What Is Up With Greenland?

I have written several articles on postings related to politics. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on these political events.

Greenland, the world’s largest island, lying in the North Atlantic Ocean. Greenland is noted for its vast tundra and immense glaciers. Although Greenland remains a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, the island’s home-rule government is responsible for most domestic affairs. The Greenlandic people are primarily Inuit (Eskimo). The capital of Greenland is Nuuk (Godthåb).

Land

More than three times the size of the U.S. state of Texas, Greenland extends about 1,660 miles (2,670 km) from north to south and more than 650 miles (1,050 km) from east to west at its widest point. Two-thirds of the island lies within the Arctic Circle, and the island’s northern extremity extends to within less than 500 miles (800 km) of the North Pole. Greenland is separated from Canada’s Ellesmere Island to the north by only 16 miles (26 km). The nearest European country is Iceland, lying about 200 miles (320 km) across the Denmark Strait to the southeast. Greenland’s deeply indented coastline is 24,430 miles (39,330 km) long, a distance roughly equivalent to Earth’s circumference at the Equator.

A submarine ridge no deeper than 600 feet (180 metres) connects the island physically with North America. Structurally, Greenland is an extension of the Canadian Shield, the rough plateau of the Canadian north that is made up of hard Precambrian rocks. Greenland’s major physical feature is its massive ice sheet, which is second only to Antarctica’s in size. The Greenland Ice Sheet has an average thickness of 5,000 feet (1,500 metres), reaches a maximum thickness of about 10,000 feet (3,000 metres), and covers more than 700,000 square miles (1,800,000 square km)—over four-fifths of Greenland’s total land area. Layers of snow falling on its barren, windswept surface become compressed into ice layers, which constantly move outward to the peripheral glaciers; the Jakobshavn Glacier, often moving 100 feet (30 metres) a day, is among the world’s fastest glaciers. The remaining ice-free land area occupies the country’s coastal areas and consists largely of highlands; mountain chains parallel the island’s east and west coasts, rising to 12,139 feet (3,700 metres) at Gunnbjørn Mountain in the southeast. These highlands notwithstanding, most parts of the rock floor underlying the Greenland Ice Sheet are in fact at or slightly beneath current sea levels.

Long, deep fjords reach far into both the east and west coasts of Greenland in complex systems, offering magnificent, if desolate, scenery. Along many parts of the coast, the ice sheet fronts directly on the sea, with large chunks breaking off the glaciers and sliding into the water as icebergs.

The climate of Greenland is Arctic, modified only by the slight influence of the Gulf Stream in the southwest. Rapid weather changes, from sunshine to impenetrable blizzards, are common and result from the eastward progression of low-pressure air masses over a permanent layer of cold air above the island’s icy interior. Average winter (January) temperatures range from the low 20s F (about −7 °C) in the south to approximately −30 °F (about −34 °C) in the north. Summer temperatures along the southwestern coast average in the mid-40s F (about 7 °C) during July, while the average in the far north is closer to 40 °F (about 4 °C). Greenland experiences about two months of midnight sun during the summer. Average annual precipitation decreases from more than 75 inches (1,900 mm) in the south to about 2 inches (50 mm) in the north. Large areas of the island can be classified as Arctic deserts because of their limited precipitation.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, scientists posited that global warming was profoundly affecting not only Greenland’s climate but also its physical geography. A number of scientists noted that Greenland’s vast ice sheet was shrinking at a highly increased rate. In 2012, for example, satellites revealed that at midyear 97 percent of the ice sheet showed some signs of melting, whereas in most years the melt affected only about half of the ice sheet. Researchers were uncertain, however, if the abrupt ice loss represented a long-term trend, but in 2016, as global warming pushed the planet toward the hottest January, February, March, April, and May in its history (according to NASA), Greenland also experienced a series of record early spikes in the melting of its ice sheets.

The country’s plant life is characterized mainly as tundra vegetation and consists of such plants as sedge and cotton grass. Plantlike lichens also are common. The limited ice-free areas are almost totally devoid of trees, although some dwarfed birch, willow, and alder scrub do manage to survive in sheltered valleys in the south. Several species of land mammals—including polar bears, musk oxenreindeer, Arctic foxes, snow hares, ermines, and lemmings—can be found on the island. Seals and whales are found in the surrounding waters and were formerly the chief source of nourishment for the Greenlanders. Cod, salmon, flounder, and halibut are important saltwater fish, and the island’s rivers contain salmon and Arctic char.

