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Inside the Arctic Circle, a chef is growing the kind of vegetables and herbs – potatoes, thyme, tomatoes, green peppers – more fitted for a suburban garden in a temperate zone than a land of northern lights, glaciers and musk oxen. Some 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.
This is 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 US military base. “Every year we try new things,” added Mr Ernst, who even managed to grow a handful of strawberries that he served to some surprised Scandinavian royals. “I came here in 1999 and no one would have dreamed of doing this. But now the summer days seem warmer, and longer.”
It was -20C in March but the sun was out and the air was still, with an almost spring-like feel. Mr Ernst showed me his greenhouse and an outdoor winter garden which in a few months may sprout again. Hundreds of miles south, some farmers now produce hay, and sheep farms have grown in size. Some supermarkets in the capital, Nuuk, sell locally grown vegetables in the summer.
Major commercial crop production is still in its infancy. But it is a sign of the changes here that 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 foods. Change is already under way. Potatoes grown commercially in southern Greenland reached over 100 tons in 2012, double the yield 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 this country, fully a quarter the size of the United States, to reduce its dependence on its former colonial master, Denmark, for much of its food as political parties push for full independence.
Greenland, which is self-governing aside from defence and security, depends on an annual grant from Denmark of around $600m (£395m), or half the island’s annual budget. But the thawing of its ice sheets has seen a boost in mining and oil exploration as well as an interest in agriculture. “I expect a lot of development in sheep farming and agriculture due to global warming,” said the outgoing Prime Minister, Kuupik Kleist, whose government set up the commission. “It may become an important supplement to our economy.”
Locals love 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, an early instance of hype to lure unwary customers. 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 fewer than a hundred. 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.”
The symbolism is enormous, however, highlighting a changing global climate that has seen temperatures in the Arctic increase by about twice the global average –about 0.8C – 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 on 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. He grows 23 kinds of vegetables, compared with 15 a decade ago, including beans, peas, herbs and strawberries. He says he has sold some strawberries to top restaurants in Copenhagen. But Mr Pedersen is sceptical about how much it will catch on. “Greenlanders are impatient,” he said. “They see a seal and they immediately just want to hunt it. They can never wait for vegetables to grow.”
There is still potential. Mr Hoegh estimates Greenland could provide half of its food needs from home-grown produce, which would be cheaper than Danish imports. But global change is not all about benefits. While summers are warmer, there is less rain. Some experts say that Greenland could soon need irrigation works – 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 south Greenland, who said a late spring last year hurt potato crops.
On the Arctic Circle, a flash flood last summer from suspected glacier melt water – which some locals here blamed on warm weather – swept away the only bridge connecting Mr 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 Mr Pedersen and his fjord in Nuuk, the future looks good. “The hotter, the better,” Mr Pedersen said. “For me.”
• World’s largest island (not counting Australia), part of North America, but politically and culturally linked with Europe.
• In the early 18th century, Denmark claimed sovereignty over Greenland, and still has control over foreign affairs and defence matters.
• Population: 56,370; the least densely populated country in the world.
• Language: Greenlandic.
• Official religion: Evangelical Lutheran.
• Unemployment: 4.9 per cent in 2011.
• The economy relies on fishing and fish exports. Tourism plays a big role in generating capital too, and Greenland receives an annual grant from Denmark of $600m.
• It could be the world’s next mining frontier, as global warming makes it easier to recover precious metals from glacial surroundings.
• The largest employers in Greenland are public bodies, including the central government in Denmark. Most positions are in the capital, Nuuk.
• Greenlanders elect two representatives to the Folketing – Denmark’s parliament.
• Greenland has its own parliament, with 31 members. The new PM, after winning 42.8 per cent of the popular vote in this month’s election, is Aleqa Hammond of the Siumut (Forward) Party. It wants Greenlandic independence.
• Queen Margrethe of Denmark, is head of state. A high commissioner is appointed to represent the island.