Eating Polar Bears Is Okay in Greenland

This is our third and final guest post from the very polymathic Nathan Myhrvold. The first two were Icelandic travelogues; this one takes us to Greenland. It includes some of the most stunning photographs we have ever seen.

Iceland is a modern technological society which retains a frontier attitude. Greenland, on the other hand, really is a frontier — in several senses of the word.


Eric the Red‘s name of the place — Greenland — is of course a bald-faced lie. A glacial ice sheet covers 84 percent of the country, which is second only to Antarctica in the amount of ice it has.


The human habitation of Greenland occurs in the scarce land between the ice sheet and the sea. Only 56,000 people live in Greenland. Most are ethnically Inuit and they speak an Inuit dialect. Politically speaking, Greenland has had self rule since 1979, but administratively is a part of Denmark — meaning that it is an expensive hobby for the Danish tax payers.


Greenlanders dream of being independent from Denmark, but those hopes are pinned on having a sufficiently strong economy. So far that mainly means fishing, but there is some chance that in the future there will be oil or other mineral wealth. Geologically speaking, Greenland is mostly a vast granitic pluton which is chock full of minerals — the only issue is the ice.

At the moment, however, both mineral wealth and oil are mostly future dreams. The oil would be very expensive to produce because of the ice, and exploration licenses have only been granted fairly recently, with no oil currently in production.


In general I am very skeptical of independence movements — usually they are driven by the ambitions of local politicians who would rather be a head of state, than a mayor or governor.

However it is interesting to reconsider this in light of Iceland. They started with 50,000 people in a barren place and built a major economic success. It is hard to imagine this happening if Iceland had remained a part of Denmark.


Perhaps over time independence could transform Greenland into a thriving economy that is based on things other than natural resources.

Salik, my guide for the trip, is an excellent case in point. Salik is a native Greenlander who has worked in tourism — previously as head of tourism for South Greenland. However he also had lived and worked extensively in Germany and developed a taste for beer. Well, more of an obsession, really. Salik became an entrepreneur, starting the first brewery in Greenland.


There is still plenty of work to be done — indeed the only reason Salik could take time off from the brewery to guide me is that he’d put a batch of wort in to ferment just before I arrived. Perhaps with enterprising people like Salik, Greenland could become a vibrant economy based on things other than natural resources.

Most of my time was spent on a set of inland fjords in South Greenland, which are chock full of icebergs. I visited the inland ice cap, and saw several places where glaciers calve icebergs into the sea.


Glaciers are rivers of ice, but there are a number of interesting aspects to this. Glacial ice has its origin in snow that falls during a winter storm. As snow continues to fall on the top of the ice cap its weight compresses the bottom layers squeezing out the air.

About 50 feet of snow depth is required to pack the snow into typical glacial ice. That ice is white because it is full of air bubbles and crystal boundaries which scatter the light — what a physicist like me would call Mie scattering.

It’s the same phenomenon that makes milk or clouds white.


Non-fat milk is much less opaque than full-fat milk or cream and has a bluish tinge. This is a different kind of scattering, called Rayleigh scattering, and is why the sky is blue, and why deep water is blue. The difference between Rayleigh and Mie scattering is the size of the particles.

Glaciers often have liquid water in them — called meltwater. This can either be inside the glacier or can appear at the surface. Once a meltwater lake starts it tends to get deeper because it absorbs sunlight more than the surrounding ice. It is intensely blue from Raleigh scattering.

I’d like to say that global warming was evident during my visit, but that is not really the case. Indeed, Salik tells me that he and most Greenlanders are pretty skeptical about it. The local fishing industry used to be based on arctic prawns, but the sea temperature has changed just enough that the prawns are much further north, so now they fish for cod.


But, as Salik points out, this cycle has happened several times in living memory. The same with the glaciers: yes they are retreating, but at least in his area, they have yet to reach the limits that the locals remember them. Objective measurements do show that climate change is happening. Nevertheless I was amused that the locals don’t seem to think it is such a big deal.


While in Greenland I visited several Norse settlements, including Eric the Red’s longhouse at Brattahlid as well as Gardar.


Today there is not that much to actually see at Gardar, or the other sites — there are the outlines of the buildings, but they are fairly modest ruins. Eric was a heathen — believing in Odin, Thor, and the other Norse gods. His wife, Thjodhilde, converted to Christianity after coming to Greenland. She was quite a believer — so much that she reputedly refused to have sex with Eric until he built her a church. So the first church in the new world was built to satisfy lust, not subjugate it.


When Salik heard of the things that I had to eat in Iceland he vowed to get me fully caught up with Greenlandic food. Of course his (rather excellent) beer was featured, but that was the least of it.

Kjartan, my guide in Iceland, basically liked to eat everything, with the exception of seal. “Seal is terrible,” he would say, “it is oily and when you eat it the oil runs down and drips off your chin.” I mentioned this to Salik, who couldn’t have disagreed more. “What? Seal is the very best meat you can eat! Perhaps only polar bear is better!” he said, adding, “and that oil is high in omega-3. It’s good for you!”

