The country set to cash in on climate change

Record temperatures threaten traditional ways of life in Greenland but as the sea ice retreats, new mining, fishing and tourism investments possibilities are helping communities to adapt

Asked if he is fearful about the impact of climate change, Tnnes Kaka Berthelsens response is typical of many Greenlanders. We are more worried about the Maldives, he told bluntly.

Greenland has lived with extreme environmental changes for a decade or more. Sea ice is forming 2 months later and melting one month earlier. River fed by retreating glaciers are at record levels. And temperature records were smashed twice this year, with stunned meteorologists rechecking their measurings after 24 C was recorded in the capital, Nuuk, in June.

Traditional hunters are giving up their dog squads because there is three months less hunting on sea ice but climate change is no disaster, according to Berthelsen, the deputy manager of Knapk, Greenlands hunters and fishers association. The 56,000 dwellers of the largest island in the world that is not a continent must adapt, fast.

In the sea, new fish species are arriving. On land, the melting ice is set to uncover a wealth of zinc, iron, uranium, gold, and rare earth components that some predict is likely to be the largest deposits outside China.

Greenland believes that climate change will bequeath the wealth to win the ultimate political prize: full independence from Denmark. The country gained self-rule in 2009 but its economy is still sustained by a 3.2 bn kroner( 362 m) annual grant from its former colonial masters.

The vast majority more than 90% of Greenlands export income is from fish, and 2016 was the best ever year, according to Berthelsen. Greenlands pink gold, cold-water shrimp, is moving further north and new fish species mackerel, herring, cod and Atlantic bluefin tuna are entering the countrys waters. We havent considered such big cod stocks since the 1970 s, said Berthelsen.

But in the far north, climate change is hastening the decline of hunting. The traditional way of life is very challenged, said Bjarne Ababsi Lyberth, a biologist and hunting expert for the Association of Fishers and Hunters. People used to go hunting for weeks on the sea ice. They would go so far out they couldnt insure any land. Now they can traveling merely for one day by ocean ice, theres too much open water and its unstable.

Greenland has three climate forms polar, Arctic and sub-Arctic and the effects on the nation, its people and wildlife are varied. In the polar region, hunters report that polar bears havent changed much told Lyberth, and still look in good health. Further south, the bears have less body fat and are considered more frequently near villages, scavenging for food. Hunters also find it is impossible to store their meat in caches on the ice, as they once did, because hungry polar bears take it.

The changes that Europe and the rest of the world are becoming aware of have been going on in Greenland for 10 or 20 years, said Lyberth. Its not something that scares people. Its more a question of adapting.

Dog squads and Inuit hunters in Qaanaaq, Greenland, heading out in the spring during the period of the midnight sunshine. Photo: Louise Murray/ Alamy

Losing three months of sea ice means that hunters are getting rid of their puppy teams, which are expensive to feed and preserve, and switching to angling. But during the long wintertime darkness it is easier to hunt on ice with puppies than take a boat out fishing.

Climate change not only has an economic impact but an enormous impact on culture and how we are dealing with traditional lifestyles, told Aleqa Hammond, the countrys former “ministers “, the first female to be elected in 2013, and now a member of the Danish parliament.

Greenlanders are very good at assuring the new opportunities. We have simply refused to be victimised due to climate change. I am very optimistic. I find more positive options for the country than negatives. I wish that it wasnt happening but it is and thats a fact. Once its there you have an obligation to do the best out of it.

Lyberth gives the example of hunters forming small teams to target minke whales as an example of rapid adaptation: It involves skills and knowledge but the hunters are learning very quickly. But Hammond says investment is required to turn hunters into fishermen: Moving from hunting to fishing is not an easy task for many it requires quite a bit of investment both in equipment but also knowledge to ensure they will be capable of making a living as fishermen.

New processing facilities will be built in Greenland so it can export value-added cod fillets rather than the whole fish: migrant labour may be required to staff these new facilities.


Greenlanders can now buy home-grown potatoes and salad in Nuuk supermarkets but many southern farmers have fought with drought in 2015 and 2016. Grass growth is stunted, sheep are smaller, and farmers are forced to buy winter food rather than use their own fodder. The number of sheep farmers has fallen from 74 in 1983 to about 37 today.

Self-sufficiency in food may be a long way off but 70% of Greenlands energy is now renewable hydropower from melt-fed rivers. Hammond speaks of 100% renewable energy, and attracting energy-hungry server farms, which companies such as Google and Facebook typically situate inside the Arctic Circle. She also predicts a growth in tourism with ships entering newly ice-free fjords. Greenland is becoming a new tourist frontier, she said.

But the vision of a climate-changed Greenland as a tourist-friendly wilderness is challenged by the rapid industrialisation that will occur if Greenland becomes a big mining nation.

Greenlands move towards freedom in 2009 crucially included ownership of its own mineral reserves. Numerous exploratory licences have been issued to multinational mining companies. According to the governments Ministry of Mining Resources, Greenlands first mines a feldspar minerals mine and a ruby and pink sapphire mine are expected to go into production in 2017. Other mining projects include a zinc mine and a rare earth parts mine, drilling for gold in Nuuk fjord, and promising exploratory drilling for a nickel-copper-cobalt mine.

If or when the mining boom takes off, Greenlands indigenous population is likely to be dwarfed by migrant labour. Small countries suddenly enriched by mining often experience corruption or social problems but Hammond insists Greenland has prepared strong laws governing labour rights and mining royalties. The country has established a fund modelled on Norways oil-derived sovereign wealth fund.

Greenlands prime minister, Kim Kielsen, with an oil-bearing stone from Nuuk. Photograph: Alister Doyle/ Reuters

Greenlands parliament has adopted a mineral money but it doesnt mean well be going round with a million dollars in each pocket, said Hammond. It will not be used in the short-term but will ensure that Greenland is set up for bad days and used with good sense and with a unanimous vote in the parliament.

Sren Hald Mller, permanent secretary for Greenlands prime minister, Kim Kielsen, said the government viewed climate change as a concern, shortening the winter ice season in the north and stopping winter hunting and fishing.

We know that climate change also creates new opportunities, for example in new pelagic[ cod, herring, mackerel] fisheries. But still , no one can simply leap from one occupation to another that is completely different, Mller tells. My hope is that we as a society can adapt in the best possible route to the climatic changes, simply because we as a nation and as a people cannot prevent it.

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