Arctic Harvest Global Warming a Boon for Greenland's Farmers

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."

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