A Reporter's First-Hand Story

Assignment Greenland: Toledo Blade Reporter Tells Story Behind the Story


Tom Henry, veteran environmental reporter and columnist for The (Toledo) Blade, didn’t know just what to expect when he was called into a top editor’s office. The message? He was told to prepare for the assignment of a reporter’s lifetime. Here he tells the story about what led to his outstanding series on climate change in Greenland and its relevance to a Great Lakes region audience.


So your publisher says he wants to send you to Greenland.

There’s not a set assignment per se; he just tells you he is both intrigued and perplexed by the mainstream media’s coverage of Earth’s warming climate.

Intrigued because the story got such a huge lift globally from former Vice President Al Gore’s success with An Inconvenient Truth, culminating in an Oscar and, finally, the 2007 Nobel Prize for Peace that Gore shared with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC.

Perplexed because many still seem so hung-up on the underlying causes of climate change and mired in the age-old debate about mankind’s role in it, no matter how irrefutable the science has become.

Nobody seems to be going after the next big story.

Adaptation.

That was the gist of my 90-minute conversation with John Robinson Block, co-publisher and editor-in-chief of The (Toledo) Blade, the newspaper where I have been writing since 1993. I created the paper’s environmental beat and now, in addition to that, write a weekly environmental column for its Sunday news analysis section.

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The fishing village of Ilulissat, the world’s largest halibut harbor.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that sending a reporter to Greenland is one heck of a financial commitment, let alone in today’s economy and for a mid-sized newspaper in one of the nation’s most depressed Rust Belt cities.

And, truth be told, The Blade itself wasn’t then and still isn’t exactly well off.

The newspaper was still smarting over what certainly ranked among the most intense, contentious, and bitter labor negotiations in its 173-year history: two years of talks that included the illegal lockout of almost a third of its workforce for eight months – all of which was covered extensively in the national trade press. The paper, in short, has been trying to pull itself up by its bootstraps during one of the most difficult times in history for any news media outlet.

All of which underscored the importance of this story and my publisher’s commitment to it.

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Tom Henry of the Toledo Blade, aboard the Alega Ittuk

This was one of those stories that cried out to go beyond the obvious, to try and make some connections for your readers.

But what connections exist between the Great Lakes region and the world’s largest island – a mountainous one that’s 80 percent covered in ice and as long as the distance from Maine to Cuba and as wide as the distance between Chicago and New York?

Not many in terms of physical properties. But upon closer examination, Greenland is a fascinating place because it’s the only one with a massive ice sheet inhabited by native people. Antarctica has teams of researchers, but no native cultures.

What can we learn from Greenland’s 56,000 residents, nearly 90 percent of whom are Greenlandic – that is, descendants of some native Inuit cultures that have reputedly been on the island more than 5,000 years? Many of the rest are Danish, who themselves may be descendants of Danes who arrived in the early 1700s.

Purpose: Climate Change about People, Not Polar Bears

My purpose in doing this series was to show people that climate change is not about polar bears. It’s about people.

The problem with a lot of science and environmental stories isn’t so much the dry, drab material. It’s the disconnect humans have from nature, whether we just arrogantly think we can conquer it or because we have just grown up so seemingly oblivious to it given our suburbanized, factory-farm lifestyles that have insulated us from the lives our grandparents knew.

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A cruise ship passes by the Eqi Glacier, a 5-hour boat ride from Ilulissat.

Global trade is bringing us together as a world economy. Climate change, good or bad, should help bring us more together as a planet of people.

We often sit around and wonder what will happen when the Earth’s climate warms someday, like it’s a futuristic sci-fi novel or a new James Bond movie in the works.

One of my objectives was to show Great Lakes residents that climate change is occurring now, albeit the effects are more subtle than they are in places such as Greenland.

I wanted people to think of Greenland as a harbinger of things to come – how the beautiful, big-hearted, robust, and tough Greenlandic people are adapting to the challenges of climate change and how we can, too, as difficult as it may be.

In short, I wanted this to serve as a wake-up call. To help illustrate what’s at stake and get Great Lakes residents to take the issue more seriously.

I wanted them to identify with what’s happening north of the Arctic Circle and not view it like it’s a story as alien and distant as Mars.

The series awakened my own senses, too.

The city where I spent most of my time, Ilulissat, is Greenland’s third largest. It has 4,500 people and at least as many sled dogs.

It is Ground Zero for researchers and tourists from across the world because of one thing: the speed with which it is melting.

Ilulissat has the world’s most rapidly retreating glacier, one that pumps out icebergs quicker than any other. They proceed, one by one, down a fjord at the edge of town en route to the North Atlantic.

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A helicopter ride took reporter Tom Henry to this view of Sermeq Kujelleq Glacier, not far from Ilulissat.

Open your hotel blinds each morning and the fjord will look different. The movement of the icebergs is a constant reminder that nature is not static, that we live on an evolving Earth and must learn to adapt to those changes.

Boom! The thunderclap of a new iceberg splitting off a glacier takes your breath away. It sticks in your bones, another reminder that nature evolves. Yet you can’t help but wonder if those rumbles would be less frequent if we humans weren’t putting out so much carbon dioxide and warming the climate more than nature intended.

The ice itself is incredible. I picked up numerous chunks that washed up on the shoreline of a cove around a corner from the fjord. You could see gaseous bubbles and hear popping, hissing sounds – like there was a story in there for you to discover from the thousands of years of compressed snow it took to make the iceberg it came from.

And now, with this global experiment humans are undertaking, how we’re destroying both ice and history.

One thing that was really neat about the people I met in Greenland was their willingness to talk about climate change.

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Sermeq Kujalleq, among the world’s most rapidly calving glaciers.

No Finger-Pointing: We’re in This Together

I was hardly the first reporter there; I feared I would hear groans when I brought up the subject.

I didn’t. Not a single person said he, she or anyone they knew was tired of talking about climate change.

What seemed remarkable was how nobody pointed fingers at the United States, China, or India, even when I asked what it felt like to be on the receiving end of an unjust, disproportionate impact from the carbon dioxide emitted by those countries and others.

We’re in this together, they all said. They said they cannot hold others in judgment if Greenland itself is putting out unacceptable emissions – which it is, albeit on a much smaller scale.

They understand the global cooperation that’s needed to address this global problem.

Do we?

For a three-minute multimedia show reporter Henry co-produced with the Blade’s features editor, click here.

Tom Henry is an environmental writer and columnist for The (Toledo) Blade in Ohio.

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