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

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Known for its massive ice sheets, Greenland is feeling the effects of global warming as rising temperatures have expanded the island's growing season and crops are flourishing. For the first time in hundreds of years, it has become possible to raise cattle and start dairy farms.

Ferdinand Egede would be a perfectly normal farmer if it weren't for that loud cracking noise. Wearing a plaid lumberjack shirt and overalls, he hurries through the precise rows of his potato field, beads of sweat running down his forehead.

Egede, 49, occasionally picks up a handful of earth and rubs it between his solid fingers, but he isn't at all satisfied with the results. "It's much too dry," he says. "If I don't get the irrigation going, I'll lose my harvest."

The cracking noise has turned into a roar. What's happening in the sea below Egede's fields doesn't square well with what one would normally associate with rural life. The sound is that of an iceberg breaking apart, with pieces of it tumbling into the foaming sea.

Egede, a Greenland potato farmer, has little time to admire the view. He spends most of his days working in the fields and looking at the dramatically steep table mountains at the end of the fjord and the blue and white icebergs in the bay. But today he's more concerned about a broken water pipe. "The plants need a lot of water," he says, explaining that the soil here is very sandy, a result of glacier activity.

But he could still have a decent harvest. He pulled 20 tons of potatoes from the earth last summer, and his harvests have been growing larger each year. "It's already staying warm until November now," says Egede. And if this is what faraway scientists call the greenhouse effect, it's certainly a welcome phenomenon, as far as Egede as concerned.

Egede is a pioneer and exactly the kind of man Greenland's government, which has launched an ambitious program to develop agriculture on the island, likes to see working the land. Sheep and reindeer farmers have already been grazing their herds in southern Greenland for many years. As part of the new program, cattle will be added to the mix on the island's rocky meadows, part of a new dairy industry officials envision for Greenland. One day in the near future, the island's farmers could even be growing broccoli and Chinese cabbage.

There are many reasons for this agricultural boom, the most important being a rise in temperature. For most people on earth, global warming still consists of little more than computer models and a number that seems neither concrete nor threatening: an increase of about 4.5°C (8.1°F) in the average temperature worldwide by the year 2100. But what this will mean for Greenland is already becoming apparent today. In Qaqortoq, for example, the average temperature increased from 0.63°C to 1.93°C in the last 30 years. This, in turn, has added two weeks to the growing season, which now amounts to 120 days. With up to 20 hours of daylight in the summer, those two weeks make a huge difference.

A fast-melting ice cap

If what scientists are predicting is true, Greenland will become a central setting for climate change. Temperatures on the island are expected to rise almost twice as much as in Europe -- to farmer Egede's delight but to the consternation of many millions of people. That's because the Greenland ice cap, which rises behind the chain of hills where his farm is located, is shrinking.

Greenland's interior is made up of 2.5 million cubic kilometers of ice that is also up to 3,400 meters thick in places. If this huge mass of ice melts, sea levels will rise by almost seven meters (about 23 feet). Although this horrifying scenario isn't likely to happen quickly, new studies published last month suggest that the shrinking of Greenland's ice sheet is speeding up.

In an article published in the journal Science, US researchers write that 224 cubic kilometers of ice disappeared in 2005, almost three times the annual average between 1997 and 2003.

For Greenland's fortunate new farmers, this means that they'll be able to repeat an important part of human history within a much shorter period of time. Their grandfathers were nomadic hunters in what was then a desolate, ice-covered wasteland, their fathers raised livestock and the current generation is plowing the fields. For farmer Egede, the only evidence of a bygone way of life can be found in the crocheted hunting scenes hanging on the wall next to a giant flat-screen TV in his living room. "Hunting is getting more and more difficult," he says. "The fjord hardly ever freezes over in the winter anymore; nowadays, snowmobiles would sink."

Kenneth Høegh, 40, wants to see Greenland's hunters abandon their rifles for plowshares. As chief consultant to Greenland's agricultural administration, he is constantly campaigning for an agrarian revolution.

Høegh has no illusions. He once worked as a volunteer in Third World countries, including Nepal. He knows that climate change poses a grave threat to those of the world's populations that already suffer from annually recurring droughts and heat waves today. "A few more degrees can mean hunger and suffering for people elsewhere in the world," he says, standing in the garden of his house overlooking downtown Qaqortoq.

The city, southern Greenland's economic center, is home to secondary schools, a harbor, fish processing plants and the agricultural administration. Høegh says that he sees evidence of climate change almost everywhere he looks today.

"Do you see the iceberg out there?" he asks, pointing to a rectangular mass in the bay. "It isn't from a calving glacier." Instead, he says, it's sea ice that wouldn't normally float this far south.

Qaqortoq, says Høegh, almost never saw sea ice in the past. "But now the fjords up in eastern Greenland, which used to be frozen all year long, are melting, and the current is carrying the ice down to our bay."

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