People of Greenland

Nearly nine-tenths of Greenlanders are principally of Inuit, or Eskimo, extraction. They are very strongly admixed with early European immigrant strains. More than one-tenth of the people are Danish, most of them born in Denmark.

The official languages of the island are Greenlandic (also known as Kalaallisut, an Inuit language belonging to the Eskimo-Aleut language family) and Danish (a Scandinavian, or North Germanic, language); English is also spoken.

Evangelical Lutheranism is the official religion. It is followed by nearly two-thirds of the population; about one-third of Greenlanders follow other forms of Christianity. Traditional beliefs, including shamanism, are still practiced by a small minority. The population of Greenland is widely dispersed. The large majority of people live in one of the island’s 18 municipalities. The remainder live in villages. Because of emigration levels, Greenland’s population growth rate was about zero at the start of the 21st century. Life expectancy is comparable to the world average, with males typically living into their mid-60s and females generally living into their early 70s.

Economy

Greenland’s economy has long been based on fishing. Seal hunting, once the mainstay of the economy, declined drastically in the early 20th century and was supplanted by the fishing, canning, and freezing of cod, shrimp, and other marine life. The island’s dependence on the fish industry, which is susceptible to problems of overfishing and fluctuating prices, became a growing concern in the late 20th century. Greenland therefore attempted to diversify its economy, and much emphasis was placed on the tourist industry. Since the 1990s, revenue from tourism has grown significantly. The government, which receives substantial financial aid from Denmark, continues to play a leading role in the economy. Nearly half the labour force works in the public sector.

Agriculture is possible on about 1 percent of Greenland’s total area, in the southern ice-free regions. Hay and garden vegetables are the main crops grown. Commercial sheep farming began in the early 20th century. Reindeer also are raised for meat, and polar bears are sometimes caught for their meat and pelts. However, sea mammals—seals, walruses, and whales—are still the most important source of meat.

Deposits of cryolite, lead, zinc, silver, and coal were mined at various times in the 20th century, and the island’s first gold mine opened in 2004. Exploration has uncovered deposits of iron, uranium, copper, molybdenum, diamonds, and other minerals. Climatic and ecological considerations had long limited the exploitation of these resources; however, global warming has not only melted sea ice and made oil and natural gas exploration more accessible but also opened tracts of land for mineral exploitation. The manner in which increasingly interested foreign firms were allowed to undertake exploration and mining became a pivotal political issue in Greenland in the early 21st century.

Oil drilling in the Arctic waters around Greenland began in mid-2010. Licensing agreements were delayed, however, as environmental concerns grew in response to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that year. Scotland-based Cairn Energy began drilling in 2010 but has yet to discover commercially viable sources of oil or natural gas off Greenland. In the late 20th century the island opened its first hydroelectric power plant.

Besides supplying domestic needs, fish (mainly halibut) and crustaceans (mainly shrimp) constitute Greenland’s principal exports. Seal pelts are tanned and used domestically as well as exported, but, due to import bans on seal fur, the international price level is at a minimum. Greenland’s chief trading partner is Denmark, although it does conduct trade with other countries as well.

Roadways in Greenland are limited to short stretches within town limits. Although dogsleds and snowmobiles are used on ice-covered coastal areas and inland, shipping and air service are the principal means of transport. Greenland has a sophisticated digital telecommunications network, as well as a military communications network associated with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the North American radar defense system. The rates of cellular telephone and Internet use rose during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, though usage rates remained lower than those in nearby Canada and in the Nordic countries.

Government and society

In 1979 the Danish government granted home rule to Greenland. Under this agreement, Greenland remained part of the Danish realm, and each Greenlander was a Danish citizen, enjoying equal rights with all other Danes. Denmark retained control of the island’s constitutional affairs, foreign relations, and defense, while Greenland maintained jurisdiction over economic development, municipal regulations, taxes, education, the social welfare system, cultural affairs, and the state church. Mineral resources were managed jointly by Denmark and Greenland. It was perhaps this last point that inspired Greenlanders to vote overwhelmingly in 2008 to increase their autonomy from Denmark, and Greenland is now officially designated a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark. Under the expanded home rule agreement, which took effect on June 21, 2009, Greenland retained a greater percentage of oil and mineral revenue. It also managed virtually all domestic affairs, including criminal justice, and Greenlandic supplanted Danish as the official language of government. Denmark, in collaboration with Greenlandic political leaders, continued to manage the island’s foreign relations and defense.

