In Greenland, potatoes thrive as seal hunting wanes
Global warming is a boon for farmers and fishermen but a hardship for ice-dependent Inuit.
Qassiarsuk, Greenland — In this village of 56 people in southern Greenland, history has come full circle. It was here, in about 985, that Erik the Red, leader of a medieval Norse colony, built his farm and raised sheep, cattle, and barley.
But about 300 years later, the climate changed. The Norse's agrarian lifestyle began to unravel when the Little Ice Age arrived, dooming the colony.
Today the hillside overlooking Erik's Fjord is lush and green again. A crop of young potatoes and radishes await harvesting. The plot is surrounded by tall grass – food for thousands of sheep – blowing in the cool winds coming off the melting glaciers to the north and east. In a nearby village, residents have started growing broccoli.
"Spring is coming many weeks earlier now, and the last five winters have been very short and rainy," says Tommy Maro, mayor of Qaqortaq, the region's principal town. "It will be exciting to see how the land will change in the next 20 years. Maybe we will have more sheep farmers, more green areas, more things we can grow."
Perhaps nowhere else in the world are the effects of climate change as obvious as in Greenland, where warming temperatures have brought a mixed blessing to the 56,000 residents that live on this island, a self-governing territory of Denmark. As winter sea ice disappears, the traditional means that the indigenous Inuit people have developed to survive in the Arctic – sled dog mushing, seal hunting, ice-hole fishing – are rapidly becoming obsolete. Farming, an occupation all but unheard of a century ago, has never looked better.
"As we know, [Erik the Red's colony] disappeared mostly because the weather turned cold and under those conditions only the Inuit culture could survive," says Erik Rode Frederiksen, an octogenarian whose father, Otto, was the first Greenlander to try a hand at farming and named his son for the Norse leader. "It is the opposite we now see happening under our own eyes: here in south Greenland we are now approaching the climate conditions of northern Europe."
In the capital, Nuuk, 200 miles north, potato farming is a new thing. Price disputes between local farmers and retailers have even been front-page news. "If somebody had proposed potatoes for the front page 15 years ago, everyone would have thought it was a hilarious joke," says Nuuk native Minik Rosing, one of Greenland's most renowned scientists. "There's a whole new world opening up."
As it does, other worlds are closing down, particularly in central and northern Greenland where people traditionally traveled atop the frozen sea with dog sleds. (With staggeringly difficult terrain, none of Greenland's towns are connected by road.)
But even in northern Greenland, the sea hasn't frozen solidly for nearly a decade, effectively isolating thousands of Greenlanders for half the year and wiping out the livelihoods of hundreds more subsistence hunters who pursued seals and polar bears on the ice.
In the far north, the sea ice lasts two months less than in the past, according to Aleqa Hammond, Greenland's minister for finance and foreign affairs. "For the communities in the north who live solely off hunting and fishing, it's like your boss taking away your pay for a couple of months without giving you notice," she says. Two years ago, the government had to airlift food for sled dogs whose owners, lacking scraps from seal hunting, were unable to feed them.
The loss goes beyond economics. "Dog sledding is part of north Greenlanders' identity," Rosing explains. "You go to a village in north Greenland and it's like a sports car and a status symbol. If you come cruising by with your top 12 trim sled dogs then, well, you're that kind of guy."
In Ilulissat, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, many dog owners are giving up. For now hundreds of sled dogs are tied up in a rocky field on the outskirts of town, fed on fish scraps. Their long-term prospects appear bleak.
The town, though, is thriving. The two fish plants on the waterfront operate nonstop, processing the shrimp and halibut local fishermen catch among the icebergs just outside the harbor entrance. "Ilulissat is a boom town," says local artist Karl Petersen, citing new housing developments planned in the outskirts and the increasing number of tourists coming to see the rapidly decomposing glacier in the adjacent fjord. "There are only a handful of subsistence hunters left now, and they do it just as a hobby."
Still, nobody knows for sure the long-term effects of Greenland's warming climate. Scientists expect that warmer sea temperatures will drive shrimp farther north, where they are less accessible, but they may be replaced by other species. Melting glacial ice may prove good for the country's expanding hydroelectric industry, but thinning sea ice is already claiming lives of people who rely on it for transportation.
Even in the south, the weather is proving a mixed bag. On the Qassiarsuk town landing stand a number of refrigerator-sized plastic-wrapped parcels – hay shipped in for local farmers' sheep. "In the beginning of the summer we had very dry weather, and the grass did not grow," explains Kiista Isaksen, mayor of the municipality of Narsaq, of which Qassiarsuk is a part. "Now it's raining too much."
[Editor's note: A photo caption in the original version misstated when potatoes were first grown in Greenland.]