Arctic Weather Words

In northern Greenland, the words people use to describe the sea ice and weather provide insight into the ongoing effects of climate change.

The hunters and fishers of Northwest Greenland are witness to dramatic shifts in weather and climate, and daily life on ice and sea is punctuated by anticipatory moments attentive to the risks and challenges these transformations bring. Their world is a rapidly changing one, in which the movement of animals, the surging and retreat of glaciers, the dripping and trickling sounds of meltwater, the texture and distribution of thinning sea ice, the increasing frequency and ferocity of storms, and the forces of coastal erosion mean something powerful and extraordinary—but also worrying.

Fishing through the sea ice, Melville Bay. Mark Nuttall

Sila, the Greenlandic word for weather, has many other meanings: the air; the outside; the world; a person’s mind, consciousness, and senses. A changing climate affects not only a person’s surroundings, it can also be experienced as disorientation. To say “the weather is bad” (sila ajorpoq) is also to describe how one’s own sense of being in the world is disrupted. And, when the weather is bad, I have heard people say “silaga aalavoq,” which means “my head/my mind is swimming, shaking, moving.” When the weather improves, it is said not just to get better, but to return to its senses (silattorpoq), just as a person does who has suffered a momentary loss of perspective and balance.

Hunters say the ice is a different texture and consistency and is quasappoq (smoother and far more slippery), making dogs slip and slide (sarrippoq) and the runners of the sledge zigzag (ajalupput).
In the late 1980s, I went to do fieldwork in Northwest Greenland for the first time. Since then, I have travelled and carried out research in many other parts of this vast Arctic island, but I am drawn back to the communities in the Upernavik and Melville Bay area. This stretch of coast is an archipelago of islands, with several deep fjords stretching to tidewater glaciers, and an interior dominated by mountains and the Greenland ice sheet. Around 1,100 people live in the town of Upernavik, the largest center on this part of the coast, with a further 1,700 or so spread between 10 small communities. Many depend on hunting marine mammals—mainly various species of seals and whales, along with polar bears—and fishing for their livelihoods. Much of what is caught is consumed locally. An inshore fishery for Greenland halibut has provided the primary means of earning money since the activities of international animal-rights organizations and European Union trade bans effectively destroyed markets for sealskins in the 1980s and early 1990s. Social, cultural, and economic life is organized around strong family relationships and dense patterns of social relatedness that not only connect people and their families throughout the region, but which entangle human interests and activities with the other than human entities that also make up this far northern world. During my recent visits, I find myself talking more with my friends about the words they use to describe such things as slush, frosty weather, and misty clouds, and about how sila is wild, rages, rambles, and shakes. I’m interested in what these weather words say about their experiences of climate change.

Sea ice, called siku in kalaallisut (Greenlandic; but literally, “in the way or manner of a Greenlander”), is central to people’s lives during winter and spring. Today, though, the effects of a rapidly changing climate on siku are apparent, immediate, and often striking, and scientists report on how the entire Baffin Bay sea ice regime is undergoing a thinning trend. Local people do not need scientists to tell them this; they are witness to dramatic shifts in the ice and to seasonal patterns and many now find it more of a struggle to make a living as hunters and fishers. Reduced snow cover and thinner sea ice make travel by dog sledge increasingly difficult. The thinning ice means more occasions when people encounter headland cracks and open leads in the ice as well as stretches of open water, which impede mobility. These cracks in the ice may mean it is possible to throw down a fishing line and entice halibut to bite on a baited hook, but they can open up without warning and dogs and sledges can fall into the sea. Hunters say the ice is a different texture and consistency and is quasappoq (smoother and far more slippery), making dogs slip and slide (sarrippoq) and the runners of the sledge zigzag (ajalupput). Worse still, some recent winters passed with no ice at all for several weeks.

Icebergs are calving from glaciers with greater frequency. Glacial ice mass is diminishing and reshaping local topographies. Some fjords and bays are increasingly referred to as neria. These are places filled with icebergs and chunks of ice, or kaavalanerit (neria also refers to a greedy eater—human or animal—which has gorged itself), and are more numerous than people remember in living memory. Land is being revealed as the glaciers retreat and the increased meltwater runoff from these glacial fronts is affecting water temperature and circulation patterns as well as the formation of sea ice.

All this influences the distribution and availability of the marine mammals and the fish people seek out and depend upon as the basis for local livelihoods and household economies. In summer and autumn, some seals have been moving further away from coastal waters with the shifting pack ice. This makes hunting trips necessary into iluakkooq (the swell) and even further out to places at sea where the swell is far heavier (iluakkoorpoq), adding greater risk and danger to travel by open boat. Narwhals have been moving closer to the coast in recent years, swimming deeper into ice-choked fjords and inlets. This exposes them to a greater risk of ice entrapment when the sea eventually freezes in autumn or early winter.

So why do words used to describe the weather and the ice matter? Some of the first words people taught me during my initial sojourn in northern Greenland were expressions of how the world moves; a vernacular that captures and is evocative of the feelings, sights, and sounds of the things and entities that compose and fill it. People impressed upon me that I needed to be attentive at all times to the twists and turns of the sea, the ice, and the weather, and in the movement and behavior of animals; to the way one’s surroundings can throw up surprises, and how not to be surprised by this at all. And this, they said, would only be possible by thinking, acting, moving, dreaming, imagining, navigating, hunting and fishing, travelling on the sea ice by dog sledge, or walking in the mountains in search of ptarmigan, in the way or manner of a Greenlander.