Alas, during my short visit all I had to try was seal jerky, so I can’t pass judgment on the other forms. Seal jerky is rather intense and unique. It is as intense as liver, but without a livery taste.

In fact all of the game meat that I ate in Iceland or Greenland didn’t taste gamey.


On our last day, just when I thought strange eating was over, Salik surprised me with his favorite meat of all — braised polar bear. Now after the handwringing that I did about eating whale, you might think it was even harder to eat polar bear since they are endangered — far more than Minke whales, which are plentiful.


However, this case was a bit different. Polar bears live on pack ice (i.e. ice that forms on top of the sea rather than on land) far to the north of where I was in south Greenland. When the pack ice breaks up in the spring, some bears get marooned on floating islands of pack ice and ride them south. The two bears that wound up in Iceland did that. Once they reach the south, they are doomed — there is no pack ice so they can’t hunt seals. They starve to death.

In principle one could dart and airlift those bears back north, but in practice there aren’t funds for this so the bears are shot. The bear we were eating was killed a few weeks prior to our visit.

So, moral hazards aside, I tasted the polar bear — it was coarse textured meat, probably from the leg, and Salik was right, it was delicious.


Oh no. Why would anyone do something as politically incorrect as eating polar bear meat in times like these?
I don't care how they killed the bear. I don't care that the bear was going to die anyway. All I care about is that HE ATE A POLAR BEAR. In my book, that's wrong from all viewpoints.

Howard Weaver

Polymath skepticism and anecdotal local knowledge. Yep, quite a counterpoint to decades of scientific work resulting in unusually broad consensus. Please.

Dale S.

To Siobhan #23:

A few simple facts:

1. Polar Bears are not endangered. They are threatened, to which there is a huge difference. Their environment has a theoretical threat, but there are still plenty of polar bears, in a number great enough to be considered a nuisance in many northern areas.

2. Polar bears rarely get caught on drifting pack ice, since they are excellent swimmers. The image used so often in the media ( is used to provoke emotion, while the fact is this was a picture taken by a research vessel of polar bears swimming between a bit of submerged ice and a large glacier.

These people are not eating Panda, Folks.

Bob B



Isn't it amazing the justifications people come up with to kill and eat an endangered animal? I wonder how many polar bears are shot and killed when they're not marooned on drifting pack ice, simply because their flesh is "delicious"?

Bob Williams

Bob B:

No no no no! Plus, Climate Change also interferes with the human ability to detect sarcasm. Tragic.

Lukas Cenovsky

Anybody who is interested in photos from Iceland, check my web page:


"Nevertheless I was amused that the locals don't seem to think it is such a big deal."

This doesn't really surprise me. Wouldn't global warming actually *benefit* Greenland? It would make more land usable, and it would make winters a little more bearable (making people more likely to move there and lengthening the tourist season). If a "northwest passage" over Canada opened up, Greenland might be in a strategic position to capitalize on all the new shipping traffic. Plus, as the fisherman pointed out, if certain types of fish moved north, they'd just start hunting other types of fish. Maybe all those Maine lobsters would become Greenland lobsters??


Why would you "like to say" that global warming was evident? Where is your scientific objectivity and open mind?


Dale S. Polar bears are also very dangerous and agressive -- probably the best reason to shoot one that roaming around a village.


I have really enjoyed this series. I visited Iceland a couple years ago and want to go back, with a stop in Greenland this time.

Bob B

#27 Bob Williams--the Earth has been cooling for the past 6-7years and now looking more like the past ten years--get over it!


I'm pretty sure it's Rayleigh scattering (after Lord Rayleigh). And it is the difference in particle sizes yes, but really the ratio of those particle sizes to the incipient wavelength.

Cool pictures for sure.

D. Johnson

Two questions:

How much photoshopping was done to these pictures (not adding/moving objects, but color manipulation)? They're really spectacular looking. Love the one from the window of what I assume is a G-5...not a view most of us are likely to get.

Is that an Amazon Kindle reader? What's the significance?

Kosher Hallal

Imad Qureshi, that's not really a fair statement. I would say the same about an expedition that talked about eating pork - and I bet you would, too.


“Nevertheless I was amused that the locals don't seem to think it is such a big deal.”

This attitude of bemusement toward the less-enlightened seems to be most common among the strongest proponents of global warming. Problematically, the view is typically also held by those who single-handedly contribute more to global warming (travel by private-jet?) than the entire population of Greenland.

Transplanted Lawyer

Jaldhar for the win!


You know, I posted this link in a food forum and got 9 replies of outrage. For the record, I love food, and the polar bear picture is amazing.

Mystery Meat

"Eric the Red's name of the place — Greenland — is of course a bald-faced lie."

Not so. The period of nordic colonization of Greenland occurred during the medieval warming period, roughly the 10th century to the 14th century.

These Icelandic vikings arrived in the early 10th century. The settlements died out in the 14th century.

Calling the country "Greenland" was probably in part a real estate ploy, but in fact the area of the viking settlement was much warmer and greener than it is today.

Dale S.

I am loving these posts. Iceland & Greenland: Horrifying NY Times-Reading Progressives with their consumption of cute animals