The centre of power in Greenland is the Landsting, a parliament elected to four-year terms by all adults age 18 and older. A number of parties have been represented in the Landsting. Among them are Siumut, a social democratic party that favours self-determination while maintaining close relations with Denmark; the Demokratiit party, created by a breakaway faction of Siumut; Atassut, a more conservative party that has supported Greenland’s historical relations with Denmark; and Inuit Ataqatigiit, which calls for full independence from Denmark. The Landsting elects the prime minister as well as the other members of the Landsstyre, a council that assumes the island’s executive responsibilities. The prime minister is typically the leader of the majority party in the parliament. Greenland’s voters also elect two representatives to the Danish parliament (Folketing). An official known as the high commissioner represents the Danish government in Greenland.

Using financial grants from Denmark, Greenland’s government provides its citizens with a wide range of welfare services. Free health care is available to the island’s people as well. These social services have greatly improved Greenlanders’ health and living conditions.

Nine years of education are free and compulsory for Greenlandic children. The island’s school system historically had an insufficient number of teachers who were native Greenlandic speakers, and consequently it hired many Danish-speaking and Danish-educated teachers. By the end of the 20th century, however, the number of native Greenlandic-speaking teachers was increasing. Greenlandic is the principal language of instruction in the schools, but Danish also continues to be taught. Greenland offers a large selection of vocational and teacher-training programs, and there is a small university, Ilisimatusarfik (founded as the Inuit Institute in 1983). Nevertheless, many students attend university outside Greenland, especially in Denmark.

Cultural life

Despite the Western influence exerted by the Danish presence in Greenland and, more recently, by increased access to international mass media, the practice of traditional Inuit (Eskimo) cultural activities is still of importance. Folk arts such as soapstone carving and drum dancing remain popular, as do kayak building and sailing. The island features a number of museums, including the Greenland National Museum and Archives in Nuuk. Katuaq Cultural Centre, also in Nuuk, hosts concerts, art exhibits, and other cultural events. Numerous sports are played in Greenland: football (soccer) is very popular, as are skiing, badminton, handball, table tennistae kwon do, and volleyball. Kalaallit Nunaata Radio (KNR), the island’s broadcasting company, offers radio and television programs in Greenlandic and Danish.

History of Greenland

The Inuit (Eskimo) are believed to have crossed to northwest Greenland from North America, using the islands of the Canadian Arctic as stepping stones, in a series of migrations that stretched from at least 2500 BCE to the early 2nd millennium CE. Each wave of migration represented different Inuit cultures. Several distinct cultures are known, including those classified as Independence I (c. 2500–1800 BCE), Saqqaq (c. 2300–900 BCE), Independence II (c. 1200–700 BCE), Dorset I (c. 600 BCE–100 CE), and Dorset II (c. 700–1200). The most recent arrival was the Thule culture (c. 1100), from which the Inugsuk culture developed during the 12th and 13th centuries.

In 982 the Norwegian Erik the Red, who had been banished from Iceland for manslaughter, settled on the island today known as Greenland. Returning to Iceland about 985, he described the merits of the newly discovered land, which he called Greenland, and in 986 he organized an expedition to the island that resulted in the development of two main settlements: the East Settlement, near present-day Qaqortoq (Julianehåb), and the West Settlement, near present-day Nuuk (Godthåb). These settlements may have reached a population of 3,000–6,000 on about 280 farms, suggesting that temperatures at that time may have been as warm or warmer than they are today. Christianity arrived in the 11th century by way of Erik’s son Leif Eriksson, who had just returned from the recently Christianized Norway. A bishop’s seat was established in Greenland in 1126.

Beginning sometime in the 13th century, the Norse (Scandinavian) settlers began to interact with the expanding Inuit Thule culture that had appeared in northern Greenland about 1100. But in the 14th century the Norse settlements declined, perhaps as a result of a cooling in Greenland’s climate. In the 15th century they ceased to be inhabited.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Dutch and English whalers frequently traveled in the seas around Greenland, and occasionally they interacted with the local population. However, no further attempt at colonization was made until 1721, when Hans Egede, with the permission of the united kingdom of DenmarkNorway, founded a trading company and a Lutheran mission near present-day Nuuk, thus marking the real beginning of Greenland’s colonial era. In 1776 the Danish government assumed a full monopoly of trade with Greenland, and the Greenland coast was closed to foreign access; it was not reopened until 1950. During this period Denmark tried gradually to acclimatize the Greenlanders to the outside world without exposing them to the danger of economic exploitation.

