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Greenland: Life at the top of the world

Greenland: Life at the top of the world
Two wildlife photographers on the thrill and importance of documenting the frigid natural beauty of Greenland
Greenland is a wild, hostile place. It’s isolated, cold and sparsely populated: it spans two million square kilometres, making it the world’s largest island, but is home to just 60,000 people. It's a landscape that is simultaneously stunning and barren, with around two-thirds of the country sitting within the Arctic Circle, and 80 per cent of it blanketed with ice. 
At first glance Greenland seems far from hospitable; it’s a frigid world of ice caps and glaciers, mountains and permafrost, and boasts the coldest temperature ever recorded in the northern hemisphere (-69ºC). Yet, despite the island’s undeniably testing conditions, it’s far from empty. In fact, hosts of species are not only surviving in Greenland—they’re thriving.  
"Greenland and its surrounding waters are inhabited by an array of incredible wildlife"
From sea eagles to reindeer, Arctic foxes to polar bears, hooded seals to walruses, Greenland and its surrounding waters are inhabited by an array of incredible wildlife. They have evolved to be able to deal with extreme cold, limited vegetation and long, dark winters; December days in Greenland rarely see the sun for more than four hours.  

Capturing Greenland on camera

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that despite Greenland’s fauna being abundant, it isn't necessarily easy for humans to observe. Most species are elusive and wily; they are cautious, wary of their surroundings and unwilling to do anything that could put them in harm’s way. What’s more, the island is so vast that if an animal is determined to remain out of sight, there’s no shortage of hidey-holes for them to retreat to. 
For a certain type of intrepid and adventurous photographer, these hurdles, coupled with the island’s serenity and remoteness, makes Greenland both the ultimate work environment, and the most challenging. 
“The landscape is a dreamscape, with rugged mountains and glaciers, calving icebergs and fjords,” says Magnus Elander, a Swedish photographer with a passion for capturing the natural world. “It’s a getaway place to meditate. To appreciate not sitting in traffic jams at home. To me, it’s like being on another planet.” 
Reindeer on sandy beach near Nuuk © Klaus Eskildsen, Visit Greenland
Reindeer on sandy beach near Nuuk © Klaus Eskildsen, Visit Greenland
This is a perspective echoed by Thrainn Kolbeinsson, an Icelandic photographer and filmmaker who specialises in landscapes, and has recently become obsessed with shooting the majesty of Greenland’s great outdoors. 
“It’s a visceral experience being out in bad weather and difficult conditions,” Kolbeinsson says. “I naturally become more present and more immersed in every moment. You feel more awake and alive when doing anything in such environments. The landscapes and the sceneries [of Greenland] are obviously incredible, and even though I come from Iceland, I have never experienced views like it.”  
While Greenland is, for both Elander and Kolbeinsson, a draw in and of itself, it’s the country’s collection of wild, often snow-dappled animals they regard as the country’s primary allure. Being able to photograph these creatures against an untamed Greenlandic backdrop is, both men admit, something that is able to entice them time and again.  
"Greenland’s seal population outnumbers its human one by more than 310 to one"
“Wildlife and nature are both intrinsic parts of life in Greenland. In a way, I feel it’s almost like a window into our past as a species. We’re so used to our warm houses, fast food and TV on demand, that we kind of forget that it hasn’t always been this easy. Greenland really embraces the basic and more natural ways of living. To me, that’s what makes their wildlife and nature so special,” says Kolbeinsson. 
Elander fully agrees. “When I take pictures of wildlife in these high Arctic environments, it’s the background setting that really makes the image,” he says. 
While numerous species are flourishing in Greenland—such as the planet’s most genetically isolated polar bear population, which was documented for the very first time in 2022—there is one particular marine mammal that is truly blossoming: the seal.
Greenland’s seal population outnumbers its human one by more than 310 to one. Seals have long prospered for two key reasons; there are relatively few people to hunt them, and the ocean waters contain plentiful supplies of fish such as capelin, Arctic cod and polar cod.  
Seal on ice float in Nuuk Fjord © Klaus Eskildsen, Visit Greenland
Seal on ice float in Nuuk Fjord © Klaus Eskildsen, Visit Greenland
Research suggests that the harp seal, a common feature on the Greenlandic coastline, is faring particularly well, but that could be set to change due to the impacts of climate change. Research published in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2020 concluded that, if it continues to melt at its current rate, the Arctic could be free of sea ice by 2035, meaning 7.5 million harp seals will lose their home. 
Greenland is, as has been well documented, on the climate change frontline. Over the last two decades it has lost around 4,700 gigatons of ice, which some estimates suggest would provide enough water to cover the entire United States in a 1.5-foot-high carpet of water. While many of Greenland’s native species are managing well right now and have yet to feel the full effects of a warming planet, they will undoubtedly start to suffer in the coming decades if global carbon emissions are not reduced

