Qaanaaq is the northernmost town in the municipality – and in all of Greenland. Because of its location, the town enjoys the midnight sun for almost four months. Similarly, the town sees four months of winter darkness. Qaanaaq is located in the area formerly known as Orqordlit: the lee side dwellers in the Whale Sound area. The town is located on the Piulip Nuna peninsula, on the north coast of Inglefield Fiord, at the whaling/hunting core for narwhal, walrus and reindeer.
Qaanaaq has the three settlements of Savissivik, Siorapaluk and Qeqertat. In recent decades, two settlements were abandoned: Qeqertarsuaq and Moriusaq. Qeqertarsuaq is still used for sealing and whaling. This trend reflects how unpredictable settlement development is, which will also be the case in the years to come.
Being close to the North American continent means that for thousands of years, the area has been the gateway for immigration to Greenland – most recently some 130 years ago when a group of Inuit from Baffin Island moved to the area.
Qaanaaq was established in 1953 as a replacement for the original dwelling of Uummannaq (Dundas), also known as Thule due to its Latin name Ultima Thule, which means “remote, unknown territory”. In 1909, a mission station was established, and in 1910, the two explorers Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen founded the first trade centre in the district. In 1943, the weather station at Pituffik was established south of Uummannaq (Dundas), and following the 1951 defense agreement, Thule Air Base was established in the same place – only two kilometres away. The construction of the base was thought to restrict the population’s possibilities for hunting, sealing and whaling in the area. And in 1953, the Danish authorities decided to displace the population from the dwelling to Qaanaaq – 130 km further north. Around half of the original population of 116 persons relocated to Qaanaaq, while the rest moved to Qeqertarsuaq, Kangerdluarssuk and Qeqertat.
The former Qaanaaq Municipality maintained its status as colony right until the 1960s when the municipality was included in the West Greenland municipal scheme.
The town is located on a sloping terrain between the sea and the mountain, and is split in two by a creek. The original housing consists partly of the so-called replacement houses in the Fangerbyen quarter, which was constructed close to the beach, partly of the Danskerbyen quarter, which was established around a road at right angles to the beach. Danskerbyen featured a shop, office, school, church and hospital. Since then, Qaanaaq has primarily expanded to the west, adding a major residential area in 1980 on the other side of the creek. Most recently, a retirement home, dormitory and new homes were constructed in the eastern part of town, near the hospital and the old heliport.
In the future, Qaanaaq is to be developed as a local town offering primary public and private service – mainly within the existing residential area. Future urban development is to take place towards the northwest, where residential areas have been zoned, and possibly at the area by the magnetic observatory. Residential construction is to meet the demand of different target groups, and the quality is to match the Arctic conditions. Planning also focuses on the possibilities of developing fishing and tourism which – along with sealing and whaling – are the primary sources of income for the town. Traditional trades are to be supported by providing sufficient areas, and new entrepreneurs should also be given better conditions for starting small businesses.
The municipality’s overall vision and objectives guide the physical development along with the citizens’ wishes. Consequently, the outcome differs across towns and settlements as shown here:
actions_qaanaaq.pdf (54.1 KB)
There were 623 inhabitants in Qaanaaq as of 1 January2017 corresponding to almost 6% of the municipality's inhabitants. With some fluctuations the population has been increasing in recent decades. In 1980 there were 409 inhabitants in the town and in 2000 the town had 665 inhabitants, which has since declined a little.
The population age distribution matches the general age distribution in Greenland, albeit the age group 35-44 is twice the average and the town holds considerably fewer children and young people.
The town numbers 225 households (2017 figures), i.e. the average household size is 2.8 persons.
Qaanaaq features mostly single-family houses, the majority of which were constructed during the relocation from Uummannaq (Dundas). On 1 January 2010, there were 266 homes in Qaanaaq, of which 82 per cent were single-family houses (219) and 14 per cent semi-detached houses (38). Information is missing on the last four per cent. At the same time, Qaanaaq has 18 dormitory rooms and four senior homes. The retirement home has room for 13 residents, but it is being extended.
Areas have been zoned for housing in the north-western part of the town, and the existing town holds limited possibilities for new building. The town plan is considered to hold available space for around 105 homes. There is an urgent need for new housing as well as technical improvements, rehabilitation and redevelopment of existing housing, along with new use of the replacement houses in Fangerbyen (e.g. small businesses) and extension possibilities. The type of residential housing should match the need among young persons, senior citizens and disabled persons. Since many of the houses were constructed at the same time and recent buildings are of a relatively poor quality, the town is expected to see a large need for rehabilitation at the same time. In this regard, it is a problem that the Government of Greenland’s housing strategy primarily aims at rehabilitation of multi-storey buildings.
Buildings are mainly kept in traditional Greenlandic colours, having the same ridge direction, and newer housing has also been adapted to existing buildings.
Sealing and whaling are the traditional trades in the Qaanaaq area, whereas fishing has been a secondary trade. Currently, work is done to reopen for trading of Greenland halibut in Qaanaaq at a factory, which was acquired by Royal Greenland, and to establish a freezing room. The work is backed by Thulefonden, and fishing is expected to increase considerably in the years to come – e.g. because the area has no quota restriction on Greenland halibut fishing. Nor is the Greenland halibut population known. The increasing demand for better port facilities and storage complicates the development of fishing in Qaanaaq. The town’s industrial areas are located in the middle of the town, e.g. the gravel pit and the telecommunications station (and the magnetic observatory), whereas the industrial functions by the beach are located in a mixed area with numerous containers. In addition, a few minor industrial areas are scattered along the coast, disconnected from the town. In periods of ice, the ice foot area is also used for storage and boats. There is no port with fixed constructions, so there is no designated port authority area.