Greenland fell under the protection of the United States during the German occupation of Denmark in World War II and was returned to Denmark in 1945. Following the war, Denmark responded to Greenlanders’ complaints over its administration of the island. The monopoly of the Royal Greenland Trading Company was abolished in 1951, and, after Greenland became an integral part of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1953, reforms were undertaken to improve the local economy, transportation systems, and the educational system. Denmark granted home rule to the island on May 1, 1979.

At the start of the 21st century, there was growing support in Greenland for greater control of its foreign affairs. This arose partly in response to a 2004 agreement allowing the United States to upgrade its missile defense system at Thule Air Base. Inuit who had been forcibly removed from the area surrounding the base in the 1950s sued for the right to return, airing their grievances at the European Court of Human Rights. Some Greenlanders were wary of continued U.S. involvement because the United States had stored nuclear bombs on the island during the Cold War without Greenland’s knowledge, despite a Danish ban on such weapons; additionally, in 1968 a U.S. military aircraft carrying four hydrogen bombs had crashed near Thule.

There were calls for an independent Greenland, and parties campaigning for greater autonomy scored electoral victories in the first decade of the 21st century. In November 2008 more than 75 percent of Greenlanders who voted approved a nonbinding referendum calling for greater autonomy. The proposal, which was formulated by legislators in both Greenland and Denmark, had the tacit approval of the Danish government even before the referendum was held. It would increase the responsibilities of Greenland’s government in foreign affairs, immigration, and justice, among other areas, while also granting it the rights to the potentially lucrative hydrocarbon and mineral resources that have become increasingly accessible as a result of the island’s melting ice cap. It was widely believed that this potential revenue would free Greenland from its economic dependence on Denmark, which many saw as the final stumbling block to complete independence. Snap elections held in June 2009 saw Siumut removed from power for the first time since home rule was granted in 1979. The opposition Inuit Ataqatigiit captured more than 40 percent of the vote, and party leader Kuupik Kleist worked quickly to form a coalition government prior to the expansion of home rule later that month.

In elections in 2013 Siumut returned to power at the head of a coalition presided over by Greenland’s first female prime minister, Aleqa Hammond, whose government placed a moratorium on granting licences for oil exploration and began requiring royalty payments from foreign concerns before they began mining. (Kleist’s government had planned to allow foreign firms to defer payments until some startup costs could be recouped.) Hammond’s government also announced its willingness to allow the mining of some radioactive minerals, notably uranium, which had previously been prohibited.

In October 2014, with her government having narrowly escaped a vote of no confidence, Hammond temporarily stepped down amid accusations of having misused government funds and was replaced by Kim Kielsen. When the parliamentary opposition engineered a snap election at the end of November, Kielsen led Siumut to the polls, where it captured about 34 percent of the vote, compared with about 33 percent for the chief opposition party, Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA). Both parties were awarded 11 of the 31 legislative seats, but Kielsen arranged a new governing coalition with two smaller partners, the Demokratiit party (four seats) and the Atassut Party (two seats).

Why Buy Greenland?

News that President Donald Trump is interested in buying Greenland prompted mockery on Thursday when it was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

But it wouldn’t be the first time a President has sought to buy Arctic land from another country: In 1867, President Andrew Johnson bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.

It wouldn’t even be the first time the U.S. has tried to bag Greenland. Back in 1946, officials offered Denmark $100 million in gold bars for the world’s largest island, a Danish autonomous territory. U.S. officials at the time thought it was a “military necessity.”

That 1946 offer was supposed to be a secret. (It was only widely revealed in 1991, when declassified documents were discovered by a Danish newspaper.) But in 1947, TIME caught a whiff of similar plans.

“This week, as U.S. strategists studied the azimuthal map of the Arctic,” TIME’s Jan. 27, 1947 issue reads, “Washington military men thought this might be as good a time as any to buy Greenland, if they could.”

The article is accompanied by a map titled “Arctic Circles,” which shows concentric circles emanating from both Alaska and Greenland––emphasizing Greenland’s proximity to European capitals including Moscow.

There was no word of the classified $100 million offer made by U.S. officials a year earlier, but TIME suggested that “military men” had considered writing off Denmark’s $70 million debt in return for Greenland.

