Greenland: Thin Ice

Jason George and Christopher Booker, for the Pulitzer Center

What do endangered languages, the northern lights and glaciers have in common?

They'll all topics that researchers are currently studying at Dartmouth College's Institute of Arctic Studies.

For nearly 100 years, Dartmouth has brought scientists and scholars together to examine life at the top of the world. Given how much the arctic environment is changing, it makes sense that most of those researchers study the region's climate, ecology and geology.

So why endangered languages?

Such a topic might, at first, seem an unlikely focal point when examining the arctic. However the arctic's dramatic environmental change has trickled down into other aspects of life as well. Culture, community and traditions must also adapt in world where the ground quite-literally can be shifting underfoot.

That's where University of Chicago Professor Lenore Grenoble comes in.

Grenoble is a linguist and has worked in Eastern Siberia for the past 15 years. This summer she'll travel to Greenland—it's her second trip—and we'll accompany her, as she continues to examine if, and how, climate change is impacting the Greenlandic language.

"When the language is in trouble there's all kinds of other things in trouble so that's the canary in the coal mine," she said.

"In Greenland I don't think there'll be a direct connection between language loss and climate change but what we're seeing is a nexis of changes where you're getting climate change and warming that's disturbing native lifestyle," she said. "And if you disturb native lifestyle then language gets disrupted."

While in Greenland Grenoble will also work on another project: figuring out ways to better train polar scientists who interact with indigenous peoples. (Given the economic and environmental stakes at play in the arctic, the number of polar scientists is increasing—and so are such interactions with locals.)

"In the north, the whole situation has become very politically charged because you have climate change and you have very small groups of people—across the globe, across international boundaries—who may be living a primarily subsistence lifestyle and they're very vulnerable.

"Climate change alone is changing their life and then the outsider comes in and then leaves—these are issues."

Check back for updates on Greenoble's work over the next few weeks.