, oil and gas, and shipping all are well-represented, while truly renewable and sustainable sectors are under-represented.

When many of the people living in the Arctic – those employed by the muskox economy, the caribou economy, or the seal economy – aren’t able to attend the meetings where dramatic changes to their land and resources are discussed, there is a problem. Mining companies like Baffinland and Agnico-Eagle may be headquartered in Arctic countries, but their main offices are in the southern reaches of those countries in places like Toronto. What’s more, these global corporations are footloose: if their investments in mines in the Arctic don’t work out, they can move to Africa or South America, whereas a Greenlander cannot. While plans for mining forge ahead, the muskox economy is relegated to a smaller and smaller corner of the tundra.

The end of the muskox economy? © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The end of the muskox economy? © Mia Bennett, August 2014.


[1] Source: Greenland Representation to the EU, Brussels.

[2] In case you were wondering, Kanger’s two Thai restaurateurs escape the cold by going home once a year, which is probably not too arduous a trip thanks to the direct flight from Kanger to Copenhagen, and then the non-stop Copenhagen to Bangkok long-haul flight, offered by both Thai Airways and SAS.

Field Notes from Greenland: From the Glacier to the Sea

A supraglacial river. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

A supraglacial river. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The Greenland Ice Sheet is constantly in flux and is far from static. The world’s second largest body of ice has been especially dynamic in the past several years as climate change’s positive feedback loops have exacerbated melting. The region of northeast Greenland, for instance, maintained its mass from year to year until 2003. But in the past ten years, on average, it has been losing 10 billion tons of ice a year, according to researchers at the Technical University of Denmark.

When melting, some of the ice sheet begins to drain from the surface via supraglacial rivers such as the one pictured in the above photograph, which I took from a helicopter flying low across the surface. The research team of which I’m a part has been studying the area of the ice sheet in western Greenland. From this region, water drains into the Davis Strait separating Greenland and Baffin Island, Canada. We flew to the surface of the ice, about 50 kilometers inland from the edge, to study these rivers. They cut winding curves ranging from deep blue to crystal-clear azure in the ice. Some flow in shallow channels on top, while more powerful ones cut deep, incised canyons into the ice, like the one below.

A canyon cutting its way through the Greenland Ice Sheet. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

A canyon cutting its way through the Greenland Ice Sheet. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Nearly all of these supraglacial rivers end in moulins – holes in the ice sheet that are formed by flowing water, a topic my colleague, UCLA PhD candidate Vena Chu has researched. (There are also some helpful diagrams on her website that illustrate glacial drainage systems.) After traveling through a moulin, meltwater can drain out of the face of the ice edge or at the bottom of the glacier, lubricating its surface. In the below picture, the dark hole on the bottom of the left of the turquoise lake, sitting below two small waterfalls, appears to be a moulin. The lake water may have previously been level with the surface of the ice, but it could have since drained out through that glacial rabbit hole.

A moulin in a supraglacial lake on the Greenland Ice Sheet. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

A moulin in a supraglacial lake on the Greenland Ice Sheet. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The photograph below shows, from foreground to background, the crevasse fields at the edge of the ice sheet, the moraines pushed up by the retreating Russell Glacier, and the drainage basin in the west. The undulating tundra-covered hills are some classic features of a glacially carved landscape.

The view above the crevasse fields at the edge of the Russell Glacier above Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The view above the crevasse fields at the edge of the Russell Glacier above Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Eventually, at least coming off the Russell Glacier east of Kangerlussuaq, the meltwater flows via a number of meltwater outflow streams into the massive, churning, sediment-rich Qinnguata Kuusua (Watson River). Another one of my colleagues, Lincoln Pitcher, shot a video of the raging river in July 2012 after five consecutive days of above-freezing temperatures across the Greenland Ice Sheet generated what The Guardian called “an unprecedented thaw.”

The Watson River wends its way through the 60-kilometer long fjord leading out to sea. But it’s not just water flowing downstream. First of all, the water transforms from being incredibly clear up on the ice to being thick, gray, and chock-full of sediment after traveling only a few kilometers downstream. By the time it gets to Kangerlussuaq and passes under the town’s bridge, it’s essentially a rock, soil, and sand smoothie. And it’s not just earth that gets mixed into the river. During the 2012 flooding, an entire front-loader was washed downstream, as seen in Pitcher’s video. What’s more, the bridge over the Watson River was named after Jack T. Perry, who died while attempting to navigate the river in 1976 – a somber reminder of the power of glaciers, even once they have begun to melt.

The Watson River right after it passes under the bridge from Kangerlussuaq, and just before it flows into the fjord. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The Watson River right after it passes under the bridge from Kangerlussuaq, flowing out into the fjord towards the sea. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Field Notes from Greenland: The Road to the Ice

The Kanger-Ice Sheet road, not too far from the ice. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The Kanger-Ice Sheet road, not too far from the edge of the world’s second-largest ice body. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The Greenland Ice Sheet covers 81 percent of the country’s terrain and is the second-largest body of ice in the world, after its counterpart in Antarctica. Most of the ice sheet’s terminate in the ocean, but some end on land. Kangerlussuaq happens to be located only 25 kilometers from the ice sheet’s edges on land, and since the town is also quite a ways from the ocean, it’s one of the farthest inland settlements in Greenland. Another distinction Kanger enjoys is that it is the only place in Greenland where you can walk – and, it was once planned, drive – onto the ice sheet.

