The Greenland Hazards Project

Large mountain peaking above clouds, snow capping them


  • CU Boulder
  • Virginia Tech
  • Asiaq

As the Arctic warms, the environment is rapidly changing; ice sheets, ice caps, and glaciers are thinning and receding; and permafrost is degrading. In some areas, such as southeastern Alaska and Greenland, these changes can trigger landslides, which in turn can generate localized tsunami-like waves when the landslides flow into fjords and other coastal waters. Since 1995, several coastal landslides have triggered tsunami-like waves, tragically resulting in the loss of lives, damage to infrastructure, and the abandonment of communities in western Greenland. This project is carefully mapping how Greenland is changing in response to ice thinning and is exploring the developing risk of landslides and other hazards. The research integrates local observations made by Greenlandic people in their communities with data collected through advanced remote sensing to learn how hazards evolve over time. The collaboration between US and Greenlandic scientists and Greenlandic residents will be critical to ensure that the research addresses community needs. This project is providing the first Greenland-wide analysis of unstable land and how hazards affect infrastructure and society, while prototyping a monitoring system that could provide warning of approaching large waves.

Researchers are examining and modeling high energy events such as rockslides and avalanches to ascertain their potential tsunami threats to communities around the country. The project team hypothesizes that the known distribution of recorded landslides is controlled by rock type, slope and aspect and then by proximity to retreating glaciers, changing permafrost, temperatures and precipitation. Satellite radar, optical imagery and topographic differencing are being used to investigate geophysical changes and how they alter hazards on regional scales. On local scales, drone surveys are examining permafrost changes and rock instabilities on seasonal to sub-daily timescales. Machine learning and modeling are being applied at all scales to identify patterns of change. In addition, a qualitative study is advancing our understanding of the communication processes through which scientific and Greenlandic communities give meaning to environmental changes and hazards through diverse ways of knowing and multiple forms of expertise. The project is building capacity for geodesy, remote sensing, and machine learning through a series of workshops in Greenland. A multilingual website is providing a source of open, intuitively understandable, and easily accessible information that municipalities can use to inform decision making and policy. The project is developing a communication-theory based virtual workshop on community engagement at annual NNA meetings that is being shared with program managers at NSF. The project data are useful to a wide range of disciplines, with work relevant to solid earth geophysics, glaciology, oceanography, natural hazards, and the field of communication.

River with ice
House lit in the setting sun with snow covered mountains behind them
Aerial view of a small coastal town
Large ice glacier in the ocean, houses in front on coast

Greenland Hazards Project Community Work Report

Greenland Hazards Project Community Work Report by Cole Lombardi

Report available in PDF

This report is a collection of some of my thoughts, as a graduate student, of the summer 2023 field work for the Greenland Hazards Project, a Navigating the New Arctic project whose mission is to study the hazards in Greenland rapidly evolving with climate change. Of special importance to the project is conducting interdisciplinary research and collaborating with local Greenlandic communities. I did not have extensive prior experience working in local communities but have wanted to become involved in this kind of research environment for a long time. This report will hopefully be a valuable resource for other graduate students or researchers at the early stages of community engagement and cultural exchange in the field. As a new graduate student, I believe my point of view has value because I am not conditioned to accept the status quo, and therefore can provide new insights and perspectives beyond those of an established researcher. Furthermore, I came into the field season without much experience, and since others who read this could be in a similar position, this report could be reassuring and/or informative to them. Below, I expand in greater detail on three themes: what we did well, what I learned, and how my perspective has changed. I will start by sharing a brief background about where we conducted our research.

