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In A Warming Greenland, A Farming Family Adapts To Drought — And New Opportunities

The Nielsens' sheep farm sits on the edge of a fjord in southern Greenland. The family has owned and run the farm since 1972.

On a pitch-perfect autumn afternoon, a remote sheep farm in southern Greenland is quiet. The only movement is from a little girl playing outside her house with a fluffy border collie puppy.

The silence is abruptly broken when dozens of sheep come thundering across the hills overlooking the farm. Shooing them along is the girl's grandfather, Lars Nielsen, and her dad, 37-year-old Kunuk Nielsen.

As the sheep move toward the farm's two bright-red barns, Lars Neilsen's wife, Makkak, and a couple of farmhands join in, banging stones and sticks together, shouting, and letting loose with something close to a yodel. Two border collies race next to the herd, keeping any stragglers in line.

Makkak Nielsen runs out to the field to stop the sheep from going the wrong way as her husband and son bring them in towards the farm.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Makkak Nielsen runs out to the field to stop the sheep from going the wrong way as her husband and son bring them in towards the farm.

Three-year-old Panu looks on as her father Kunuk (left) and grandfather Lars get the sheep into the barn.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Three-year-old Panu looks on as her father Kunuk (left) and grandfather Lars get the sheep into the barn.

This is the annual roundup before winter sets in at the Kangerluarsorujuk farm. Kunuk Nielsen says it's hard work bringing in 1,400 sheep.

"It takes about one week to get them all," he says. "We walk about up to 30 kilometers per day, seven-plus days."

Lars Nielsen walks through the barn filled with sheep after the roundup.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Lars Nielsen walks through the barn filled with sheep after the roundup.

Sheep huddle together inside the barn after being rounded up for the winter.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Sheep huddle together inside the barn after being rounded up for the winter.

The Nielsen family has owned and run Kangerluarsorujuk since 1972. The farm sits on a plateau at one end of a fjord. The barns for the sheep and two small, sturdy houses for the Nielsens are built to withstand Greenland's winter cold.

Kunuk has spent his entire life on this sheep farm. He says the summers are longer now than when he was a child — lasting from May to October — and drought has become a problem.

Kunuk Nielsen stands on the deck of his family's home. He's spent his entire life on the sheep farm.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Kunuk Nielsen stands on the deck of his family's home. He's spent his entire life on the sheep farm.

The parched land means there is less food for his grazing sheep, which are smaller than in the past. An irrigation system has been set up, but Nielsen says it can only do so much. They've had to buy hay over the past few years from countries in Europe, thousands of miles to the south.

"It's a very dry summer period," he says, and in the future, "it's going to be more dry ... The fields are not so green like the old days."

Kunuk says the effects of a warming climate are obvious on the land and the fjord, which now has less ice than before, and in daily life for many of the 56,000 people who live in Greenland — including him.

While he intends to continue to work on, and eventually take over, the sheep farm after his father retires in a few years, his older brother Pilu has chosen a different path.

Two of the four border collies on the farm relax after helping to herd the sheep into the barn.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Two of the four border collies on the farm relax after helping to herd the sheep into the barn.

Pilu, 40, lives in the regional capital, Qaqortoq — a town of about 3,000 people, half an hour's boat ride away from the family farm. Ten years ago, he got his helicopter pilot's license and is now part-owner of a small company called Sermeq Helicopters. It caters to construction and telecommunication workers and an increasing number of foreign tourists.

Pilu says he loves his family's sheep farm, and there was no better way to grow up. But he saw that warming temperatures were making his remote area of Greenland more accessible and wanted to pursue other opportunities.

Pilu Nielsen, 40, is a helicopter pilot and part-owner of a helicopter company in Qaqortoq, a small town 30 minutes away by boat from his family's sheep farm.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Pilu Nielsen, 40, is a helicopter pilot and part-owner of a helicopter company in Qaqortoq, a small town 30 minutes away by boat from his family's sheep farm.

His company's most popular tours include a visit to Greenland's glaciers, he says. He can see the effects of warming temperatures up-close. Weather patterns have changed, as have the glaciers themselves.

"That's the most visible sign of change," he says, noting how quickly the glaciers are receding. "The last five to 10 years, it's been accelerating like crazy."

Morten Meldgaard, who studies the consequences of climate change as a professor at the University of Greenland in the capital Nuuk, says the warming temperatures are affecting traditional ways of life, particularly hunting.

A piece of ice called a growler floats in a fjord near Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland. Growlers, like icebergs, are chunks of ice that have broken off glaciers or ice sheets.
Claire Harbage / NPR
A piece of ice called a growler floats in a fjord near Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland. Growlers, like icebergs, are chunks of ice that have broken off glaciers or ice sheets.

"The sea ice is is changing, it's decreasing so that the hunting on ice becomes more difficult," he says. The ice is formed very late in the season, he says, and it is gone very early in the next season.

"When there's no sea ice, it's difficult to use the dog sledges... and the whole culture around having dogs and dog sledges and doing traditional hunting on the ice is sort of diminishing," he says.

Meldgaard says many Greenlanders, like Pilu, are leaving the countryside for towns and the capital city, where opportunities are greater. The 2014 Arctic Human Development Report found that Nuuk's share of Greenland's population grew from 17.2% in 1977 to 29.2% in 2014. "If not for housing shortages in Nuuk, the share might even be higher," the report said.

Pilu says his parents are happy he's doing something he loves.

Panu and the farmhands follow one of the border collies from the barn towards the Nielsen house after the sheep are settled in.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Panu and the farmhands follow one of the border collies from the barn towards the Nielsen house after the sheep are settled in.

"I think they're just glad that I could do something good," he says. "I think they're real, real proud — and glad, of course, for Kunuk staying there."

And it's not like Pilu doesn't visit — he makes sure to take tourists out to the family farm to see a real slice of life in rural Greenland.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 6, 2019 at 11:00 PM CST
In a previous version of this story, Kunuk Nielsen's first name was misspelled as Kanuk.