Arctic Circle growers warm to climate change

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Growth zone expands | Temperatures in the Arctic have increased by twice the global average since pre-industrial times

KANGERLUSSUAQ, Greenland (Reuters) — A chef on the Arctic Circle is growing the kind of vegetables and herbs more fitting for a suburban garden in a temperate zone than a land of northern lights, glaciers and musk ox.

Inuit hunters are finding reindeer fatter than ever thanks to more grazing on this frozen tundra, and for some, there is no longer a need to trek hours to find wild herbs.

Welcome to climate change in Greenland, where locals say longer and warmer summers mean the country can grow the kind of crops unheard of years ago.

“Things are just growing quicker,” said Kim Ernst, the Danish chef of Roklubben restaurant, nestled by a frozen lake near a former Cold War-era U.S. military base.

“Every year we try new things,” said Ernst, who even managed to grow a handful of strawberries that he served to surprised Scandinavian royals.

“I first came here in 1999 and no one would have dreamed of doing this. But now the summer days seem warmer, and longer.”

It was – 20 C in March but the sun was out and the air was still, with an almost spring feel. Ernst showed his greenhouse and an outdoor winter garden, which in a few months may sprout again.

Hundreds of kilometres south, farmers now produce hay and sheep farms have increased in size. Supermarkets in the capital Nuuk sell locally grown vegetables during the summer.

Major commercial crop production is still in its infancy, but Greenland’s government set up a commission this year to study how a changing climate may help farmers increase agricultural production and replace expensive imported food.

Change is already underway. Potatoes grown commercially in southern Greenland reached more than 100 tonnes in 2012, double that of 2008.

Vegetable production in the region may double this year compared with 2012, according to government data.

Some politicians hope global warming will allow Greenland, which is less than a quarter the size of Canada, to reduce its dependency on former colonial master Denmark for much of its food as political parties push for full independence.

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Greenland, which is self-governing aside from defence and security, depends on an annual grant from Denmark of $600 million, or half the island’s annual budget.

However, the thawing of its enormous ice sheets have seen a boost in mining and oil exploration, as well as an interest in agriculture.

“I expect a lot of development in farming sheep and agriculture due to global warming,” said prime minister Kuupik Kleist. “It may become an important supplement to our economy.”

Locals enjoy recounting how Erik the Red first arrived in the southern fjords here in the 10th century and labelled this ice-covered island Greenland to entice others to settle. There is evidence that the climate was warmer then, allowing Viking settlements to grow crops for five centuries before mysteriously dying out.

The scale of this new agriculture is tiny. There are just a few dozen sheep farms in southern Greenland, where most of the impact of climate change can be seen. Cows may number less than 100, but with 57,000 mostly Inuit human inhabitants, the numbers to feed are also small.

“You need to put this into perspective. We used to be high Arctic and now we are more sub Arctic,” said Kenneth Hoegh, an agronomist and former senior government adviser.

“But we are still Arctic.”

However, the symbolism is enormous, highlighting a changing global climate that has seen temperatures in the Arctic increase by twice the global average, about 0.8 C since pre-industrial times.

“There are now huge areas in southern Greenland where you can grow things,” said Josephine Nymand, a scientist at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk.

“Potatoes have most benefited. Also, cabbage has been very successful.”

Sten Erik Langstrup Pedersen, who runs an organic farm in a fjord near Nuuk, first grew potatoes in 1976. Now he can plant crops two weeks earlier in May and harvest three weeks later in October compared with more than a decade ago.

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He grows 23 kinds of vegetables, compared with 15 a decade ago, including beans, peas, herbs and strawberries. He said he has sold strawberries to top restaurants in Copenhagen.

However, Pedersen is skeptical about how much it will catch on.

“Greenlanders are impatient. They see a seal and they immediately just want to hunt it. They can never wait for vegetables to grow.”

Still, there is potential.

Hoegh estimated Greenland could provide half its food needs from home-grown produce, which would be competitive with more expensive Danish imports.

However, global change is not all about benefits. While summers are warmer, there is also less rain. Some experts say Greenland could soon need irrigation works, which is ironic for a country of ice and lakes.

“We have had dry summers for the last few years,” said Aqqalooraq Frederiksen, a senior agricultural consultant in southern Greenland, who said a late spring last year hurt potato crops.

A flash flood last summer from suspected glacier melt water, which locals blamed on warm weather, swept away the only bridge connecting Ernst’s restaurant to the airport. It came right in the middle of the tourist season, and the restaurant lost thousands of dollars.

It was an ominous reminder that global warming will bring its problems. Still, for Pedersen and his fjord in Nuuk, the future looks good.

“The hotter, the better,” Pedersen said. “For me.”

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