Joined: 17 Jul 2006
|Posted: Tue Jul 18, 2006 8:08 pm Post subject: Travel to Greenland
|I have always been thinking about traveling to Greenland.
Today, I read an article on Greenland on Wall Street Journal. Interesting.
For Icy Greenland, Global Warming Has a Bright Side
As Temperatures Inch Up, Melting Glaciers Bring New Life to a Frozen Land
But Could Polar Bears Vanish?
By LAUREN ETTER
July 18, 2006; Page A1
QAQORTOQ, Greenland -- Stefan Magnusson lives at the foot of a giant, melting glacier. Some think he's living on the brink of a cataclysm. He believes he's on the cusp of creation.
The 49-year-old reindeer rancher says a warming trend in Greenland over the past decade has caused the glacier on his farm to retreat 300 feet, revealing land that hasn't seen the light of day for hundreds of years, if not more. Where ice once gripped the earth, he says, his reindeer now graze on wild thyme amid the purple blooms of Niviarsiaq flowers.
The melting glacier near Mr. Magnusson's home is pouring more water into the river, which he hopes soon to harness for hydroelectricity.
"We are seeing genesis by the edge of the glacier," he says.
Average temperatures in Greenland have risen by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 30 years -- more than double the global average, according to the Danish Meteorological Institute. By the end of the century, the institute projects, temperatures could rise another 14 degrees.
The milder weather is promoting new life on the fringes of this barren, arctic land. Swans have been spotted recently for the first time, ducks aren't flying south for the winter anymore and poplar trees have suddenly begun flowering.
Greenland represents one of the largely unrecognized paradoxes of global warming. In former Vice President Al Gore's recent film "An Inconvenient Truth," the melting of Greenland's ice cap, along with a similar cap in the Antarctic, is portrayed as one of the greatest threats of global warming. If the layers of ice and snow holding billions of tons of water were to melt, scientists warn that global sea levels would rise by 40 feet, submerging lower Manhattan, the Netherlands and much of California.
But to many of the people who live here in Greenland, the warming trend is a boon, not a threat.
It is no small feat to get things living and growing in Greenland, an arctic and sub-arctic country at the northern tip of North America whose frigid landscape is often confused with Iceland, a smaller, greener European island nation to the southeast.
More than 80% of Greenland is covered in ice. Temperatures in the south regularly drop to 22 degrees below zero during the long, dark winters when the sun shines for as little as five hours a day. Intermittent frosts during the four-month growing season make it difficult for anything to thrive.
Even small increases in temperature can make a big difference in the quality of life for many Greenlanders who scrabble out a living at the whims of the weather. Freezing temperatures are the biggest factor limiting plant growth in Greenland. If the average temperature warms just a degree or two, the number of freezing nights is reduced. Higher temperatures produce stronger, healthier plants and provide farmers larger crop yields.
Already, the temperature rise in Greenland has extended the growing season by two weeks since the 1970s -- no small matter since those two weeks come during the spring and summer when the sun shines for as long as 20 hours a day in southern Greenland. Warmer days allow farmers to take better advantage of the extended sunlight, which gives plants more energy and a better chance to survive and thrive. If temperatures rose enough to allow the growing season to begin in late April, rather than mid-May, Greenlandic farmers might be able to grow fruit, including strawberries or apples.
Improved crop production could help wean Greenland from its heavy dependence on expensive, imported produce: Greenlanders pay about $3.50 for a cucumber at a local grocery store, $5 for a head of lettuce and $7.50 for a pound of carrots. Since 1980, Greenland has seen farmland devoted to growing crops increase to about 2,500 acres from 620 acres.
For Mr. Magnusson and his reindeer ranch, the longer grazing seasons mean fatter animals for slaughter, since reindeer gain about half a pound per day during the spring and summer grazing season. More abundant grasslands have prompted one farmer to buy cows for a government-funded experiment in dairy farming. A longer growing season allows crop farmers to expand their home gardens into commercial enterprises. Fishermen have begun catching tons of warm-water cod, after that fish's long absence from the region.
"We have so many cold places in Greenland, and a lot of it is covered with ice," says Mr. Magnusson. "So we are grateful for those two extra degrees we get."
Other places are also seeing benefits from a warming trend. For every 1.8 degrees of warming, Canada's wine-growing region can expand 120 miles northward as the climate becomes suitable for growing wine grapes, according to David Phillips, the Canadian government's senior climatologist.
Thirty years ago, farmers in the Peruvian Andes were unable to cultivate crops above 14,000 feet because it was too cold, says climate scientist Anton Seimon. Now, farmers are planting large potato fields at 15,000 feet.
Many climate scientists argue that any local benefits of the warming trend are more than offset by the global costs. One worry: That discussion of the benefits could undermine efforts to slow global warming. "I'm not keen to provide ammunition to those who oppose action," said Dr. Wallace Broecker, a researcher at Columbia University's Earth Institute, in an email declining an interview. "Of course there will be benefits. But the net will be bad."
Icebergs in a fiord alongside Greenland's largest commercial potato farm, which has expanded in recent years as temperatures have risen.