The news came at a time of insecure postwar peace. The U.S. had emerged from the Second World War victorious, but the Cold War was already brewing. Tensions with the Soviet Union were out in the open, including over U.S. presence in the Arctic. “So long as U.S. servicemen—even radio beacon operators and weathermen—remain at Greenland outposts, the U.S. is exposed to verbal sniping from Moscow for ‘keeping troops on foreign soil,’” TIME noted.

Buying Greenland, the piece went on, would be the best way to solve that problem. It would also win the U.S. a substantial military advantage:

Greenland’s 800,000 square miles make it the world’s largest island and stationary aircraft carrier. It would be as valuable as Alaska during the next few years, before bombers with a 10,000-mile range are in general use. It would be invaluable, in either conventional or push-button war, as an advance radar outpost. It would be a forward position for future rocket-launching sites. In peace or war it is the weather factory for northwest Europe, whose storms must be recorded as near the source as possible.

The strategic concerns mentioned in the 1947 TIME article might not be too distant from those on Trump’s mind. But there is one important exception: today, as sea ice recedes thanks to global warming, the once-icebound Arctic is rapidly emerging as a potential new sea route for trade vessels and warships.

“Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade,” Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in May. “This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days. Arctic sea lanes could [become] the 21st century Suez and Panama Canals.”

Senior politicians in Denmark and Greenland have been quick to ridicule the idea. “If it is true that he has those thoughts, then it is definitive proof that he has gone crazy. I must say it as it is: The idea that Denmark should sell 50,000 citizens to the United States is completely insane,” said Søren Espersen, foreign affairs spokesperson for the Danish People’s Party, according to DR.

So putting aside the feasibility of buying the island—or even if Greenlanders would back the idea—what might the US President have his eyes on in Greenland?

Strategic location

The US has long considered Greenland to be a strategic location for military purposes. Less than 1,000 miles from the north pole, Thule Air Base on the island’s northwestern coast provides missile warning, space surveillance and space control US authorities.

NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft at the US-run Thule Air Base in Greenland.
NASA’s Operation IceBridge research aircraft at the US-run Thule Air Base in Greenland. GETTY IMAGES

The airspace is also of strategic importance both to the military and for commercial flights. Increased Russian activity in the airspace has caused concern back in Denmark.

Riches under the ice

This summer’s record-breaking European heatwaves caused concern for Greenland among scientists. Warmer air and warmer water is chipping away at the ice at alarming rates. Recently, NASA scientists flew over Greenland to drop probes to figure out what is going on, while researchers on the ground have recorded remarkable changes.

Yet Trump’s interest in Greenland is just the latest indication of the island’s increasing geopolitical importance. It is even drawing the eye of China.

Greenland’s strategic value is linked tightly to new North Atlantic shipping lanes opening up due to melting polar ice caps. The new lanes have dramatically decreased maritime trade travel times, which generally includes traveling through the Panama or Suez canals to circumnavigate the world. Greenland’s largest economic drivers are fishing and tourism, but the island has drawn rising interest due to its vast natural resources, including coal, zinc, copper, iron ore and rare minerals. There have been expeditions to assess the extent of the nation’s resources, but the true quantity is unknown.

China, which is embroiled in a trade battle with the U.S., previously showed interest in developing a “Polar Silk Road” of trade through the North Atlantic shipping lanes. China proposed building new airports and mining facilities on Greenland in 2018, but eventually withdrew its bid.

“If [China were to] have a significant investment in a country that is so strategically important for so many countries, they would have influence there,” said Michael Sfraga, director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center.

“If you invest a lot in a small island country, you could have a lot of sway there.”

Denmark has “publicly expressed concern about China’s interest in Greenland,” a Pentagon report warned earlier this year.

“Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks,” the report said.

Greenland is also in an advantageous location for the U.S. armed forces. The U.S. and Greenland have had an agreement since World War II to house American military assets on the island.

Thule Air Base, America’s northernmost Air Force base, has operated since 1943 in Greenland and has a ballistic missile early warning system and satellite tracking system.

Local politicians want to exploit these resources with an eye on becoming fully independent from Denmark. Given that Denmark still supports Greenland economically to the tune of half its annual budget, the potential value of these resources is clear.

And that’s exactly why Denmark isn’t going to entertain the idea of letting go of Greenland. That along with the fact that despite the economic reliance on Denmark, the population of 56,000 have a large degree of political autonomy. “Despite the errors that have been made in connection with Greenland over the years, I would dare to contend there has never been an indigenous people who have had independence on their own terms as the Greenlandic people have. I would be very nervous to risk that,” said Danish politician Martin Lidegaard to the Copenhagen Post.

