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Author Topic: Arctic Thermal Oases and agriculture?  (Read 532 times)


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Arctic Thermal Oases and agriculture?
« on: July 02, 2017, 05:03:19 AM »
Recently I've been fascinated by the discovery that there are apparently so-called "thermal oases" in the high Canadian arctic.  There seem to be at least 3 of them:  Ellesmere Island around Lake Hazen, the area of Ellesmere Island around and Tanquary Fiord, and the east section of Axel Heiberg Island. 

Due to a combination of foehn winds, topographic shelter from the arctic ocean and nearby glaciers, and of course high summer insolation, these areas apparently routinely have up to 75 frost free days each summer.  You can verify for yourself on worldview that these areas often lose their snowcover by mid-June and remain without snow until the beginning of September.  In 2012 these areas even lost their snowcover by the first week of June.  Apparently, common summer temperatures are anywhere from 5 Celsius to as high as 20 Celsius. 

Of course, these areas still get bone-chilling cold in the winter.  But I can't help but wonder whether we might see the effects of climate change pop up in these areas sooner than some other areas further south. 

In fact, there are fossilized trees in these parts from the Eocene, especially on Axel Heiberg Island.  Surely we will not see the return of forests to these parts anytime soon.  But might we see more modest changes sooner than expected in these parts? 

On a related note:  I wonder if summer agriculture might ever become possible up there within our lifetimes.  I wonder if it might even be possible now, with the right setup.  Now, I'm sure it will not be economically efficient to do...but I wonder...could it be done?  The space colonist in me is curious.  What I mean is, even though these parts of the Earth aren't a different planet, they might as well be from the way they look in most pictures I've seen.  When you look at pictures of these places in the summer, they have a very "Martian" feel to them:  gentle plateaus all brown and desolate-looking despite the warm-looking sunlight falling upon them. 

And for some reason the idea of colonizing these parts and growing all the food and fuel you'd need for survival and heating appeals to me.  And yes, I know that the natives hunt seals, musk ox, etc. and survive just fine without any fancy agriculture...but still, I wonder.  What if you didn't want to reduce any of those herds?  What if you were vegetarian and wanted to live really self-sufficiently?  Could it be done? 

At first glance, it would appear that the length of the frost-free growing season and the summer temperatures are not the main issue.  There are many crops that need only 45-75 frost free days to grow and which grow just fine at any temperature above 5 Celsius:  wheat, lettuce, radishes, peas, broccoli, spinach, carrots, celery, etc. 

My guesses for what would most hold back agriculture up in these parts would be:
1.  High winds.  You would need either just the right topography, or a man-made windbreak, or an indoor greenhouse to protect crops from the constant high winds that will wear down anything but the shortest grass or arctic willow. 
2.  Permafrost.  You would need to either have raised beds set in special containers, raised off the ground on pylons to keep the soil from the icy touch of the earth, or you'd need a greenhouse. 
3.  Bad soil quality.  Even if you did get enough soil thawed out in the June sun, the "soil" up there is crap.  But...speaking of crap, might it be possible to gradually "Mark Watney" your way to a stockpile of better soil, if you know what I mean
4.  Lack of precipitation.  You would have to hand-irrigate all of your crops.  So, you would need to settle near some fresh water source that thaws by mid-June.  But I imagine it would not be enough to just collect the barely-thawed water as-is.  It would still be ice-cold, and I imagine quite a shock to the root system of any crop.  Perhaps the key would be to set any collected water aside for a week in some black-painted troughs to warm up to ambient temperature. 

So, basically, you'd need a greenhouse.  And it would have to be relatively big.  First, you'd only get one harvest for the whole year (although I wonder how much more vigorously some crops would grow in the 24-hour sunlight...)  Second, if you really wanted to live self-sufficiently and not rely on imported gas for heating, you'd need to have enough chaff at the end of the harvest to burn in your little bedroom to stay warm during the entire winter.  That would be the real challenge. 

Bruce Steele

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Re: Arctic Thermal Oases and agriculture?
« Reply #1 on: July 02, 2017, 06:25:31 AM »
Comradez, I don't know if you have seen this before but this farmer in Bethel Alaska has some beautiful produce. I was in Bethel once, not someplace you'd expect to see a vegetable farmer. The advantage is having a good local market for your production. Fresh vegetables are flown in this far north. The soil on the Meyers farm is obviously spectacular and I doubt there is much trouble with bugs , slugs or your usual completion. There are probably easier places to start farming than Ellesmere and still be a pioneer.


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Re: Arctic Thermal Oases and agriculture?
« Reply #2 on: July 02, 2017, 12:25:11 PM »
Great post. Those thermal oases look promising. Whatever the costs and drawbacks, it's going to be a helluva lot easier than farming on Mars!

There seems to be a lot happening already. For example, this project in Nunavut uses a geodesic greenhouse and hydroponics to produce affordable fresh food for the local community, which suffers severe food insecurity. It's just won a $250,000 prize from the the Google Impact Challenge.

Meanwhile, a 2014 article in Modern Farmer looks at farming in Nunavut, Iqaluit (and barley much further south in Alaska).
And there seem to be a lot more initiatives...


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Re: Arctic Thermal Oases and agriculture?
« Reply #3 on: July 03, 2017, 07:59:20 PM »
Perhaps we should be funding our kids to go to agricultural college and then start farming up North? May be one of the safest places to be if the SHTF around mid-century.