The Greenland Hazards Project team spent the majority of our time in Greenland in the town of Uummannaq, located on Uummannaq Island in the southern Avannaata municipality of Central West Greenland. The town has a population of about 1,400, and is accessible by helicopter and boat in the summer. During our two separate week-plus stays our main scientific objective was to install two GNSS stations in the area, one town site in Uummannaq and one remote site in a nearby fjord to the north, Kangerlarssuaq. During our trips, we were housed and supported by the Uummannaq Polar Institute (UPI). We developed a relationship with UPI throughout our trips, as they are heavily involved in the Uummannaq community at large. The population of Uummannaq is about 95% native Greenlanders (Avannaata Kommunia), and in our experience, most people spoke Danish and Kalaallisut (native Greenlandic) and some spoke English. However, in my experience, there was little consistency; individuals might be fluent at any level, from none to poor to a higher level, in each language.

Outside of Uummannaq, we spent about a week in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, and scattered days (~6-7 days total) in Ilulissat and Kangerlussuaq during our travels to and from Uummannaq and the country. Nuuk is a growing city of about 19,000 (WorldPopulationReview), with cafes, accessible shopping, a museum, and most of the amenities found in a major European city. During our time there, our main objectives were to provide maintenance to a previously installed GNSS station and to meet with collaborators at Asiaq, a weather and climate survey, and the Greenland National Museum, to strengthen our relationship with these Greenlandic partners. Nuuk has a much larger Danish population, proportionately, than Uummannaq and Danish and English are more prevalent as well (Statistics Greenland, 2021). Although we were in Ilulissat and Kangerlussuaq in transit, we were able to explore some and in Kangerlussuaq, we spent a fair amount of time working with other Greenland scientists.


What Went Well

As the field season began approaching this past spring, I was excited about the trip, but also anxious about whether I would be able to do a good job working in the community. I had just taken a class that taught me about conducting research in a community space as an outsider, and while that made me feel more prepared, it also left me with knowledge of the potential mistakes. To assuage my worries, I found a variety of strategies useful. These included reaching out to various contacts/researchers, reviewing literature, and attempting to find information online. The most helpful strategy I found was attending an NNA student panel of people who have done research in Arctic communities. Hearing from other students who were more experienced but who had recently been in my position, was very enlightening, and thus is part of the reason I am writing this report. An important lesson I learned is that while it is good to be prepared generally before going to the field, it is especially important to put in effort to talk to people who have first-hand experience.

A consistent theme stressed by many of the resources, especially the NNA panel, was that the most valuable commodity you have when interacting with and living within a community is your time. What you do with your time is important too, of course, but the more time you spend with people, getting to know them and letting them get to know you, the better the odds are of building lasting relationships. That was drilled into me by the NNA panel and after my experience I absolutely agree. One thing I believe we did quite well during this field season is that whenever we had time that was not focused on the science objectives, such as downtime due to travel delays, we primarily dedicated that time to being in the community. For example, when the scouting helicopter flight was canceled at the last minute, we spent time at the UPI and visited with children who were involved with workshops there. Children’s Home to see what the kids were making in their workshop, or went to the local cafe for lunch. In the beginning, ordering food and other products was somewhat challenging because most of the people that worked in the cafe knew only a little English, and we knew no Danish or Greenlandic. They particularly had trouble pronouncing some of our names to announce the order was ready, though we would all laugh about it. However, as the trips continued and we spent time in the cafe, they got to know our faces and names, and we started to learn more Greenlandic, and communication became easier. I think the cafe illustrates well that by spending time out in the community, even if it is just where you eat, that you can build relationships with a bit of effort.