In the late ’90s, the seemingly now-defunct car testing company Nausta decided to build a 30-kilometer dirt road from Kanger to the ice sheet. Swedish company Skanska’s Greenlandic entity completed construction on the road in 2001. European car manufacturers like Volkswagen and Audi made plans to begin testing cars up on the ice, for they wanted to know how their cars would operate in near-freezing temperatures.

The longest road in Greenland, from Kangerlussuaq to the ice cap. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

For Nausta, a dirt road in Greenland wasn’t enough – they wanted to go all the way up to, and on top of, the ice. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

According to an article in a 2000 edition of the government-published This is Greenland“Iceland and Canada were considered for the task, but didn’t have the right stuff – the ice there wasn’t hard enough.” Aside from having rock-hard glaciers nearby, Kanger also has an airport with a runway large enough for the big airplanes that would ferry the cars from their European manufacturers to Greenland. From Kanger, with the road, it’s just a one hour drive to the ice sheet. In Iceland, by contrast, the air hub in Keflavík is several hours from the Vatnajökull ice cap by car. And for the car companies, which need to maintain every edge and secret within the competitive business of automobile engineering, Greenland certainly is hard to beat in the “remote” and “inaccessible” departments, helping to deter nosy reporters, car enthusiasts, and industrial spies.

As if the dirt road to the ice sheet was not enough, Nausta also intended to build a 150-kilometer track on the ice itself to its testing facility. An article in the Danube Messenger (in German) noted that the test site would have a hotel and cafeteria for approximately 40 employees and a 900 square-meter workshop for the automobile prototypes. There would also be a “small power plant, storage and waste container,” but none of this ever saw the light of day.

A metaphor for Nausta's woe befallen plans? So close to the ice sheet, but yet so far. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

A metaphor for Nausta’s woe befallen plans? So close to the ice sheet, but yet so far. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The project was abandoned in 2006 for reasons that are unclear, but probably easy to surmise when it comes to far-fetched megaprojects launched in the Arctic: cost overruns, remoteness, and challenging weather, to name a few. It’s nowadays impossible to drive a normal car from the road onto the ice sheet, as the glacier is retreating and leaving massive moraines – basically huge piles of dirt – in its wake. A Caterpillar bulldozer managed to make it up the road to the area where tourists can walk onto the ice, and the rusting piece of equipment has to constantly shift earth to clear the feeble pathways. The tourist attraction looks more like an industrial wasteland than the postcard-perfect image many tourists have in their heads of blue-white glaciers.

Bulldozer near the Greenland Ice Sheet at the end of the road from Kangerlussuaq. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Bulldozer near the Greenland Ice Sheet surrounded by moraines at the end of the road from Kangerlussuaq. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The Greenlandic government was a big booster of the Nausta project. Its publication cheerfully observed that “VW’s public relations staff will be able to use the hefty argument that the company’s cars are tested on the Greenland Ice Cap,” a statement which seem almost politically incorrect today, just 13 years later, due to increased awareness about the fragility of Arctic environments. In seeking out foreign investment, perhaps Greenland optimistically expected that Nausta, which already operated a car testing facility in northern Sweden where the industry is a big business, could deal with the challenges of working in the Arctic. But apparently, this wasn’t the case when it came to Kanger. The town was left with a road but no car testing facility, though this was probably for the best outcome for the integrity of the environment around the settlement. Already, it has been polluted by decades of military waste, the ongoing weekly burning of the town’s trash, and the dumping of sewage into the Watson River (so much for pure Arctic environments).

Nausta’s ill-fated project could have ended up being a road to nowhere. Happily, however, it has brought benefits to Kanger by turning into both a tourist attraction and now-indispensable road for scientists studying the ice sheet. In a country where helicopters cost $5,000 an hour, being able to drive to the ice saves a huge amount of money. The road is Greenland’s longest, and as it goes from the airport to the ice sheet, it makes for a good day trip. I’ve now driven up and down the road four times and run about half of it, and it is stunningly scenic, curving through the Isunngua highlands carpeted by tundra and alongside a glacially-fed river. The jagged crevasse fields of the ice sheet peak out at numerous turns. Many tourists make the drive with the local tour operator Arctic Circle during their layovers between Copenhagen and onward destinations in Greenland. Half marathons, marathons, and bike trips also all now take place on the road. Local residents might have benefited more from a road to the nearby big city (in Greenlandic terms) of Sisimiut 130 kilometers away on the west coast, for there are still no roads between any two inhabited settlements in Greenland. Yet at the very least, they can still make use of the road to the ice, especially the hunting guides who use it to access areas of the tundra inland from Kanger where muskox and caribou roam. And while fancy German cars can’t make the drive up the road onto the ice, all-terrain vehicles can, attracting off-road adventurers to come to Greenland. The environmental impact of Greenland’s longest road is unclear, but at the very least, the economy of what’s still mainly an airport town has diversified thanks to the construction of the road.

Where the road - and N's dreams of an ice track testing ground - end. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.

Where the road – and Nausta’s dreams of an ice track testing ground – end. © Mia Bennett, August 2014.