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Can agricultural soil in Greenland be improved?

Researchers from the universities in Aarhus, Aalborg and Copenhagen are investigating if glacial flour can be used to optimise agricultural land in South Greenland.

[Translate to English:] Gletsjere knuser sten til fine partikler. Den resulterende gletsjermel kan muligvis bruges til at optimere dyrkningsjorden i Grønland. Foto: Janne Hansen

Global warming is creating an opportunity to cultivate more land in the Arctic regions. Researchers from Aarhus University have already been on the spot and conducted preliminary field studies in the area around Igaliku in South Greenland – and now a new research project has been launched that aims to improve the agricultural soil in that region.   

Igaliku is an area in which farming already takes place but the question is if there is potential for cultivating even more of the land. According to the researchers from Aarhus University, there are challenges, but also possibilities. 

- Our preliminary field investigations in the Igaliku area have revealed certain obstacles to creating healthy and resilient agricultural soil, says Professor Lis Wollesen de Jonge from the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University. She is the leader of the new project NewLand, which is investigating the potential for creating new, good cultivated land with the aid of glacial flour. 

Soil quality is a challenge

There are some challenges. One of the two major obstacles standing in the way of creating healthy and resilient agricultural soil in the area is that in many places the existing soil is water repellent and has a low level of plant-available water. If the crops cannot access water, they cannot thrive.   

The other major obstacle is that the soil has a poor structure because it is not good at creating complexes of organic carbon due to the soil’s very low content of fine particles, i.e. clay and silt.

The researchers’ preliminary investigations have shown that the soil in parts of South Greenland is typically sandy soil. It has a high content of organic material, although this has not resulted in a well-developed soil structure. There are several likely reasons for this. 

- It can partly be due to the low level of fine soil particles, partly the effect of the low temperature on biological activity, and partly because the high content of organic material can make the soil more water-repellent under certain drought conditions, explains Lis Wollesen de Jonge, adding that the soil cover in many places is quite thin. 

Glacial flour for soil improvement

The solution could be to add fine particles to the soil. This is where glacial flour enters the scene. Glacial flour is formed when glaciers crush underlying rocks and stones to very fine particles. This material is washed out from under the glacier and deposited. 

Glacial flour can originate from either terrestrial deposits from a time when the sea level was much higher, or marine deposits in fjords near the outlets of glacial rivers.   

- Some of the world’s most fertile soils have a high content of silt. The grain size of glacial flour may thus result in much higher fertility and plant water availability if it is added to the coarse soils in Greenland, says Lis Wollesen de Jonge. 

Glacial flour contains a wide array of minerals and trace elements and can thus contribute to raising soil pH, improving soil structure, promoting microbiological activity, and preventing soil depletion.   Glacial flour is available near the cultivated land in South Greenland. 

The downside is that glacial flour from the fjords contains sea salt, which does not sit well with crops and soil structure. This means that this form of glacial flour must be desalinated before it is used for soil improvement. 

Soils to mapped and characterised

In the first part of the project, the researchers will map and characterise potential areas for cultivating the soil and mining glacial flour close to the farmed fields. Thereafter, the researchers will investigate the effect of various combinations of soil types and addition of glacial flour on characteristics such as water retention, water repellency, availability of water and nutrients to plants, and soil structure in laboratory and field studies.  

The researchers will also investigate the effect of adding glacial flour to the soil on crop yield and quality in potatoes and clover-grass mixtures, and on the soil’s ability to bind organic material. Carbon storage in the soil can have a beneficial effect on the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and thereby its effect on the climate. The researchers will therefore also investigate to what extent soil with added glacial flour can sequester CO2

Possible benefits for crops, climate and cultural heritage

A local food production in South Greenland can support the Greenlandic cultural heritage, settlements, and employment, and contribute to self-sufficiency with quality products.   

- At the present, only about 1000 ha are cultivated in South Greenland. The productivity and carbon sequestration of this soil can be improved with glacial flour Sustainable optimisation of the food production is an obvious alternative to more polluting industries when the goal is to protect the environment and nature, says Lis Wollesen de Jonge.  

Facts about NewLand

  • Funding: The project has received 5.9 mill. DKK from the Independent Research Fund Denmark | Technology and Production.
  • Total budget: 7.3 mill. DKK.
  • Partners: Aarhus University (project leadership), University of Copenhagen and Aalborg University
  • Duration: Four years (1 July 2018 to 30 June 2022)

You can also read ” There is potential for agriculture in Greenland”.

For more information please contact: Professor Lis Wollesen de Jonge, email: lis.w.de.jonge@agro.au.dk, telephone: +45 8715 7737, mobile: +45 2494 0550