Greenland isn’t in a rush to fight climate change because it’s good for the country’s economy

(Update 12/17/2021)

A few dozen kilometers northeast of Nuuk, Greenland’s capital and largest city, a remote power plant is thriving because of the extra water coming from the melt of ancient glaciers.

The Buksefjord hydroelectric station is the biggest of five built since 1993 in order to disencumber the country from imported oil. Outside the plant, some employees now grow turnips and potatoes on land once too cold for anything but reindeer and lichen, while close to the station, cod, usually only seen much further south, flourish in the pristine water.

As with the rest of the Arctic region, Greenland is warming twice as fast as the global average: Since the early 1950s, the temperature in Greenland has risen by 1.5°C, compared with approximately 0.7°C worldwide.

In large part, this is because of the “albedo effect.” Albedo is a coefficient measuring the ratio of reflected solar radiation to total incoming solar radiation. A high albedo means the surface reflects the majority of the radiation that hits it and absorbs the rest. A low albedo means the opposite. Snow-covered sea ice has a high albedo, reflecting up to 85% of sunlight.Greenland lost a bewildering one trillion tons of ice between 2011 and 2014.

In Greenland, as the area covered by ice and snow shrinks, the albedo is dropping and solar radiation that would have been reflected is now soaked up by open water instead, further warming it up. Heat from the warmer sea is released back into the air, raising atmospheric temperatures too. In turn, this melts more ice, in a loop that fuels itself. A recent study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters used satellite imagery to calculate that Greenland lost a bewildering one trillion tons of ice between 2011 and 2014. This year, melt season began so early that many scientists couldn’t believe the data they were looking at.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change, besides causing irreparable environmental damage, climate change will also harm economies in almost all parts of the world and worsen already challenging situations by prompting more frequent and more disastrous floods, droughts, and heat waves. Low-lying tropical states such as Tuvalu and the Maldives view Greenland’s 10,000-foot-thick ice sheet with dread: if it ever all melts, it would raise global sea level by about six meters.

Yet, paradoxically, no nation in the world will profit from climate change as much as the one at ground zero of it.

The winners and losers

Nearly 75% of Greenland is covered by the only permanent ice sheet outside of Antarctica, so it’s fairly obvious that warming temperatures would be a big deal there. “It’s no secret that climate change poses a challenge to the Greenlandic society,” says Mala Høy Kúko, the country’s minister for nature, energy, and environment.

Although it’s difficult to foresee the full impact of the great melt in the long run, some effects can already be seen. According to Kúko, the melting permafrost is endangering the construction and maintenance of some airports and other infrastructure. Greenland’s largest commercial airport, for example, is located in Kangerlussuaq, a zone of continuous permafrost melting in western Greenland.

The loss of ice is also hurting indigenous hunters whose livelihoods largely depend on the existence of permafrost, although, says Kúko, “no one has been forced—or is expected—to move away from his own settlement anytime soon.” Overall, the area of Arctic land covered by snow in early summer has shrunk by 25% since 1966. Several climate models predict that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summers within a century. Others think it will happen sooner. Either way, in recent years, the sea freezes in February and starts to thaw in April, instead of icing over in December and melting in June. At the peak of winter, the ice might be only a foot thick—not nearly enough to support sleds or snowmobiles, cutting into seal and narwhal hunting seasons.“In the 1980s, I could hunt by dogsled on Greenland’s west coast until June.”

“Not too long ago, the ice thickness wasn’t a concern at all,” said Thomas Løvstrøm, a 66-year-old Inuit from Uummannaq, in northwestern Greenland. “In the 1980s, I could hunt by dogsled on Greenland’s west coast until June.” Some hunters have tried to shoot seals from boats, but this turned out to be a poor substitute for the traditional method because it prevents hunters from stealthily approaching their prey. On a noisy boat, they can’t get as close as on a sled, and shooting from an increased distance dramatically reduces the odds of hitting the target.

This past March, Nuuk hosted the 2016 Arctic Winter Games, an international circumpolar event. The city’s residents were stunned when organizers had to generate artificial snow for the sporting events in a month that is usually generously snowy.

