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Global Warming Good for Greenland?

James Owen
for National Geographic News
October 17, 2007
 
For some in Greenland these days, the grass is looking greener.

Rapid thawing brought on by global warming on the world's largest island has opened up new opportunities for agriculture, commercial fishing, mining, and oil exploration. The island's native people, though, may not be on the "winning" side of warming.

(Get the basics on global warming.)

Scientists now report Arctic temperatures are rising almost twice as fast as elsewhere in the world. (Related news: "Greenland Ice Sheet Is Melting Faster, Study Says" [August 10, 2006].)

A new WWF Denmark report released last week studied the effects of climate change on the people of Greenland, which is a self-governing territory of Denmark.

"The warmer climate will have a definite positive effect on Greenland's economic possibilities and development," the report said.

(See a photo gallery of warming's effects on Greenland.)

Positive Effects

In southwestern Greenland, for example, the grass-growing season gets longer each year, boosting productivity for some 60 sheep farms now established in the region. Up to 23,500 sheep and lambs are slaughtered annually.

Dairy cattle have recently been reintroduced, and a government-led project is expected to yield 29,058 gallons (110,000 liters) of milk annually, according to the new report.

Locally grown potatoes have appeared in supermarkets, alongside broccoli and other vegetables never before cultivated in Greenland.

Commercial fishermen are anticipating bumper cod catches after the fish recently moved north into Greenland's waters. Halibut are also increasing in size.

"The cod there at the moment are still small ... so they haven't really become a commercial opportunity yet," said Anne-Marie Bjerg, Arctic conservation officer for WWF Denmark.

"But they will undoubtedly [grow in size and commercial importance], particularly if the cod stocks are properly managed," she said.

Full Sovereignty?

Greenland's melting ice cap has triggered a rush for diamonds, gold, and other metals as mining companies prospect previously covered mineral-rich rocks.

Oil companies have negotiated rights to explore for oil and natural gas along the Greenlandic coastline. The island may also be swept up in the scramble to claim the Arctic seafloor and its oil wealth.

Potential new revenues from oil, mining, and cheap hydroelectricity supplied by abundant meltwater could soon make independence from Denmark affordable for Greenland, which is heavily dependent on the European country for funding.

The report added Greenland's progress "towards a sustainable economy with the possibility of full sovereignty" may come much sooner than previously thought.

Threats to Native Culture

Yet for Inuit subsistence hunters, global warming promises no silver lining.

In northern Greenland traditional Inuit culture is increasingly under threat from global warming, said Lene Kielsen Holm, sustainable development advisor for the Greenland arm of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Nuuk.

The sea ice that Inuit use to hunt seals, walruses, and other animals is not staying as long as in previous years.

"The warming of the ocean is making the ice so thin that people living from hunting are not able to follow the routes that they used to," Holm said. "They are seeing more and more accidents."

In the Qaanaaq region of northwestern Greenland this year, hunters lost their gear and sled dogs as abrupt storms broke up the thin sea ice, Holm said.

"If they can't go hunting, they can't feed their dogs," she added.

Holm also cautioned that native Greenlanders could become marginalized under an economic boom.

With a population of only 57,000, Greenland doesn't have the infrastructure needed by multinational oil and mining companies, which could soon start operating on the island, she said. (Related news: "U.S. Coal-Burning Boom Drastically Warmed Arctic" [August 9, 2007].)

"Foreigners would have to be invited to come here, and maybe in the near future we could be in the situation of being the minority in our own country."

Wildlife Woes

Global warming's impact on sea ice and ocean currents are also altering the distribution of animals that the Inuit hunt, Holm said.

Ringed seals—which depend on summer sea ice for breeding and were once common throughout Greenland—are moving farther north.

For Greenland's wildlife, like its people, climate warming may be a mixed blessing.

A study published this summer in the journal Current Biology showed that the wildlife of Greenland's high Arctic are capitalizing on warmer conditions, starting their summer activities up to a month earlier than a decade ago.

The average dates for plants flowering, insects emerging, and bird eggs hatching have advanced by 14.5 days, according to research from Denmark's National Environment Research Institute at the University of Aarhus.

And the WWF report says Greenland's symbolic polar bear is being forced to narrow its range in response to climate change.

"Within the next 50 years," the report said, "the polar bear will probably only be found in the very northwest corner of Greenland."

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