Icy Island Warms to Climate Change

The harbor at Ilulissat, Greenland, 170 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is no longer icebound in the winter, so fishermen can use boats all year.
The harbor at Ilulissat, Greenland, 170 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is no longer icebound in the winter, so fishermen can use boats all year. (By Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)

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By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 7, 2007

QAQORTOQ, Greenland -- The biggest island in the world is a wind-raked place, gripped by ice over four-fifths of its land, prowled by polar bears, its coastlines choked by drifting icebergs and sea ice. Many of its 56,000 people, who live on the fringes of its giant ice cap, see the effects of global warming -- and cheer it on.

"It's good for me," said Ernst Lund, a lanky young man who is one of 51 farmers raising sheep on the southern tip of Greenland. His animals scramble over the cold granite hills of a dramatic fiord, his farm isolated from the nearest town by a long boat ride threading past drifting mounds of ice, followed by a jolting truck trip along seven miles of gravel road.

"I can keep the sheep out two weeks longer to feed in hills in the autumn. And I can grow more hay. The sheep get fatter," he said.

In few parts of the world is climate change more real -- and personal -- than here. The Arctic is feeling the globe's fastest warming. At a science station in the ice-covered interior of Greenland, average winter temperatures rose nearly 11 degrees Fahrenheit from 1991 to 2003. Winters are shorter, ice is melting, and fish and animals are on the move.

A rapid meltdown and fast-sliding glaciers in Greenland could raise sea levels around the world and flood coastal cities and farmland. The infusion of cold water could jolt the Gulf Stream, alter weather throughout the Northern Hemisphere and scatter fish and marine stocks.

Yet this sweeping reworking of humanity's global accommodations will likely be fickle. While Greenland has many people who fear what warming will bring, it has quite a few others who reckon they may do quite well by it.

Kim Hoegh-Dam is betting a fortune that the changing climate will bring the cod back to Greenland. The effusive 44-year-old businessman has lined up more than $1 million to buy a small fleet of cod trawlers and three processing plants.

"Global warming will increase the cod tremendously and will bring other species up from the south," he said with confidence.

Hoegh-Dam's ancestors have lived for 200 years in Qaqortoq, its colorful wooden houses climbing steep hills that the Viking Eric the Red scouted more than 1,000 years ago. In times past, Qaqortoq grew rich on cod; in the early 20th century, the town boasted Greenland's first public bath, available to residents three times a year -- once more annually than was common at baths in sophisticated Copenhagen. The big whitefish fed Europe and nurtured New England, becoming the mainstay of Greenland's economy.

But in the late 1960s, the Greenland cod catch plummeted, and in 1991 the cod disappeared altogether. Researchers say it was a double blow of overfishing and a 4-degree drop in the water temperature because of shifting currents. Hard-pressed watermen eventually turned their boats and production plants to shrimp, now Greenland's chief export.

The seas around Greenland now show the highest temperatures since the 1960s. A trawler sent with government inspectors to test the old cod grounds off eastern Greenland this year made a biblical catch. The holds were filled with 25 tons of cod in one hour, and the crew had to stop fishing.

Conservationists are cautious. "If you start fishing this, you could stop the cod from building up," said Holger Hovgard of the Greenland Institute for Natural Resources in the capital, Nuuk. And if the seas warm enough to bring back cod, he asked, what happens to the cold-loving shrimp?


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