Agricultural Opportunities are Likely to Expand
Arctic agriculture is a relatively small enterprise in global terms, though some nations, such as Iceland, produce more than enough meat and dairy products to sustain their populations. Agriculture in the north consists mostly of cool-season forage crops; cool-season vegetables; small grains; raising cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and poultry; and herding reindeer. While agriculture is limited by climate in the Arctic, especially in the cooler parts, it is also limited by the lack of infrastructure, small population base, remoteness from markets, and land ownership issues. Climatic limitations include short growing seasons (not enough time for crops to mature or to produce high yields of harvestable crops), lack of heat energy (days not warm enough during the growing season), long cold winters that can limit survival of many perennial crops, and moisture stress in some areas.
Climate change is projected to advance the potential for commercial crop production northward throughout this century, with some crops now suitable only for the warmer parts of the boreal region becoming suitable as far north as the Arctic Circle. Average annual yield potential is likely to increase as the climate becomes suitable for higher yielding varieties and the probability of low temperatures limiting growth is reduced. However, in warmer areas, increased warmth during the growing season may cause slight decreases in yields since higher temperatures speed development, reducing time to accumulate dry matter. Longer and warmer growing seasons are expected to increase the potential number of harvests and hence seasonal yields for perennial forage crops.
Uncertainty about winter conditions make forecasts about survival potential for crops difficult. Warmer winters could actually decrease survival of some perennial crops if winter thaws followed by cold weather become more frequent. This would be especially true in areas with little snowfall. However, longer growing seasons, especially in autumn, should result in a northward extension of conditions suitable for producing crops such as alfalfa and barley.
Water deficits are likely to increase over the next century in most of the boreal region because increases in warm-season precipitation are unlikely to keep up with increased evaporation due to higher temperatures. Unless irrigation is used, water stress is likely to negatively affect crop yields and water limitation is likely to become more important than temperature limitations for many crops in much of the region. Areas that are unlikely to experience water deficits include parts of eastern Canada, western Scandinavia, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands, which all experience fairly maritime climates.
Insects, diseases, and weeds are likely to increase throughout the Arctic with climate warming, although these problems are unlikely to offset potential yield increases or potential for new crops in most cases. However, severe outbreaks could indeed have that effect. For example, studies suggest that climate warming in Finland will increase the incidence of potato blight to the point that it will significantly decrease potato yield in that country.
Lack of infrastructure, small population (limited local markets), and long distance to large markets are likely to continue to be major factors limiting agricultural development in most of the Arctic during this century.