email a friend iconprinter friendly iconChanging Greenland
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Høegh, a powerfully built man with reddish blond hair and a trim beard—he could easily be cast as a Viking—is an agronomist and former chief adviser to Greenland's agriculture min­istry. His family has lived in Qaqortoq for more than 200 years. Pausing near the edge of the yard, Høegh kneels and peers under a white plas­tic sheet that protects some turnips he planted last month.

"Wooo! This is quite incredible!" he says with a broad smile. The turnips' leaves look healthy and green. "I haven't looked at them for three or four weeks; I didn't water the garden at all this year. Just rainfall and melting snow. This is amazing. We can harvest them right now, no problem."

It's a small thing, the early ripening of turnips on a summer morning—but in a country where some 80 percent of the land lies buried beneath an ice sheet up to two miles thick and where some people have never touched a tree, it stands for a large thing. Greenland is warming twice as fast as most of the world. Satellite measurements show that its vast ice sheet, which holds nearly 7 percent of the world's fresh water, is shrinking by about 50 cubic miles each year. The melting ice accelerates the warming—newly exposed ocean and land absorb sunlight that the ice used to reflect into space. If all of Greenland's ice melts in the centuries ahead, sea level will rise by 24 feet, inundating coastlines around the planet.

Yet in Greenland itself, apprehension about climate change is often overshadowed by great expectations. For now this self-governing depen­dency of Denmark still leans heavily on its former colonial ruler. Denmark pumps $620 million into Greenland's anemic economy every year—more than $11,000 for each Greenlander. But the Arctic meltdown has already started to open up access to oil, gas, and mineral resources that could give Greenland the financial and polit­ical independence its people crave. Greenland's coastal waters are estimated to hold half as much oil as the North Sea's fields. Warmer tem­peratures would also mean a longer growing season for Greenland's 50 or so farms and perhaps reduce the country's utter reliance on imported food. At times these days it feels as if the whole country is holding its breath—waiting to see whether the "greening of Greenland," so regularly announced in the inter­national press, is actually going to happen.

Greenland's first experience of hype happened a millennium ago when Erik the Red arrived from Iceland with a small party of Norse­men, aka Vikings. Erik was on the lam (from the Old Norse word lemja) for killing a man who had refused to return some borrowed bedsteads. In 982 he landed along a fjord near Qaqortoq, and then, despite the bedsteads incident, he re­turned to Iceland to spread word about the country he had found, which, according to the Saga of Erik the Red, "he called Greenland, as he said people would be attracted there if it had a favorable name."

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