Greenland – An oasis in the Arctic

With a population of roughly 56,000, Greenland’s people could easily find a seat for themselves at Wembley Stadium with plenty of room to spare.

Greenland is officially designated the world’s largest island, and yet has one of the lowest population densities of any country, and for good reason. Just as human populations skirt around the edges of the world’s hottest, driest deserts, so too do they cling to any semblance of warmth in the frosty reaches of the Arctic Circle.

The Arctic is a bellwether… And so when we see drought stress limiting plant production or losses in species diversity related to warming, those are things we will probably begin to see at lower latitudes as they warm to the extent the Arctic has warmed

– Eric Post, Ecologist at University of California speaking to Yale Environment 360

While there are few people to speak of in this remote corner of the globe, that’s by no means a way of saying Greenland is completely lifeless. In actual fact, Greenland is teeming with life if you know where to look. However, the life that resides there is sitting on shaky ground, as temperatures rise and the permafrost thaws. But how to keep cool, when the heat is on?

The greenery of Greenland

Iceland is famed for its volcanoes, water geysers and its adoption of geothermal power. Greenland, which has a sixth of Iceland’s population, doesn’t have the luxury of being able to tap into the heat beneath the Earth’s surface to power itself. At the depth of winter, Greenland endures average temperatures of -50 degrees celsius, cold enough to cause any plant life to shrivel up and wither. In summer, temperatures can hit an annual high of 14 degrees celsius, before making that inevitable return back firmly below zero.

To make things even more complicated, it has been known for snow to persist even during the height of summer, giving the country a sense of being Narnia-like, stuck in a seemingly never-ending cold snap. However, life can still grow in the soil here, as evidenced by the large number of wildflowers. Greenland’s national flower is known as the Dwarf Fireweed, a flower which is commonly found in parts of the Northern hemisphere.

Dwarf fireweed is recognisable for its bright pink petals and elongated fruit capsules. The Inuit people rely on the plant as a food source, making use of the leaves, the flowers themselves as well as the fruit it provides. People in this part of the world are known to eat the plant as a form of salad along with seal blubber, and the plant is said to have a taste closely resembling spinach. Dwarf Fireweed is affectionately called niviarsiaq, the Greenlandic word for ‘young girl’, and is just one of the forms of flora that sustain life in this frosty climate.

In its northeastern region, Greenland boasts the world’s largest national park, but plants find it easier to take root in the warmer climes found further south. If you were to trek across the north of Greenland, you would make each step on a spongy carpet of mosses, and the whole country is home to roughly 310 vascular plant types. If you wish to take a walk through a Greenlandic forest, such places are in short supply as the only natural forest you’ll find here is to be found in the Qinngua Valley. Here, you’ll find trees such as downy birch and grey-leaf willow.

The soil and the climate itself can make agriculture tricky to sustain in places, and there is evidence of Norsemen in the Middle Ages trying in vain to grow barley crops. However, there is also some evidence that the Vikings managed to yield some barley crops over the centuries. The changing climate has managed to make the growing of certain plants much easier over time, with claims that warmer temperatures have extended the growing season by as much as three weeks in the decade between 1997 and 2007.

Greenland’s fauna feel the heat

However, being able to grow more potatoes, carrots, broccoli and radishes for longer comes at a cost: Greenland’s fauna have evolved to rely on plants growing in certain ways at certain times in order to sustain themselves, and climate change is disrupting this delicate balance. In 2018, freelance science writer Cheryl Katz wrote for Yale Environment 360, reporting on the damage being done to Greenlandic fauna such as caribou as a result of warmer temperatures creeping in slowly but surely.

Known as reindeer in other countries, caribou are migratory animals which move in herds, feeding off the vegetation they can find as they seek to ensure a safe place to breed and survive. Writing in 2018, Cheryl Katz claimed caribou populations were declining rapidly as food sources were increasingly becoming out-of-sync, with peak vegetation growth no longer in step with the calving seasons.

Cheryl Katz wrote: “Earth’s springtime clock is advancing around the globe as the planet warms up. It’s being seen in phenomena such as butterflies emerging earlier, pollen seasons starting ahead of schedule, and the choreography of birds and bees going out of sync, which could adversely affect plant pollination.”

