Greenlandic agriculture and climatic change

Greenlandic agriculture dates back to the Norse period from approx. 1000 to the year 1500. The climate was probably not very different
from today.

During the Middle Ages, a number of clever irrigation systems were established on farmsteads, as demonstrated by the archaeologist
Knud J. Krogh. This initial agricultural culture disappeared during the course of the 1400s, presumably toward the end of the century, during a period known as the "Little Ice Age." Climatic changes contributed to the area's depopulation, but other factors also probably played an important role, including sweeping cultural and societal developments throughout the Nordic region.

More recently, a mixed culture of Inuit and Nordic origins has practiced agriculture in the subarctic region of South Greenland since 1783, when the Norwegian Anders Olsen and his Greenlandic wife Tuperna introduced farming techniques to the area. This reestablishment of the agricultural sector took place at the end of the "Little Ice Age," and featured a type of farming that was primarily based on animal husbandry, with cattle and goats and milk production, supplemented by hunting. Such an existence was not far removed from the way of life of the Norse in the Middle Ages.

Today, there are 50 farms that operate with agriculture as their primary source of income, based on sheep farming, with roughly 50,000 animals, sheep and lambs, grazing during the summer. In addition, there are a small number of horses and cattle, and a few thousand tame reindeer. Winter fodder is grown on 1,000 ha, and potatoes and vegetables on a total of approximately 10 ha.

Sheep farming flourished during the mild climatic period from the early 1920s to the mid-1960s, but the sector underwent a crisis from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. This was due to a colder climate with harsher winters and heavy, extended snow cover. It can be generally said that the 1900s were a milder climatic period in comparison to the 1800s, an observation which is also confirmed by newly exposed rocks - often covered with pioneer vegetation - that were covered with ice before 1900.

In an area like Southwest Greenland, a warmer climate with a longer growing season means increased agricultural production because the temperature and length of the summer period are the primary limiting factors for plant growth in both the sub and low Arctic. Thus a warmer climate, sparked by global warming, will translate into a larger grazing capacity as well as larger yields of silage and hay, plus vegetables and potatoes. Climatic improvements since the mid-1990s have helped establish the commercial production of potatoes and vegetables, which have become particularly widespread among Greenlandic farmers since the year 2000. Furthermore, current lamb production is at an extremely high level, making the first decade of the new millennium the most productive in the history of Greenlandic sheep farming.

We have seen an improvement in the small experimental groves of foreign trees, especially conifers, around South Greenland, where there is markedly better growth. However, we also see an increasing number of damages to trees from more continental regions that have difficulty adapting to the milder winters. This can be observed by the fact that trees from coastal areas of Alaska, with unstable winters, do better than related tree varieties from farther inland. In the future, Greenlandic growers should thus increasingly select maritime-oriented plant material from areas with a changeable winter climate. This includes plant selections for the production of course fodder from sustainable pastures.

However, a more unstable winter climate, with many mild weather periods and rain, where the earth is covered with a sheet of ice, could lead to worse grazing, especially in the autumn months and the winter grazing period, with serious consequences for the tame reindeer in particular. Winter grazing is only of limited importance to today's sheep farming industry.

More frequent periods of summer drought, with higher temperatures and no rain, will pose a problem in a warmer climate. For instance, droughts in the early summers of 2007 and 2008 were extremely damaging to the industry, especially with regard to the growing of grass for hay and silage, and for grazing in particularly hard-hit areas, including the area around the settlement of Qassiarsuk. A number of new irrigation facilities will be established this year in Greenlandic agriculture to make coarse fodder production more stable.

All in all, we can conclude that a warmer climate would be advantageous for agriculture in Greenland. By contrast, a colder climate would make conditions in the industry significantly more difficult.

Greenlandic agriculture continues to thrive on the doorstep of the cold Arctic desert, which is agriculture's northernmost outpost. The future will show if this outpost will shift farther north.