Page last updated at 10:21 GMT, Saturday, 25 July 2009 11:21 UK

Greenland comes in from the cold

As world leaders grapple with the perils of climate change, there are parts of the globe where warmer temperatures are welcomed. Hardtalk presenter Stephen Sackur has just returned from Greenland where he found plenty of people eyeing opportunities amid the melting glaciers.

Fjord in Greenland
One glacier has retreated more than 10 miles in a decade

The musk ox steak on my plate was seductively dark and succulent. One of my dining companions was eyeing a slab of reindeer flesh big enough to feed a pack of huskies, while the other was drooling over scallops harvested from the clear cold waters of the Baffin Sea.

But never mind this traditional, and sublime, Greenlandic fare, I really want to tell you about my side order of leeks. Without wishing to sound immodest I know a thing or two about vegetables - it comes from being the son of a Lincolnshire farmer - and I can tell you the Rowing Club in Kangerlussuaq has few peers when it comes to fresh, home-grown vegetables.

That last phrase bears repetition, home-grown vegetables, in Kangerlussuaq, north of the Arctic Circle where the summer sun never sets and the winter darkness lasts for half a year.

Arctic thaw

I summoned restaurateur Kim Ernst from his kitchen. "You must have grown these fine vegetables in a glass house," I said with a sceptical frown.

"Not at all", he replied, "they're all from my garden. If you don't believe me come and see." So I did, and he was right. Greenland, is finally showing signs of living up to its name.

The last decade has brought with it markedly higher summer temperatures in the arctic North.

In southern Greenland farmers have planted fields of potatoes as the growing season has lengthened.

Greenland's growing season has lengthened due to climate change

Plans are afoot to establish forests of Siberian Larch on this windswept and treeless island.

For Greenlanders, all 56,000 of them, the long-term prospect of being able to "grow their own", from tomatoes to timber, is little short of intoxicating.

Eighty percent of Greenland is covered in ice. For thousands of years Inuit peoples have eked out a precarious living along the coastal fringe, reliant on the sea's bounty: fish, seals and whales.

But now the climate is changing, and so too are the traditional rhythms of Inuit life.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the small fishing port of Illulisat perched above an ice fjord on Greenland's west coast. A generation ago the waters of the surrounding Disko Bay would freeze thick and hard every winter.

The local Inuit would hitch their dog teams to their sleds and make long excursions onto the ice, to hunt for seal and to fish, but in recent years the winter ice has been treacherous or non-existent.

Fishing boats have been able to put to sea in the months of darkness, leaving Illulisat's huskies chained to their posts, forlorn and useless.

Redundant huskies

"I used to have 25 dogs," one fisherman told me. "Now I have nine."

"What did you do with the others?" I asked. "The dog catcher came round," he replied with cold detachment. "With a gun."

The giant glacier in Illulisat's fjord has retreated more than 10 miles in the last decade. For international climate campaigners it has become a graphic symbol of our planet in peril. But Greenlanders have a different take on the changes they see.


"We understand that this is a global issue," Greenland's softly-spoken premier Kuupik Kleist told me in the capital Nuuk, "but we see opportunities as well as challenges. I want a Greenland that is open to those opportunities."

This summer Greenland was granted self-rule by Denmark, the old colonial power. Crucially, the new settlement puts control of potentially vast resources in local hands.

Oil, gas, a host of industrial and precious metals - even diamonds - are believed to be present in commercially significant deposits.

And the recent warming has made long-term exploration and mining a less daunting proposition. To see for myself I took a boat from Nuuk deep into the neighbouring fjord.

We passed whales blowing and diving, icebergs sparkling in the low sun and after two magical hours we reached our destination, a tent camp pitched above a natural inlet.

New goldrush

This is where a Greenlandic goldrush may be about to begin. Geologists from Nuna Minerals showed me their best prospect, a run of craggy rock where they have already extracted core samples from hundreds of metres down.

This vast island, rich in resources, is coming in from the cold

"So far, it looks promising," Nuna's geologist Rasmus told me, as we swatted a thick cloud of mosquitoes. "Twenty years from now if all goes well, there could be a port facility here, infrastructure, a profitable gold mine."

And what would that mean for this unsullied Arctic wilderness? Rasmus paused. "Look, I appreciate this place. I work here. I have no intention of ruining it."

On my return to Nuuk harbour, I watched British tourists disembark from a cruise ship. They were serenaded on to shore by a party of Greenlandic schoolchildren in traditional Inuit dress.

"How adorable," one woman said.

Yes, traditions are held dear in Greenland but do not be deceived. This vast island, rich in resources, is coming in from the cold.

Stephen Sackur begins a three part Hardtalk on the Road, starting Tuesday 28 July 2009 for transmission times seeHardtalk.

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

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In Pictures: Greenland and Climate Change
02 Dec 08 |  In Pictures

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