The Jakobshavn glacier—Greenland's fastest-moving glacier—is seen in a combination of NASA images taken July 31, 2015 (L) and August 16, 2015. The glacier shed a large chunk of ice sometime between August 14 and August 16.
The Jakobshavn glacier—Greenland’s fastest-moving glacier—is seen in a combination of NASA images taken July 31, 2015 (L) and August 16, 2015. The glacier shed a large chunk of ice sometime between August 14 and August 16.

But here’s the rub: the global thaw has the potential to bring Greenland’s tiny population a tremendous windfall.

In 2015, after three years of contraction, there was economic growth in Greenland partly because a range of new opportunities brought by climate changes. Although agriculture isn’t a major part of Greenland’s economy, higher temperatures in the southern region have made growing seasons longer than a decade ago, enabling expanded production of existing crops, like potatoes. Meanwhile, new crops like carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, strawberries, apples, and broccoli can now be grown as the frozen tundra retreats northwards due to an increasingly early Arctic spring, making for more areas suitable for agriculture.

While Greenland’s main export remains cold-water shrimp—locally known as the “pink gold”—in recent years rising temperatures are attracting new types of harvestable fish like the Atlantic Bluefin tuna and mackerel, species pretty much never sighted in the waters off Greenland until 2011.

In 2015, almost 80,000 tons of mackerel were caught; paired with prices that have been steadily rising since 2012, it made for good earnings for companies like Royal Greenland, owned by the government, and Polar Seafood, Greenland’s biggest private company. “Of course climate change is bad,” says Henrik Leth, chairman of Polar Seafood and leader of the Greenland Business Association. “But, alas, I can’t say it isn’t good overall for Greenland.”

Atlantic Bluefin tuna, which command huge prices on the open market, are being caught off the coast of Greenland for the first time in years.

Warmer temperatures are also helping the country bring back the Greenland cod, a pivotal species whose total disappearance in the early 1990s was caused by overfishing and a four degree Celsius drop in the water temperature—and which deeply affected the country’s economy. Now that the seas around Greenland are at the highest temperatures since 1960s, cod are making their way back home, and some Greenlanders are reaping the rewards. For example, Kim Hoegh-Dam, who runs the Qaqortoq-based firm Arctic Prime Production, spent $1 million on a small fleet of cod trawlers and three processing plants 10 years ago. “It was clear warming temperatures would have brought cod and other species up from the south,” he says. Arctic Prime now exports its marine products worldwide.

A new Klondike?

The opportunities brought by climate change may finally give Greenland full independence from Denmark, Greenland’s former colonial master. Although Greenland gained officially self-rule in 2009, Denmark still plays a key role in the island’s economy. The Scandinavian country upholds an annual block grant of 3.2 billion Danish kroner—roughly $580 million—that accounts for a quarter of the island’s gross domestic product. When Greenland achieves economic independence, the grant will subside, and so will Denmark’s influence on the North Atlantic island.Greenland’s economy is based almost entirely on the fishing industry, which accounts for 90% of its exports.

According to prime minister Kim Nielsen, the key will be diversification: Despite being the largest island in the world, Greenland has a population of just 56,000 and its economy is based almost entirely on the fishing industry, which accounts for 90% of its exports. Lingering dependence on exports of fish, however, makes the economy of the state sensitive to foreign developments and to Denmark’s largesse.

Over the last few years, the global thaw has made it clear that Greenland has on- and offshore mineral wealth that could change the game for the country’s economy. The island has resources ranging from iron, zinc, uranium, and rare-earth elements buried underground to hydrocarbon assets off its western coast and the potential for oil and gas fields in the northern and northeastern regions.

Melting ice has made all this more accessible by improving access to locations and facilitating prospecting operations, fuelling the hopes of developing a fully-fledged mining industry. “It will be cheaper for companies to get out minerals,” says Ole Geertz-Hansen, a senior scientist at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resource.

Extraction of raw materials offers the most realistic opportunity to expand Greenlandic business sector. That’s why the country is seeking a territorial opt-out from the Paris climate deal, agreed by nearly 200 countries in December 2015.“Our current economic situation leaves no option.”

“Our current economic situation leaves no option,” says Vittus Qujaukitsoq, the administration’s foreign minister.  Under the previous Kyoto climate agreement, Greenland had an emission quota of 650,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year—less than is emitted by a single coal-fired power station. To develop mining and oil would raise its emissions per capita to some of the highest levels in the world, but many of Greenland legislators think the country cannot refrain from fossil fuel exploitation. “Signing the deal will cost us hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Greenland’s deputy foreign minister, Kai Holst Andersen,” and we would never be independent.”

