On top of the world, by a fjord in western Greenland, a remote hydro-power plant is buzzing with extra water from the melt of ancient glaciers. This island at ground zero of global warming is seeking to be one of the few places on Earth to benefit.
Outside the plant in Buksefjord, the biggest of five hydro-electricity stations built in Greenland since 1993 in a push to move away from imported oil, cod that usually only thrive further south can be seen swimming in the clear water.
And a worker at the facility is preparing to grow potatoes and turnips on land close to the Arctic Circle that is usually too cold for anything other than lichen and reindeer.
The north Atlantic island “is in the midst of new thinking”, Environment Minister Mala Hoy Kuko said, to capitalise on an alarming thaw that included a record early melt on the vast ice sheet in April 2016 before a cooler May. He said the potential of hydro-power will grow even bigger with the warming of the climate.
Climate change, caused mainly by greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, is set to cause economic harm in almost all parts of the world by spurring ever more droughts, heat waves and floods. Low-lying tropical island states from the Maldives to Tuvalu view Greenland’s 3,000m-thick ice sheet with foreboding since it contains enough ice to raise world sea levels by 6m if it ever all melted, over many centuries.
But for the 56,000 inhabitants of Greenland, a giant island a quarter the size of the US, the melt may be unlocking frozen assets and helping businesses including fishing, farming, mining, shipping and tourism.
“Unfortunately I can’t sit down and weep and say it (climate change) is bad because overall it’s good for Greenland,” said Henrik Leth, chairman of both Greenland’s biggest private company, Polar Seafood, and the Greenland Business Association. His firm’s pre-tax profit has risen thanks to high prices for its main products, prawns and Greenland halibut.
About 90% of the island’s exports are fisheries, and many hunters and fishermen welcome shifts in currents, apparently linked to warming, that have brought cod to west Greenland for the first time in two decades, and mackerel to the east.
Winners and losers
Prime Minister Kim Kielsen, whose island has wide powers of self-rule within the kingdom of Denmark, cautioned that “there are pros and cons” to the melt.
Arctic regions are warming at about twice the global average, partly because a melt of white ice and snow reveals darker ground and water that soaks up ever more heat.
Most worryingly for Greenlanders, the melt threatens the livelihoods of indigenous hunters in the north who use dogsleds and rely on ice to hunt seals. And some buildings and airports standing on permafrost are at risk. Faced with such threats, the islanders are looking to extract as many benefits as possible from the changes.
The ice melt could help the government meet its target of raising the share of its electricity that comes from hydro to 90% by 2030, from about two-thirds now.
Officials say hydro plants that could draw directly from the ice sheet could power a proposed new aluminium smelter and iron ore mines.
Climate change could also boost the island’s hopes to develop minerals ranging from rare earths to oil and gas, even though low prices have put most plans on hold. Melting snow and ice makes prospecting less complicated and improves access to sites.
“There will be more open water for shipping and it will be cheaper for companies to get out minerals,” said Josephine Nymand, a scientist at the Greenland Institute of Natural
The opening waterways could prove a boon for the tourism industry too, giving visitors better views of spectacular glaciers, such as at Ilulissat. This summer, Crystal Cruises plans to send a first cruise ship through the Northwest Passage from Alaska to New York, calling at Greenland.
Among other projects linked to the Greenland melt, scientists are also studying how to tap some of a billion tonnes of milky coloured sediment that gets washed every year from the ice sheet into the sea.
“It could be dredged up and shipped to tropical nations as nutrients for farming,” said Minik Rosing, a professor of geology at Copenhagen University.
Economists say it is hard to pin down the net effects of climate change for Greenland, named by the Vikings about 1,000 years ago during a natural warm period.
For farmers, for example, warmth and a longer growing season in the south have been offset by drought – some have hauled icebergs from the sea to help irrigation.
Prime Minister Kielsen, pointing to the ceiling of his office, about 3m high, said: “Just 15 years ago the sea ice thickness could be compared to the height of this room.” In some places, it was now too thin to walk on, he added.
Showing the importance of ice for transport, Greenland’s statistics bureau documents about 15,000 sled dogs on the island against just 4,033 cars, two motorbikes and “railways, 0km”.
The pace of change this year has been disorientating, even though Greenlanders have adapted to sharp shifts in climate since people first arrived from North America 4,500 years ago. Many people in Nuuk, a town of 17,000, were shocked when organisers of the Arctic Winter Games in early March, usually a snowy month, had to generate artificial snow.
Among the drawbacks of warming, rising temperatures are thawing permafrost such as at Kangerlussuaq on the Arctic Circle, the site of the island’s main airport. And in 2012, a flood of melt water from the ice sheet washed away a bridge. “It was a disaster,” said Kim Ernst, a former chef at the Roklubben restaurant that was cut off for three months.
Many glaciers worldwide are shrinking because the summer melt exceeds the amount of snow that falls in winter and gets compressed into ice. In many nations, from the Andes to the Himalayas, this will disrupt hydro-power and irrigation. But despite Greenland losing about a net 300 billion tonnes of ice a year, according to the Danish Meteorological Service, its store is almost inexhaustible.
Energy company Nukissiorfiit is looking at building a new hydro-project to provide power to the towns of Aasiaat and Qasigiannguit in the west.
But like climate change itself, benefits can be unpredictable. Fishermen seeking the new arrivals, for example, are at the mercy of shifting currents that are often a mystery.
“Three weeks ago I went out fishing and got a lot of cod,” said fishermen Tannes Berthelsen. “Yesterday I went fishing again but I didn’t get even one.” – Reuters/Alister Doyle