The two main trades – measured as the number of jobs (2010 figures) – are public administration and service (128 of 246), and commerce and repair companies (61 of 246). Other trades employ less than 20 persons on an annual basis. The unemployment rate in Qaanaaq was the highest in Avannaata Municipality in 2015. In the Qaanaaq town itself, it is 22% and in the settlements slightly lower overall (17.8%). This is thus much higher than both the municipal average (9.1%) and the national average (9.1%).
The town plan includes available space amounting to approximately 3,000 m² for industry and port facilities.
Tourism has become increasingly important in recent years. In the winter, tourists go on dog sledge rides and spend the night in a sledge tent. In the summer, they go sailing, hiking from hut to hut or to, e.g., Piulip Nuna at a height of 1,021 metres. On these trips, nature is up close: the landscape, glaciers and the local fauna such as seals, walruses and birds. Expedition cruisers also call on the town on their way to Hans Island. Furthermore, Qaanaaq is known as the northernmost town of the sealing and whaling culture, and the original Greenlandic culture is alive and well, allowing tourists to experience traditional drum dances, kayak techniques and choral singing.
By Greenlandic standards, Qaanaaq has a regular network of streets, albeit they are of poor quality and unpaved. The town has quite a few paths, but no coherent system of paths.
Qaanaaq is one of the least accessible towns in Greenland, but it does have an airport, which opened in 2001. The airport is located some 3.5 km east of the town and has a 900-metre gravel runway. It is operated by Air Greenland via the airport in Kangerlussuaq (with a stopover in Upernavik). A road runs from the airport to the town, but it is often flooded during the meltwater season.
In its 2001 report, the Transport Commission proposed to close the airport in Qaanaaq and transport passengers by helicopter from Thule Air Base – just as was the case before the airport opened in 2001. The argument is considerable cost savings, but to realise the plan, an agreement has to be made with the USA, among other things addressing the need for supplementary overnight accommodation in the town and at the base. Avannaata Kommunia is to assess this need in more detail in the next planning period and only then make any necessary changes to the spatial planning in force.
The primary means of transport in the Qaanaaq area are aircraft, dog sledge and motor vessel. In the summer, transport to settlements can be by boat, whereas winter transport is by helicopter, dog sledge or snowmobile.
Qaanaaq is one of two towns in Greenland without any real port facilities, and a reef makes it difficult to construct one as this would mean blasting a channel. To load and unload, barges are used, which means that such activities can take days to complete. Qaanaaq is navigable for s short period of time from July to September, some years for only one month. Royal Arctic Line calls on the town. There are limited storage facilities.
Power, water and heat are provided by Nukissiorfiit. Power is produced using a diesel-driven power plant, and the town also features an emergency power plant. Heat production consists of electric heating as well as residual heat from the power plant, and was established at the establishment of the town. In the western part of the town, the heat production is oil-fired. Water production is based on surface water in the summer, and melted ice from frozen icebergs on the fiord in the winter. The water is distributed via a network of preinsulated, electrically heated frost-proof lines, water tank trucks and bottling houses. The water supply can meet the current demand, but it is unreliable in transition periods. Many of the town’s inhabitants fetch ice blocks to meet their own water demand.
Refuse services include day-time refuse and night soil, but the town is not sewered. Grey wastewater is discharged above ground, posing a problem and a nuisance to the citizens. Day-time refuse is collected, deposited and burnt in the open, even though there town does have a (non-functional) incineration plant. Night soil presents a problem because it is gathered in one place and in yellow bags, but without discharge. Previously, night soil was discharged to the water or taken on to the ice. Chemical waste is collected and stored at a disposal site.
TELE Greenland handles the telecommunications installations in the town and operates a satellite dish installation and associated buildings in the northeastern part of the town. At a central location lies a magnetic observatory with an observing station that registers the earth’s magnetic field. Relocating the observatory would make it possible to use the area for other urban purposes – e.g. new housing – and to create a higher degree of physical and functional coherence in the town.
Not least, the town’s filling station is located in the middle of town, close to existing buildings.
Urban life in Qaanaaq revolves around the beach where the inhabitants meet. Centre functions and public functions are mainly located near the landing site and in the eastern part of town, including shops, mini hall, museum, church, hospital (health-care centre), school, boarding school, day nursery and retirement home. The only hotel in town is located in the western residential area, featuring ten rooms and a restaurant. Private overnight accommodation is also possible, and you can also arrange for accommodation in huts or tents.
The tourist office shares rooms with Ultima Thule Husflidsprodukter, a domestic industry shop that sells products of local craftsmen, such as sealskin products, tupilaks and polar bear heads made of reindeer antler points or animal tooth or bone. These products are available throughout all of Greenland. However, both the tourist office and Ultima Thule Husflidprodukter have been closed for a while.
The town kindergarten is also located in the western part of town and has room for 34 children, whereas the day nursery has room for 12 children. Qaanaaq Hospital, which falls under the Avannaa health region, is centrally located in the town.
Lastly, there is the town’s service house, which acts as public baths and laundry. The service house is integrated with a skin processing facility.
Avanersuup Atuarfia school numbers around 120 pupils in forms 1 through 10. Near the school building is a boarding school, which holds 20 pupils from the town’s settlements. The town also features a vocational school (Piareersarfik), night classes as well as recreational classes, but no before-and-after-school care. New boarding schools serving Piareersarfik were established in the eastern part of town.