In the Arctic, this seasonal clock is going out of sync in a far more noticeable way, suggesting that in the last decade alone, spring has come four days sooner than it used to, for every 10 degrees north of the Earth’s equator. For a part of the world such as Greenland, earlier springtime means more thawing and an accelerated lifecycle for the country’s flora, leaving animals such as the caribou struggling to find a scrap to eat, as they try to survive year after year.

As we see in many stories about climate change, while some forms of life such as plants might benefit themselves from some of the effects – longer growing times and warmer temperatures to encourage earlier maturation – plants are at the base of a delicately-balanced ecological pyramid. If plants begin growing in a way which is increasingly out of sync with the lifecycles of existing fauna, especially in countries such as Greenland, where many animals are already vulnerable, serious damage could be inflicted if left unchecked.

Fortunately, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is on hand to help with conservation efforts in Greenland, being distinguished as the first conservation organisation to establish offices in the country. To save the polar bear from going the way of the Dodo, the WWF has been reporting on the work of a specialised polar bear patrol since 2015. This special patrol uses polar-bear-friendly techniques to deter them from moving in certain ways, preventing them from coming into conflict with groups such as the Ittoqqortoormiit people.

One of the biggest causes of animal population decline can be caused by a loss of habitat forcing animals to increasingly share territory with humans. Animals such as the polar bear are innately territorial, and if they begin to lose ground, they are likely to be understandably more aggressive as they try protecting what little homeland they have from humans. While it is easy to be fearful of the likes of polar bears for their size, their claws, their roars and sharp teeth, or perhaps simply their nature as apex predators, they have more to fear from us, as we outnumber them to a considerably greater extent.

Fish are another part of Greenland’s rich spectrum of fauna, and the WWF promotes the push towards quotas to prevent overfishing. Many of the birds, seals and other animals living around the Greenlandic coast rely on a diet of fish to survive, and the quotas are intended to ensure that there is adequate fish for all.

Off the Greenlandic coast, you’ll find examples of the world’s longest-lived vertebrates, the Greenland shark. This animal has a reported lifespan of 250-500 years according to some estimates, taking 150 years to reach full maturity. This means there are living Greenland sharks swimming in the sea which were probably born long before the Industrial Revolution began in earnest. Greenland sharks have a considerably longer period of gestation which can take as long as 8-18 years in total, meaning reproduction for these animals is a serious undertaking, fraught with risk in the meantime.

However, great longevity can have its advantages, as it is estimated that a single Greenland shark mother can produce between 200-700 pups in a single lifetime. As a result, despite their low fertility compared to some animals, Greenland sharks can still thrive, but only so long as they are left to flourish in the waters surrounding Greenland undisturbed.

Their flesh is considered inedible in its own right due to naturally-occurring toxins found within, which serve as a form of antifreeze, helping deter fishermen from attempting to fish them out of the water for food. This doesn’t mean they are completely in the clear, however, as the oils found in their liver do make them vulnerable to being trawled up, and they remain sensitive to changes in the marine ecosystem.

Having visited Greenland as part of our early planning, I’ve been to the ice cap and have seen the flowing melt water first-hand. It is a truly sobering place to be when you understand the scale of the situation and really bought home the severity of the global climate emergency to me, and the race against time that we are all part of.

– Alejandro Agag, CEO and Founder Extreme E

Extreme E is due to start its Arctic X Prix in earnest in a few short days. Greenland is a pivotal place which reflects the urgency of finding solutions to climate change, perhaps more than any Extreme E racing venue seen so far. The races will showcase Greenland’s small yet complicated collection of native flora and fauna, and the breath-taking vistas where they are to be found. Earth’s climate is changing each day as we speak, and the races will be an intriguing snapshot for the historians.

Will the events of the Arctic E Prix serve as just a snapshot frozen in time of a long-lost era for Greenland, or can we hold back the thaw and keep Greenland from melting away entirely? That question will take some time to answer, but in the meantime, we can see that Greenland isn’t just a lifeless, barren lump of frozen rock not worth saving – Greenland is a beautiful island country which is teeming with life, if you know where to look. From the pink Dwarf Fireweeds to the Methuselah-like Greenland shark, Greenland is safe haven for life in all forms. How much longer it remains so is largely down to us.

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