To that end, sometimes that effort can be as simple as showing your face in places. Besides deciding to eat at the cafe, not at our house, we did a good job being seen out and about. We would travel to and from the harbor, grocery store, or hardware store probably once a day. We would go on walks, or trips to the smaller grocery store in the evening for dessert. Uummannaq is a small place, typically with few or no other Americans, and so only a little effort is required to make your presence known. We were lucky enough to be in Uummannaq for Greenland National Day celebrations on our second day there, and while at that point we had not built many personal relationships yet, we attended the celebrations. There was entertainment for the kids, food and music. Almost a third of the town was there, and even though I was a bit shy and nervous still, it was fun and I felt very grateful to be welcomed into their community in this way. I quickly realized that attitude is an important factor too. Being visible quickly becomes negative if you are sullen or frowning. If you greet people in the street and at the store with respect and openness, you are more likely to build a valuable reputation. For example, we were at the grocery store when a fisherman heard us speaking to each other in line, welcomed us to Uummannaq, and gave us a hiking recommendation. We were laughing and smiling before he started speaking to us, and expressed our gratitude to him for the welcome. It was a very pleasant interaction that would be less likely to happen if he had heard from a buddy or relative that the Americans are standoffish or too busy or some other negative interpretation.

What I Learned

Despite many successes, working in a new, foreign place, in a different culture brings many challenges. These challenges bring opportunities for growth and increased understanding. One aspect of field work in Greenland that I had been informed of, but never experienced firsthand, was how logistically difficult planning can be there. There are a few contributors to logistical issues, including the remoteness of a place like Uummannaq. In our case, travel to and from the island to the states requires a helicopter flight, two commercial domestic Greenland flights, a US military flight, a domestic US flight, and at least three nights in transit. On top of that, any number of those legs can be unreliable. We had multiple day-long delays at various points throughout our field season. This unreliability led to stress and had the potential to derail our entire season at one point. Furthermore, it was not only difficult to transport ourselves to and through Greenland but also any required gear and equipment. Despite shipping our installation equipment months in advance, unforeseen delays prevented our equipment from arriving in Uummannaq until our second trip, leaving us with less work to accomplish in the first half of the trip, and more to research for the second half. We had planned to have extra time in case this happened, but I personally was not totally prepared for how stressful the logistical aspects of the season could be. One thing I learned from this experience is how important it is to set aside extra backup time, especially considering how important time is to community interaction and relationship building.

A related issue is that there always will be unknowns when doing field work. In our case, beyond the logistics of when we and our stuff would arrive somewhere, as we headed into our trip, we were still unaware of where we would be living, whether we would have consistent wifi, what our water and plumbing system would be, and what were the quality of resources in the town, etc. Sometimes there is simply no way of knowing what the conditions will be until you get there. I found this quite frustrating at times, and I think that speaks to how ingrained I am in American, especially academic American, culture. We value efficiency, production, and certainty and when we are denied those things, it leads to stress similar to what I experienced during our field season. During my time in Greenland, however, I observed that the culture is different. Greenlandic people have been living with inconsistent and variable logistics for a long time and so have adapted to those conditions. I discovered that it is hard to rush in Greenland, no matter how tight your schedule. I was taught that it is important to go into a field season with the expectation that you will learn from the people and culture you are surrounding yourself with, if you keep an open mind. Among the many things I learned from the Greenlanders is how valuable it can be for your mental health to be able to relax and accept when there are delays, and then make the most of that time.

With the above expectation in my thoughts, I did not go into the field season and the Uummannaq community expecting the people there to know and appreciate why we were there. I knew from readings and classwork, as well as Greenlandic project collaborators that, if anything, Western scientists visiting, extracting abstract knowledge, and then returning home, is often more likely to be a nuisance than appreciated, not to mention potentially insulting or offensive. Thus, I tried to be very aware of that during our time in Greenland and in our interactions with the community. I wanted to do as much as possible to not have a negative impact, and to hopefully reciprocate the kindness shown by the people allowing us to live in their hometown. Yet despite knowing this and how difficult it can be to accomplish, I was still surprised at how hard it could be to achieve this goal. When we arrived, we had only spoken with a handful of people about our arrival. For everyone else we talked with, we had to explain ourselves over and over again, to try and give the truthful impression that we were there because we want to contribute to science that has a positive impact on the lives of the people in the community. Understandably, the people we talked to have their own lives and might not be excited about taking the time to listen to a 5-10 minute pitch as to how and why we were there to help. I personally found it incredibly difficult to not try to convince people why we were a good presence, which could be annoying and have the exact opposite effect. That being said, there were people who were genuinely interested and would love to have a conversation, as well as those that were interested, but maybe only if we talked with them at a less busy time. As I mentioned previously, I think we did an admirable job overall in being a positive force during our stay, but I was not completely prepared for how hard it would be. I think it is important to evaluate and reevaluate your position and impact before the field work and throughout that time as much as possible, in order to stay focused on your relationship development goals.


