Arctic Harvest: Global Warming a Boon for Greenland's Farmers

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Part 2: A flourishing garden

Høegh points proudly at the wealth of flowers in his garden. "This is a special variety from Nepal," the agronomist says, pointing to his potatoes. He says that if he forgets to harvest a few potatoes, he'll find them there, undamaged, in the next year. "The ground doesn't freeze as deeply as it used to," says Høegh.

But he's especially fond of his trees, which comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with southern Greenland's barren landscape. He planted the first of them a few years ago, just after his house was built. They're already taller than he is, or about the maximum height of the few stunted little trees that dot the Greenland countryside.

"But the look of our city will have changed completely within a few years," says Høegh, gazing at brightly colored wooden houses hugging the bare, rocky ground. He imagines the spaces between the houses filling in with birch, ash and poplar trees in the future. The wind has already carried seed from Canada, northern Europe and Iceland to Greenland. "The trees will soon be as tall as the houses."

In an agricultural research facility on the other side of the fjord, scientists study the behavior of useful plants when they are exposed to conditions approaching their biological limits. Greenland's first broccoli thrives there, albeit under white plastic tarps. It has to be protected against freezing nighttime temperatures, which can extend into June in the region.

"The growth period is already as long as it is in the Alps, at an altitude of 1,500 meters (4,921 feet)," Høegh says. It currently starts in early May, but if it began two weeks earlier, farmers could even grow apples and strawberries.

Growing its own produce means more than just economic self-sufficiency for Greenland. Høegh believes that locally grown produce could be a boon to the health of the island's roughly 57,000 inhabitants, whose diet is increasingly changing from raw whale meat and seal blood to soft drinks, cookies and chocolate bars. "The sweet stuff happens to be much cheaper than expensive, imported fruit and vegetables," the father of four complains.

With his red hair and powerful frame, there is something Viking-like about Høegh. As he emphasizes, "at least 16 percent" of the blood flowing through his veins is "Greenlander blood." Perhaps this explains his patriotism. Greenland is a dependent territory of Denmark, and Høegh says the Danish government once did the Greenlanders a disservice by flooding the island with inexpensive powdered milk. Fresh milk, on the other hand, costs more than €5 in the supermarket today.

A cattle-farming pioneer

Høegh wants that to change. Only 19 cows currently graze on the island, which is 2,650 kilometers (1,647 miles) long. "Each of them has a name," Høegh adds with a grin. Nine are owned by Sofus Frederiksen, an athletic Inuit with an angular face who drives like a man who knows that no one monitors driving speed on Greenland.

In his Landrover, the 42-year-old hurtles along a dusty trail leading from his house along a valley, where he is in the process of building a small hydroelectric power station for his farm. "It has to be ready by the time winter comes," he says. Until then his cows will be grazing the slopes unattended.

But winter is a different story when it comes to feeding cattle. Frederiksen says that the only reason he manages to feed his livestock adequately is that his pastures are in a south-facing valley, where both grass and rye thrive. "The rye doesn't grow long enough to bear fruit, but it's excellent feed," says Frederiksen. He adds that milder temperatures could soon allow him to harvest two crops of hay each season. When that happens, perhaps southern Greenland will regain some of its former character and look the way it looked to the Vikings when they settled on the southwestern tip of this icy island.

When he saw the island for the first time, explorer Eric the Red called it "Greenland," partly to entice settlers to board 25 ships and emigrate there. His advertising slogan was certainly justified. In excavations on Greenland, archaeologists have found ample evidence of rustic banquets where beef and mutton were consumed. Eric the Red owned stables that housed up to 100 cattle each.

Large sections of the northern hemisphere enjoyed a period of unusually mild weather at the time, possibly caused by changes in Atlantic Ocean currents. But the settlers' meteorological good fortune was short-lived. Climate models based on data from ice cores show that temperatures plunged quite abruptly in the 14th century, triggering a minor ice age and probably driving the Vikings from Greenland. The last known records, handed down over generations, document a wedding in the church of Hvalsøy on Sept. 16, 1408. Today, all that remains of the Vikings' rural life on Greenland are the foundations of their houses.

But now the mild temperatures of the early Middle Ages have not only returned, but are even warmer than in the days of Eric the Red. "Just a few years ago there was ice where we are now standing," says Stefan Magnusson, as he sits on his horse and looks down at a stream gushing from the glacier in front of him.

The first plants are already sprouting from the muddy residues of the moraine. "What we are experiencing here is a genesis," says Magnusson, his voice filled with emotion. The glacier, an extension of the island's vast inland ice, lies between two cliffs like the back of a reptile, its soil-encrusted white scales glistening in the sun.

The ice, says Magnusson, has retreated by almost 100 meters (328 feet) since he began raising reindeer more than 10 years ago. "Every meter means more pasture for my animals," says Magnusson, "and each additional day they're able to graze on a green pasture adds half a pound to their weight."

Magnusson's reindeer graze an area of about 1,500 square kilometers (579 square miles). In a month, he'll begin driving his 1,700 animals, using a helicopter, into an enclosure in front of his slaughterhouse. The reindeer are entirely self-sufficient for most of the year, except in the spring, when he sometimes does have to worry about his animals. "It suddenly starts raining here in February or March," says Magnusson. This is fatal for the animals, because the rain quickly freezes, forming a crust of ice over the grass. "We can't bring them feed with the snowmobile," he says, "because we can't get anywhere on the icy rock."

Because of this relatively new phenomenon, Magnusson isn't sure whether or not he should be pleased about climate change. But perhaps this too will change soon, when the melting ice on his land could possibly expose treasure of a completely different nature. This winter, Magnusson, together with an expert from an Australian mining company, will travel out to the glacier again. Initial rock samples taken last year showed a high content of vanadium.

For now, Magnusson is hoping to strike it rich with a possible mining deal. The metal, he says, is used to forge the hard steel used to make ball bearings. "That's why the world needs vanadium like crazy right now."

Translated from German by Christopher Sultan

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