Where do we plant trees?

We plant trees existing plantations, such as in the Arboretum Groenlandicum in Narsarsuaq, south Greenland. We have also planted in between the remains of a heavily degraded former military base in Narsarsuaq, and in urban settings in several towns in south Greenland. This often sunny region is 250 km further south than Iceland where trees also thrive today!

Can trees live in Greenland?

While Greenland may be thought to lack trees, today the island is host to a growing population of shrubs (birch, alder, rowan (mountain-ash) and willow) and trees planted by people since the 1890s. Climate conditions have been warming the past 150 years and increased rainfall has made southern Greenland a favorable site for tree growth today. Since 1953, people have added an estimated 300.000 trees across southern Greenland.

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

It is true that trees grow more slowly in Greenland than in the tropics, meaning that we have to plant more to have a similar impact. But the idea of trees growing in a cold but rapidly warming place like Greenland sends a powerful message across the globe.

The fact is that we already work in Greenland each year, conducting climate research on the ice sheet. So Greenland Trees’ carbon footprint is relatively small compared to a situation in which we’d first have to fly to the tropics.

Besides, there are more benefits in terms of community engagement, education, biodiversity, forest research, landscape restoration – see our mission statement.

And finally, there is the benefit of permanence. There is much space in Greenland, few people, and low odds of wild fires. Chances are that Greenland Trees will be around for a long, long time.

How much CO2 does the new forests remove?

We calculate a carbon uptake per Greenland Tree hectare over 50 years is 111 tons in the above ground tree mass. The amount of carbon storage in the soil is estimated to be 1/4 as much, i.e. 28 tons for a combined total of 139 tons per hectare over 50 years. As the time increases beyond 50 years, the carbon storage will increase.

Which trees do we plant?

We plant Larch trees (Larix Sibirica) and other technically not-exotic species. Roughly 100,000 Larix already exist in the region.

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

We plant in fenced, protected, and isolated areas. Today, there is no evidence of spreading of trees from the ~1 hectare 1953 Qanasiassat plantation near Narsarsuaq. Tree growth is relatively slow, so introducing trees presents no immediate out-of-control problem. This is not rabbits in Australia.

On the point of avoiding giving free rides to unwanted life forms from the Icelandic nurseries where we used to source seedlings, Greenland Trees has established a greenhouse in Narsaq, south Greenland, rendering tree import from elsewhere unnecessary.

Are the sites permanent?

Some sites have permanence guarantees. For instance the Arboretum, inaugurated 2 August, 2004, has municipal protection status. Other sites are expected to gain similar status in the coming years, and in any case run very little risk of being impacted by humans or wildfires.

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

Pollen diagrams indicate the presence of birch woodlands in south Greenland before AD 1000, when Norse settlement began. The saga of the Greenlanders mentions ‘felling trees’ in North America, not Greenland. Iceland is know to have been deforested after the arrival of humans. Forest coverage at the Landnám Settlement, Iceland, was around 20% and then reduced to below 1%. Any Greenland woodlands and shrubs trees were thus undoubtedly harvested to some degree. Then, introduced sheep grazing certainly destroyed tree regeneration as it does today in non-fenced areas. Land areas were also cleared of stones and shrubs by the Norse for farming and grass silage production.

On disruption, planting trees is a counter-measure for Anthropogenic climate change, itself very disruptive. Widespread sheep farming is highly disruptive, yet is designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site defined by Norse and Inuit farming.

How to guarantee the Greenland Trees forests 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 (slowly) from trees planted in Greenland 50 years ago.

What is the cost per tree?

Based on the 2019 campaign, we have worked out a ‘hard’ cost per tree that includes all logistical overhead and actually plants two trees given our (conservative) assumed 50% survival rate. That cost is €4,54 per ‘tree’. Again, here a tree is actually two seedlings planted.

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 indeed partially compensates the cooling forcing from carbon storage (Bala et al 2007, Pitman et al 2009, Pongratz et al 2009, McGrath et al 2015). When snow-covered, forest area in general has ~0.3 lower albedo than non-forest area (Bonan, 2008). Despite evaporational cooling, the overall biophysical effect (evapotranspiration + albedo reduction) of boreal forests (generally North of 45°N) is net warming (Li et al. 2015), especially in wintertime. Although we plant in regions where winter snow accumulation is low, meaning that the snow cover melts early in spring, limiting the albedo effect of our trees, it is a topic that we are investigating in an effort to learn more about the impact of trees in Greenland.

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 you 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. This climate awareness message features at the top of our list. However, our plantations also 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).