How My Perspective Changed

One of the greatest changes to my perspective during this field season involved the development of my perspective on how we conduct Arctic science as a whole. Having never done any polar science before, this was my introduction to this world of research, and there are some observations I made that I think are valuable to share. I will start by saying that I assume almost every scientist in Greenland wants to do a good job. The observations here represent systematic trends I think could be improved upon if given the right nudge. Greenland is a place with rich natural science that has attracted Western scientists. There are processes, such as the rapidly melting ice sheet, taking place that affect the entire world, and physical landscape changes can occur here faster than anywhere else. It is understandable that so many scientists are interested in doing research there. It is also important to remember that the people of Greenland have been exposed to extractive science for a long time. Many of the systems and standards of academic research that were established are antiquated and not developed with the people of Greenland in mind. While the NNA and many other passionate people and groups are working to improve upon this, there is still much work to be done. Here are some of my thoughts that I believe might improve scientists' (including myself) relationship to the Greenlandic communities.

One tangible way to improve communication and good will while in the country is to improve our grasp of the language. The Greenlandic language (primarily Kalaallisut in West Greenland, though there are two other dialects that are less commonly spoken in the East and North of the country) shares the same written letters as English, although it uses only 18 of our letters. However, the pronunciation of these letters can be vastly different. For example, K’s at the beginning of words often sound closest to the English G and the ending “-uaq” sounds closer to ooh-ah in English. The result is that a place name like Kangerlussuaq, where many US scientists fly into the country before continuing on to their final destination, is mispronounced nearly ubiquitously. I discovered this during our field season after hearing it pronounced by many other scientists, followed by multiple Greenlanders, and then by the use of a simple tourists’ guide for the language. It may seem small, but I believe that if scientists have enough of a grasp of the language so that they are better able to pronounce things like place names or to say common phrases like thank you, it will go a long way in improving communication with the Greenlandic communities. While I did start getting better at pronunciation as we worked, I had to unlearn the mispronunciations, and it took time. There are not many Greenlandic language resources available to people in the US, and I think an effort to increase the creation and accessibility of such resources would greatly aid scientists in their effort to communicate effectively.

The language issue is a smaller part of the larger problem of establishing a connection between visiting scientists and Greenland as a country and culture, rather than just a place. In my experience, the majority of scientists we traveled to and from the country with were going to do research at Summit , the US research station at the top of the Greenland ice sheet. Places like Summit are completely isolated from Greenlandic culture, and naturally so are the people stationed there. What if we were all able to appreciate and honor the country that we fly into from a remote place? What if we had a system that prioritized this? The incredible geology, climate science, ecology, etc. that exists in Greenland are all a part of the Greenlandic country and history, and I think it would be dramatically beneficial to scientists and the local people if that connection between the natural and the human was recognized and valued more.

On a more personal note, this trip to Greenland was a massively powerful and instructive experience for me as a new graduate student. It challenged me personally in specific ways, it bolstered my confidence in other ways, and it has better prepared me for my own future research down the line. My own goal is to do work that blends the boundaries between quantitative and qualitative studies and heavily involves building a relationship with a community that is culturally foreign to me. There is no substitute for real field experience. I feel grateful and lucky to have been able to participate in this project and field season, and hopefully my thoughts in this report have been informative, interesting, and encouraging in some way.

Photos taken by Cole Lombardi

Coast with a tall instrument on a rock
four people posing by a red building
two people with tools on a rock