Environmental disaster

This looming environmental disaster, one could argue, makes photographing and recording animal species a vital endeavour, not only so as to be up to date on the tangible effects of climate change, but also for posterity. People like Elander and Kolbeinsson are performing a vital, indispensable service, but both readily admit that they are fortunate to be doing so while surrounded by spectacular, changeable, entirely novel vistas. 
Elander says that while it’s difficult singling out a particular animal he most enjoys photographing, he would, if pushed, choose the majestic walrus, partly owing to a particular encounter that was, at the time it occurred, far from stress-free. 
“We were out in our kayaks and, out of nowhere, we were being accompanied by two inquisitive walruses. They surfaced and snorted very close to our fragile boats. At times they were only some 20 feet away. We were anxious since the beasts were just as big as the kayaks and weighed a ton or more. They could easily have capsized our boat. Walruses are not normally predatory animals, but the thought of being overturned in the icy water, and the sight of their long tusks, made us decide to move towards shallower water and go ashore to study them at a safe distance through binoculars.  
Walrus resting on an ice flow © Aqqa R. Asvid, Visit Greenland
Walrus resting on an ice flow © Aqqa R. Asvid, Visit Greenland
“Walruses are ugly, red-eyed animals with a constantly running nose. They burp and fart loudly, and they are clumsy on land. But I think they are cute, and underwater they are swift and move like torpedoes,” Elander adds.  
Kolbeinsson, meanwhile, confesses that there’s a particular land-based mammal he favours, and it’s one he’d been dreaming of photographing for years before finally getting the opportunity. “Inspired by Ragnar Axelsson, a legendary Icelandic photographer, one of the things I was the most excited for when going to Greenland was meeting the Greenland sled dog,” he says. “I had heard the wildest stories of their extraordinary feats in some of the most difficult conditions on Earth, saving themselves and their owners when everything seemed hopeless.” 
"Looming environmental disaster makes photographing and recording animal species a vital endeavour"
“Even though they live in close proximity with humans, I wouldn‘t say they‘re fully domesticated,” he adds. “I didn‘t really feel afraid around them, but they have a powerful presence. I had two encounters with them while in Greenland and all it did was make my interest even greater.” 
Dog Island © Thrainn Kolbeinsson, Visit Greenland
Dog Island © Thrainn Kolbeinsson, Visit Greenland
Elander says that, as well as giving him the opportunity to take remarkable photographs, his trips to Greenland have also provided unique experiences that he will always treasure. “Highlights include travelling by dogsled with Inuits from Siorapaluk [a tiny settlement in northern Greenland] in early February for a walrus hunt,” he recounts. “We were out on the pack ice and watching the first sunrise of the year at -45°C. We were all dressed in seal skin boots, polar bear pants and a reindeer parka.
“I also spent summers in Myggbukta, an abandoned Norwegian weather station [on the coast of Eastern Greenland]. We had herds of muskoxen roaming around the house all the time, and on two occasions, we saw white Arctic wolves sniffing at the front door.” 
For Kolbeinsson, Greenland simply embodies the essence of why he decided to become a photographer. The chance to come face to face with some of the world’s least accessible animals, all the while enduring biting winds and sunless days, is, he says, what makes him love his job. “It‘s the story that comes out of it, and the fact that you had to work hard for what you got,” he says. “For me, stories of struggles and difficulties naturally catch my attention.” 
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