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Icy Island Warms to Climate Change
Greenlanders Exploit 'Gifts From Nature' While Facing New Hardships

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?

But for now, many hardy Greenlanders who wrest a living from the harsh environment see opportunities. Kim Hoegh-Dam's brother, Kenneth Hoegh, 41, is the agriculture advisory agent in southern Greenland. While his brother bets on fish, Kenneth Hoegh is busy developing new and unexpected markets for the small band of farmers in this self-governing dependency of Denmark.

Farmers raised 22,000 lambs for local meat markets last year, and Hoegh soon will host the chef of a renowned Copenhagen restaurant to persuade him to put "Arctic lamb" on the menu. Hoegh has six cows and wants to start a mini-dairy. He packs sheep wool off to England for sorting and then to Lithuania to be weaved into fine blankets labeled Greenland wool, a souvenir lure for tourists visiting the glaciers.

Tables in his office in Qaqortoq are loaded with potatoes to be planted on the warm edges of fiords. At his agriculture station, his staff is growing Chinese cabbage, flowers and turnips in greenhouses and under protective plastic sheets. He dreams of planting a forest someday on the treeless terrain.

"The only limiting factor on human endeavor in Greenland is the temperature," Hoegh said, while bouncing on a fast motorboat past icebergs to visit the agriculture station in this country of few roads. Warm the temperature a bit, and new endeavors pop out like lambs from ewes, he believes.

Six hundred miles to the north, 170 miles past the Arctic Circle, in the fishing village of Ilulissat, Inuit men gather around barrels of bait one afternoon as they thread hundreds of hooks attached to their long fishing lines. Traditionally, when the winter pack ice closed over the waters of their fiord, the men would take lines and nets on dog sleds and cut holes in the ice to catch Greenland halibut. But in recent winters, the pack ice never closed, and the men worked from their boats all year.

"It is much easier to go by boat than to try to haul everything by dogs," said Ove Olsvig, 39, a lean fisherman with a soft voice and few words. "We can catch a lot more." He paused. "I don't think it's good," he added. The higher catch will take its toll on the fish stock, he said. Then, "the fishing will not be so good."

Cuno Jensen, a 22-year-old teacher, walked by the dock carrying a rifle with a powerful scope. When he was a boy, he said, he and his father would go onto the ice and lie in wait for hours to get a shot at a seal. With the water now open year-round, "we just take a boat out, and it's easy to get close enough to shoot the seal."

Ono Fleischer, one of the most renowned dog sledders in Greenland, took a dog team across the huge island in 19 days last spring to marry his companion, Karo Thomsen, in a village in eastern Greenland. They intended to sled back, but a warm rain put a dangerous glaze on the ice cap. They had to give away their 12 dogs and fly back to Ilulissat.

"Already we are starting our sentences by saying, 'In the days when it was cold,' " reflected Thomsen, 45, who in 1991 became the first Greenland woman to ski across the ice cap. "We're starting to talk about it like it was history, and it's only been about five years."

Her husband has mushed for thousands of miles across the northern edges of Greenland, Canada and Alaska to match the record of the legendary explorer Knud Rasmussen. Yet he dismisses with a wave any sentiment over the shrinking ice.

"With the warmer weather, we don't have to fight the cold so much. Our health is better. Our equipment doesn't break down so much, and we don't use so much fuel. The time for industry is longer, and there are more places we can go by boat," Fleischer, 59, said before a lunch of reindeer meat in his house overlooking Ilulissat. "I can't think of any negative consequences."

But others, who depend on the ice, can. One of them is Silverio Scivoli. Up a steep hill from the colorful fishing fleet in Ilulissat harbor, he fishes for tourists. Last year, there were 15,000 -- mostly from Denmark -- and their spending has brought a spurt of construction in town. Scivoli, 59, a voluble Italian who came to visit Greenland 26 years ago and now runs a tourist agency, worries that the warmer weather will kill the very attractions the visitors come to see.

"The tourists want to see glaciers and huge icebergs. They want to go dog sledding and see an igloo," he said. "I used to take them on 12-day dog-sled trips from here to Uummannaq. Now, I can't. There's no ice."

In the sparsely peopled far north of Greenland, Inuit wait for the Arctic Sea ice to close on the land each fall. They take their dog sleds and snowmobiles onto the ice to hunt food: seals, whales and polar bears. But the ice now takes longer to come.

One remote ice patrol station, Daneborg, keeps excellent records: The local hunters have long wagered on when the ice would close the summer's open water. A decade ago, the water was open for 80 days. Now it stays ice-free for 140 days, said Soren Rysgaard, a researcher for the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

"It's a threat to northern Inuit. Already we are seeing immense changes in weather, in birds, in animals," said Lena Holm, who is documenting hunters' observations for the Inuit Circumpolar Council. Unlike Inuit farther south who live by fishing, these hunters need ice to stalk their prey on foot.

In three recent years, some of the northern villages appealed for emergency food aid because they could not get on the ice to hunt. Their sled dogs, not eligible for government assistance, were saved by nationwide donations that bought European dog food to replace the missing scraps from seal kills.

"If a seal hunter can't hunt, what is he to do?" asked Alfred Jakobsen, Greenland's minister of the environment.

Still, he sees an upside: Global warming could be an opportunity to develop other resources. Four oil companies have applied to explore off shore, mining companies are sniffing out uranium and gold, and two aluminum companies want to build smelting plants and use the gushing glacial meltwater for hydroelectric power.

"Of course there will be negative impacts on the environment," Jakobsen acknowledged. "But we have to have an income. We cannot just be a living zoo. It would be hard for Greenland not to utilize these gifts from nature."

Calculating the outcome of changing nature is difficult, however. Stefan Magnusson, 50, a tall cowboy, is one of only two ranchers who raise reindeer commercially in Greenland. He sells the meat to Iceland and Canada.

He thought the disappearing snow would uncover more food for his herd of 2,000 animals. But he found that the melting top layer of snow refreezes at night, forming a hard crust that keeps the reindeer from the lichens below. And the now-spotty surface plays havoc with the snowmobiles and horses he uses to herd the animals. He muses about giving it up.

"This was a successful business" for 17 years, Magnusson said. "Until global warming."

Researcher Natalia Alexandrova in Toronto contributed to this report.

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