Friday, September 04, 2015

History of the Forests of Greenland

Kenneth Hoegh, the original tree hugger

When I had a little time to kill at Narsarsuaq airport the other day, I was surprised to find trees -- real stand up trees, growing at the edge of the granite hillside just behind the airport terminal.  I thought this was Greenland!

It turned out I was within a few feet of the Greenland Arboreteum.  Which is not a joke, which is a real thing, which has planted about 120,000 trees over a hundred hectares or so in the last several decades.  Today I got to hike through the Arboreteum with one of its founders, Kenneth Hoegh.  Here he is with a lone specimen imported years ago from Banff National Park, one of many from Canada, but in some areas we stood among glades of trees many metres tall, alive with chirruping red polls -- and little biting flies too.

It is always a pleasure to see a man who loves his work. Kenneth Hoegh seems to know every tree in the arboreteum by name, by origin, and by date of planting, and would stroke them when he came to them. "I love this tree," he would say, and explain why.

Most of this Greenland forest consists of plantings of trees imported from Siberia, Yukon, Alaska or the uplands of the major mountain ranges around the world. Native shrubs such as the arctic willow, which at least grows to bush-like size in favoured locations, and centimetre-tall dwarf trees like juniper, grow all around, but in this forest all the trees we might think of as trees have been introduced. There really had not been a serious forest in Greenland for 150,000 years until the arboreteum was developed.

But Greenland is warming. the arboretum is finding which introduced species tolerated the older conditions and which will thrive in the new ones.  Substantial chunks of South Greenland may have significant forests, possibly even a timber industry in, say, oh, maybe a century or two. Kenneth loves trees, so he's a patient man.  He's willing to wait.

Historical note:  Narsarsauq has just about the best micro-climate anywhere in Greenland for growing things. And directly across the fiord from the Arboreum lies Brattahlid, the place where Eric the Red established his Greenland settlement in 986 CE, and where farming continued for some 400 years. Greenland's major sheep farm is right there today. Those old Norse knew what they were doing when they reconnoitred for land.

Photo credit: me, actually.

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