For the government of Greenland, the calculus is not so simple. Greenland, a self-governing territory of Denmark, supports efforts to curb global warming through the Kyoto Protocol. That international treaty aims to reduce human-related greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, caused by burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil, which many scientists say are helping cause the earth to heat up.
Josef Motzfeldt, Greenland's Vice Premier and Minister of Finance and Foreign Affairs, says he worries about the places that may be engulfed by the sea if Greenland's glaciers melt. "When the seas rise just one meter, it will be a big catastrophe," he says.
Warmer weather has a downside even in Greenland, Mr. Motzfeldt points out. It's hindering the native Inuit's traditional way of life, undermining their ability to hunt seals and polar bears on the thinning ice. He's concerned that polar bears could "disappear completely" in the changing environment.
Even Greenlanders who welcome the recent climate changes recognize a downside. Mr. Magnusson says he typically uses a snowmobile to herd his 2,300 reindeer. But the area where he can use his snowmobile is shrinking, and the melting snow and ice could eventually make snowmobiling impossible. He says he will adapt by using horses, helicopters or by simply walking.
Still there's no denying the good news for many Greenlanders. "If we are egoistic, we will be happy," says Mr. Motzfeldt. "We have longer growing seasons for the plants and the vegetables."
Many here see warming as an important step toward greater economic independence from Denmark, which still provides about half of Greenland's government revenue. With just 57,000 people on the roughly 840,000-square-mile island, Greenland's gross domestic product is $1.1 billion, about a quarter of the GDP of Fiji, a South Pacific island nation of about 7,000 square miles.
"The conditions for living are getting better," says Kaj Egede, the chairman of Greenland's Board of Agriculture, in his office in Qaqortoq.
Some farmers are trying new types of produce, such as broccoli, cauliflower and Chinese cabbage. Most are getting more from their old crops. "Usually we only have one cut of hay," says Kenneth Hoegh, a farming consultant for Greenland's Department of Agriculture. "But because it is getting warmer -- it is definitely getting warmer -- more and more farmers are getting two cuts of hay."
Those higher yields are rippling through the agriculture chain. Over the past five years, a doubled hay crop has helped sheep farmer Erik Rode Frederiksen. He was named after Eric the Red, a Viking explorer who settled Greenland around 980. The extra hay gives him fatter sheep worth more money at slaughter. Sheep flocks across the country have increased 10% in the past three years, according to government statistics.
From the early 1960s to 1998 cows were rare in Greenland, and Greenlanders relied on powdered milk subsidies from the Danish government. But improved grazing and hay fodder are tempting some farmers and sheep ranchers to add cows to their livestock holdings.
For Greenlanders, adapting to the effects of climate change is nothing new. Oxygen isotope samples taken from Greenland's ice core reveal that temperatures around 1100, during the height of the Norse farming colonies, were similar to those prevailing today. The higher temperatures were part of a warming trend that lasted until the 14th century.
Near the end of the 14th century, the Norse vanished from Greenland. While researchers don't know for sure, many believe an increasingly cold climate made eking out a living here all but impossible as grasses and trees declined. Farming faded away from the 17th century to the 19th century, a period known as the Little Ice Age. Farming didn't return to Greenland in force until the early 1900s, when Inuit farmers began re-learning Norse techniques and applying them to modern conditions. A sharp cooling trend from around 1950 to 1975 stalled the agricultural expansion.
Since then, temperatures have mainly been on the upswing. Ole Egede is taking advantage of the warmer climate. He and his brother live on Greenland's southwest coast on an isolated farm at the head of an inlet that can be reached only by helicopter or by a boat that can navigate around the icebergs that often choke the blue fiord. Mr. Egede started Greenland's first commercial potato farm in 1999 and it remains the largest potato farm in Greenland.
Improved farming technology and methods, such as new cold-resistant seed varieties and cultivation techniques -- are responsible for some of Greenland's expanding agriculture. But experts credit the more-favorable climate with much of the new growth. "There's no doubt he's now growing potatoes because of better conditions," Mr. Hoegh, the farming consultant, says of Mr. Egede.
Greenland's fishermen also are beneficiaries of the higher temperatures. Warm-water-loving cod, one of the region's most commercially lucrative fish, are booming in the balmier coastal waters. In the 1960s, 90% of all fish caught in Greenland were cod. But a string of cold winters in the late 1980s drove off much of the cod population by the early 1990s.
The cod, says commercial fisherman Kim Hoegdan, "just came within the past three years. We have never seen them before in this amount."
Mr. Hoegdan says he expects to catch as much as 440,000 pounds of cod this year, up from about 3,000 pounds two years ago, when the fish began trickling back.
Shrimp -- Greenland's largest export -- could actually decline in numbers since they prefer colder water, and are eaten by cod. But the value of an increased cod harvest likely would exceed any losses of a reduced shrimp harvest, according to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a multigovernmental study looking at the social and economic consequences of the warming. A revitalized cod industry could double the export earnings of the Greenlandic fishing industry, according to the 2005 report.
Greenlanders are aware that the benefits brought to them by global warming could spell disaster for people elsewhere. But as long as the temperatures are rising, they're determined to make the most of it.
"We, as people, need warmer weather as well," says Mr. Frederiksen, the sheep farmer.