The site of a 2017 landslide and tsunami remains a ‘danger area,’ say Greenland authorities

Residents evacuated after a tsunami flooded their hamlet will not be permitted to return for the time being due to a high risk of future landslides.

By Kevin McGwin - October 30, 2020
The aftermath of the 2017 tsunami in Nuugaatsiaq. (Arktisk Kommando)

Residents of two Greenland hamlets who were resettled after a deadly 2017 tsunami will not be permitted to return home for the time being, Greenland’s self-rule authority, Naalakkersuisut, has decided.

The decision is based on the conclusions of a geological study that was unable to rule out risk of additional landslides of the sort that created the wave.

“Greenland’s Public Safety Commission has determined that Nuugaatsiaq and Illorsuit, as well as the adjacent fjord system should continue to be classified as danger areas,” Naalakkersuisut said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

The two hamlets were directly in the path of the June 17, 2017 tsunami as it sped out of the fjord system, claiming the lives four people in Nuugaatsiaq (pop. 84), where it also destroyed several buildings close to the waterline, left the hamlet littered with ice and debris and washed boats and loose items out to sea.

[Greenland is considering wave-proofing two ports that are exposed to local tsunamis]

Although Illorsuit (pop. 91) was mostly undamaged, public-safety officials determined that its location at the head of the head of the fjord system put it in danger of being flooded should another landslide occur.

Several other hamlets were evacuated in the immediate aftermath, but their residents were allowed to return home shortly after.

Geus, the geological survey of Denmark and Greenland, has been monitoring the cliffs surrounding Karrat Fjord since the landslide, which saw an area of 330,000 square meters (81 acres) fall into the fjord, causing what was initially thought to be an earthquake measuring 4.0 on the Richter scale.

In its most recent study, commissioned by Naalakkersuisut, Geus used satellite measurements of movements on the surface of the cliffs to identify several unstable areas that it said had a high potential to cause major, tsunami-inducing landslides.

“It is not possible to predict when or exactly where the next big landslide will take place in the Karrat Fjord area,” the report stated, adding that even if a new landslide took place, the risk of further landslides would still exist.

The decision not to let residents of the two hamlets return home comes amid increasing pressure on Naalakkersuisut to set a date on when it will consider it safe to return.

[Greenland lawmakers grapple with how far to go to save the country’s hamlets]

In the event that the threat of new landslides will persist for the time to come, some lawmakers have suggested that residents be allowed to return home after a warning system is installed that will give residents of hamlets and towns close to the fjord time to seek higher ground.

While warning systems do exist in other countries, Greenland, according to Jess Svane, a member of Naalakkersuisut responsible for infrastructure issues, lacks the infrastructure to be able to implement a system that could warn residents of hamlets that are so close to a landslide.

Nuugaatsiaq for example, is located 30 kilometers from the site of the 2017 landslide. Scientists estimate that the wave it caused took five minutes to reach the hamlet. Svane reckoned that a warning system in Greenland would need “hours’” notice in order to be able to issue a warning.