Fishing in the bay near the community of Naajaat, central Upernavik district. Mark Nuttall

Kalaallisut provides a set of codes for reading, experiencing, and talking about the environment, personhood, and people’s relationships with one another. To learn it is to get to grips with an elegant, extensive, complex lexicon for describing the things that surround people, the way shadows are cast on mountain slopes, for instance, or the fear one has of seeing a polar bear close by—and the alarm one feels when it appears that polar bear will attack you. To speak in kalaallisut is to make a performative gesture. Everything has to be described in the right way—the position of a seal in the water, the softness of fine snowflakes, or the thickness of the air or the weather. Umippoq, for example, means the air is getting thick because of rain or snow that is approaching, but if the weather “gets thicker” then it is described as isortikkiartorpoq, which is related to other words for dim, opaque, obscure, unclear. While that describes a process of thickening weather, nittaalaq is used to describe the weather when it is thick (I would be corrected and told to use nittaalaq if I used umippoq to say the weather is thick).

Being out on the sea during summer and autumn does not just require skills of navigation and how to operate an outboard engine. Along with equipment for hunting and fishing, a finely-grained vocabulary needs to be carried around and drawn from too if one is to be safe. Issaqusaq, for example, describes the ground swell from a large iceberg shifting its center of gravity. I remember learning to distinguish between different kinds of waves—malliukkaaq, for instance, is a wave that is rising because of something that has fallen into the sea, such as an iceberg calving from a glacier. And this, it is vital to know, is different from issaqusaq, which comes from deep within the sea, rising up and catching you unaware, rather than a strong force moving down along a fjord to the outer coast. My early adventures in kalaallisut were forays into a vocabulary that is essential to know because it highlights the need to be aware at all times and to be perceptive of risk and danger. Anticipating that what you initially think is a gently rolling wave (malik) in the distance could actually be malliukkaaq approaching can be crucial to making sure you maneuver your boat to calm or sheltered waters.

Some words and expressions have become particularly significant as climate change makes itself felt in Northwest Greenland. On my recent field trips, I am struck by how people are using words for thinking and talking about the weather, but also for watching and feeling it, that would only be used at certain times of the year, or which would be rarely used at all. Taqqalluk, for instance, describes slush on the ice, but is commonly a winter word; putsineq is a word used to describe how the ice is slushy at the end of spring when the weather warms and the sea ice begins to break up. Now, putsineq is heard more often in January and February when the ice should be firm and strong. Other, previously common words are rarely being uttered. For example, sikunnaq (weather which promises a cover of ice) is becoming a rare occurrence in late autumn and early winter; correspondingly, sikunnaq is also a word people hear less often.

Travelling by dog sledge on sea ice in late winter near Savissivik, Melville Bay. Mark Nuttall

Last summer, a friend who is in his late 60s and lives in Kangersuatsiaq, a community situated to the south of Upernavik town, reflected on the differences between the weather today and during his childhood and youth. What is rare now, he told me, is qeraaluppoq—the way snow creaks in frosty weather, especially when you walk on it or travel on it by dog sledge. He also talked of winter being characterized not just by less sea ice, but by the presence in the sky of putsut (misty clouds). Summer in the Arctic has usually been the cloudiest time of the year. When the sea ice finally melts, it leaves open water, which releases more moisture into the air, helping to increase cloud cover. When the ice cover is at its thickest between December and February, cloud cover is least extensive. But things are changing, and with the loss of ice come putsut, emerging from pujoraussaq (a frost smoke or mist from the sea), obscuring one’s view during the day and hiding arsarnerit (the northern lights) at night.

For the last few years, I have been working on a number of projects focused on Northwest Greenland. One in particular, has been concerned with understanding and assessing current and future changes in Arctic sea ice and the wider environment—both from changing atmospheric and oceanic conditions—and the social and economic consequences of these changes. A collaborative venture across the social and physical and natural sciences, I work with oceanographers and Greenlandic communities, combining scientific and local knowledge. Acquiring a comprehensive understanding of local knowledge and the historical and contemporary resource use and occupancy of Northwest Greenland, specifically in the Upernavik, Melville Bay, and Qaanaaq areas, has involved mapping the local use and knowledge of sea ice and its importance for communities in the region. My science colleagues have carried out measurements during a number of field visits, and have also drawn upon satellite images and historical ice charts, as well as data derived from marine sediment cores. All this allows us greater understanding of alterations in drift ice and fast ice extent, freeze-up and break-up patterns, changes to glacier fronts, and iceberg calving processes, which facilitates both the formation and stability of the fast ice cover.

Alongside the data gathered from measurements of sea ice thickness, indigenous observations of the changing weather and the consistency of ice are key to our work. And the words people use to describe the way the weather feels, or how some patches of snow on the ice are slimy rather than soft because of more seaweed oozing though cracks in winter, or how the runners of a sledge zigzag across a slippery stretch of ice following freezing rain, intrigue me. They not only provide insight into how people are being affected by climate change, as sila shifts, transforms, rages, and loses its senses. Weather words are becoming critical for anticipatory knowledge, for how people prepare, focus, and think about how they must act (silattorsarpoq), and for how they navigate a world in which daily life plays out in surroundings of movement, emergence, and becoming.

Mark Nuttall is professor and Henry Marshall Tory Chair of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. He is also visiting professor of climate and society at the University of Greenland and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. He was a co-principal investigator of the recently-completed ICE-ARC (Ice, Climate and Economics—Arctic Research on Change) project funded by the EU FP7 program. He is author of Climate, Society and Subsurface Politics in Greenland: Under the Great Ice (2017), and co-editor of the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of the Polar Regions.

Cite as: Nuttall, Mark. 2018. “Arctic Weather Words.” Anthropology News website, March 12, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.793

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