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Produce picked from the tundra: Welcome to climate change in Greenland

Kim Ernst, the Danish chef of Roklubben restaurant, which is nestled by a frozen lake near a former Cold War-era U.S. military base, looks over his greenhouse in Kangerlussaq on March 5, 2013.
Kim Ernst, the Danish chef of Roklubben restaurant, which is nestled by a frozen lake near a former Cold War-era U.S. military base, looks over his greenhouse in Kangerlussaq on March 5, 2013.Alistair Scrutton / Reuters

KANGERLUSSUAQ, Greenland — On the Arctic Circle, a chef is growing the kind of vegetables and herbs - potatoes, thyme, tomatoes, green peppers - more fitting 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.

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 some 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 minus 20 degrees Centigrade 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 miles south, some farmers now produce hay, and sheep farms have increased in size. Some supermarkets in the capital Nuuk sell locally grown vegetables during the summer.

Major commercial crop production is still in its infancy. But it is a sign of 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 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 this country a quarter the size of the United States to reduce its dependency on former colonial master Denmark for much of its food as political parties push for full independence.

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

From cows to crops

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 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," 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 0.8 degrees Celsius 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.

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 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."

There is still potential. Hoegh estimates Greenland could provide half its food needs from home-grown produce which would be competitive with more expensive 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 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."