Where do we plant trees?

For now, we only plant trees in the direct vicinity of the town of Narsarsuaq in south Greenland. It is relatively accessible, and the local climate sustains ample plant life. The region is located 250 km further south than Iceland!

Can trees live in Greenland?

Greenland is the largest island in the world. Even though the country is 80% covered by ice, large areas along the coast are ice free due to milder climate conditions. In south Greenland, summer temperatures can exceed 20 °C / 70 °F and winters are warm enough to sustain plant life.

While Greenland may be thought to lack trees, today the island is host to a growing population of shrubs (birch, alder, rowan and willow) and trees planted by people. Climate conditions have been warming the past 150 years and increased rainfall has made southern Greenland an excellent site for tree growth today. In fact, since 1953, people have added an estimated 300.000 trees in several locations across southern Greenland.

Why not plant in an environment where tree growth (CO2 sequestration) is faster? Isn’t afforestation more effective in the tropics?

While the trees grow more slowly in southern Greenland…

  • There is no lack of space in Greenland, so we can simply plant more trees than elsewhere to achieve our CO2 offsetting targets.
  • We work in Greenland already and have all the logistics in place.
  • We engage local people with an emphasis on youth to take part, reducing the CO2 footprint from flights to Greenland for forest management.
  • The sites have protection status in scientific research and sustainability.
  • Forest permanence in Greenland is likely.

Which trees do we plant?

Greenland Trees sets out to plant Siberian Larch trees and other native species in south Greenland. We are not introducing new, foreign species – these trees already exist in the region. We obtain seedlings from nurseries in Iceland and transport them to neighboring Greenland by ship. Which species are native, however, is debatable. We consult experts, and have experts on our team investigating the matter.

There are many examples of introduced plants expanding beyond first planting areas. How is Greenland tree planting any different?

Firstly, we do not introduce species into the region that are not already present. We plant in fenced, protected, and isolated areas. Tree growth is relatively slow, so introducing trees presents no immediate out-of-control problem. The low amount of tree species compared to similar latitudes in North America and Europe today is due to lack of natural immigration (from birds, sea drift) because of Greenland’s isolation. Ocean currents flow from the treeless Arctic (clockwise around the island).

Yet on disruption: planting trees is a counter-measure for Anthropogenic climate change, itself very disruptive. Besides, in another south Greenland example, widespread sheep farming is highly disruptive, yet designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site defined by Norse and Inuit farming.

One hectare of trees planted in southern Greenland several decades ago

How much CO2 will be sequestrated?

Our aim is to plant thousands of trees in Greenland each summer. This forest, when fully grown, will have withdrawn thousands of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. A more detailed carbon budget calculation will be posted on this website after 2019, when we have all the information we need to do this in the scientific way that we are accustomed to.

Were there trees in south Greenland in the past that humans cut down?

The saga of the Greenlanders mentions ‘felling trees’, but in north America, not Greenland. Nevertheless, the woodlands and shrubs were undoubtedly cut down and the browsing especially from sheep grazing, destroyed tree regeneration. Land areas were also cleared of stones and vegetation by the Norse for farming and hay production. It was probably the same pattern as on Iceland, where the forest coverage at the Landnám (Settlement) was around 20% but was reduced to below 1%. Pollen diagrams indicate the presence of birch woodlands in south Greenland before AD 1000, when Norse settlement began.

How to guarantee the Greenland Tree forest will remain?

The forest we plant will persist long after our lives come to an end. We secure the plantations for the indefinite future by working with Greenland communities and authorities to create plantations that have protection status through long term (century) area allotment leases. Besides, there is so much space in Greenland, and trees are such a special sight in the country, that there is no imaginable need for these trees to be removed by humans – ever. Better yet, the forest area will increase once the trees propagate as they have begun to do from trees planted in Greenland 50 years ago.

Trees absorb more sunlight than bare grass and shrubs. How strong is the warming through this “albedo effect”?

When planting trees in seasonally snow-covered areas, the radiative forcing from albedo reduction by trees overcompensates the cooling forcing from carbon storage (Bala et al 2007Pitman et al 2009Pongratz et al 2009McGrath et al 2015). When snow-covered, forest area in general has ~0.3 lower albedo than non-forest area (Bonan, 2008 (DOI: 10.1126/science.1155121)). Despite evaporational cooling, the overall biophysical effect (evapotranspiration + albedo) of boreal forests (generally North of 45°N) is warming (Li et al., 2015 (DOI: 10.1038/ncomms7603)), especially in wintertime. However:

  • Wintertime solar irradiance is low.
  • For snow-free soil in summer, the albedo difference between background treeless tundra is low, especially for Siberian Larch. Since we are planting in areas where native willow and birch thrive, we estimate that our trees darken the surface by 10%. Thus, the darkening effect from our plantations is not offsetting the carbon benefit.

Isn’t it so that increased carbon dioxide levels cause plants to retain water that otherwise would have evaporated from their leaves, entered the atmosphere and helped cool the planet?

Yes, but atmospheric moisture content globally and in the Arctic has been increasing in past decades. South Greenland has been receiving more moisture, anyway.

What other counter-balancing impacts are there to planting trees in Greenland?

No environmental intervention is without issues. Yet, the positive effect of carbon capture, youth engagement, and symbolism of giving to nature and not only taking, means that Greenland Trees’ work is net-positive.

How do we engage the local community?

In planting the trees and maintaining the plots, we receive excellent support from the local community. Greenland youth assisted tree planting efforts in the past, sponsored by the south Greenland municipality and getting some financing from supermarket chain Brugseni. Having a Greenland resident in our team is a great way to engage and create enthusiasm among the people who live in the region.

South Greenland tree planting in 2015

I’ve offset. Can I now keep on flying and using hydrocarbon fuels a lot?

We all should aim to decrease our CO2 emissions in the first place. However, our plantations reduce the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere.

It would take more than the available arable land to reverse the hundreds of gigatons of CO2 already in the atmosphere. So, what we offer is a way to reduce CO2 impacts while engaging in various other benefits (youth education, sustainable forestry).