Still, there are major hindrances. For example, the dramatic fall in oil prices and dwindling mineral prices on world markets have put some plans on hold. But at least two small projects will start extracting minerals in 2016 and 2017. And officials say hydro plants powered by water drawn straight from the ice sheet could propel new iron ore mines and a proposed aluminum smelter capable of producing 340,000 metric tons of the metal annually.

In addition, the melting ice could help the government meet the target of increasing the share of hydroelectric power and strengthening the country’s position as a global leader in renewable energy. For instance, the government-owned energy company Nukissiorfiit is seeking to build a new hydro project to provide power to the towns of Aasiaat and Qasigiannguit in the west, says spokesman Peter Kruse. As of today, hydro-electricity plants supply two-thirds of Greenland’s energy and the government hopes to raise the figure to 90% by 2030.

A view of the entrance to the hydropower plant in Buksefjord, Greenland, June 2, 2016.
A hydropower plant in Buksefjord, Greenland.

Meanwhile, the receding ice cap is opening up the Northwest Passage a change that has the potential to completely reshape global shipping, since shorter trade routes through the Arctic could be a boon to export-driven nations like China. The fabled stretch first became ice-free in 2007, and soon entered into conversation as a potential seasonal alternative to the Suez and Panama Canals, since it would enable shippers to save remarkable amounts of time and avoid pirate-infested regions of the seas.

Sovereignty of the Northwest Passage remains a bone of contention between Canada, the US, and some European countries and a real strategy to tap it for commercial shipping has yet to be developed. But Greenland hopes to be able to act as a port of call in a not-too-distant redesigned shipping scenario.

The opening of Arctic passageways also possibly offers another avenue of economic growth for Greenland: tourism. There is already an increasing numbers of cruise lines now operating in Greenland’s waters during the peak summer season, providing travelers unparalleled views of unsullied arctic scenery. For instance, Crystal Cruises LLC, a top-rank brand in the luxury cruise industry, is now sending ships from Alaska to New York through the Northwest Passage, calling at Greenland.

What Does Greenlands Halt of Oil Production Plans Mean

(Update 12/17/2021)

Resources

forbes.com, “What’s So Great About Greenland? Why Trump Wants It And Why Denmark Won’t Sell,” By David Nikel; time.com, “President Trump Reportedly Wants to Buy Greenland. TIME Reported Similar Plans in 1947,” By Billy Perrigo; qz.com, “Greenland isn’t in a rush to fight climate change because it’s good for the country’s economy.” By Marcello Rossi; visigreenland.com, “10 FACTS ABOUT GREENLAND THAT YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW.” By Nellie Huang; polarjournal.ch, “What Does Greenlands Halt of Oil Production Plans Mean.” By Dr. Michael Wenger;

Addendum

10 FACTS ABOUT GREENLAND THAT YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW

(Update 12/17/2021)

1. World’s Largest Island

Let’s start with the basics. Greenland is actually the world’s biggest island – by area – that is not a continent. The total area of Greenland is 2.16 million square kilometres (836,330 square miles), including other offshore islands. Almost 80 percent of the land mass is covered by an ice cap. The ice-free area may be a minority, but it’s still around the size of Sweden. With a population of 56,480 (2017 estimate), it is one of the least densely populated countries in the world.

2. Greenland Really Was Green

Since most of Greenland is covered in ice, snow and glaciers, the Arctic nation is mostly white. So how did it get its name “Greenland” when it’s not really green? It actually got its name from Erik The Red, an Icelandic murderer who was exiled to the island. He called it “Greenland” in hopes that the name would attract settlers. But according to scientists, Greenland was actually quite green more than 2.5 million years ago. A new study reveals that ancient dirt was cryogenically frozen for millions of years underneath about 2 miles of ice.

3. Autonomous country

Greenland is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. Although Greenland is geographically a part of the North American continent, it has been politically and culturally associated with Europe for about a millennium. Since 1721, Denmark has held colonies in Greenland, but the country was made part of Denmark in 1953. In 1979 Denmark granted Home Rule to Greenland, and in 2009 expanded Self Rule was inaugurated, transferring yet more decision making power and more responsibilities to the Greenlandic government. Under the new structure, gradually Greenland can assume more and more responsibilities from Denmark, when it is ready for it.

4. 4,500 Years of History

According to historians, the first humans were thought to have arrived in Greenland around 2500 BC. The group of migrants apparently died out and were succeeded by several other groups who migrated from North America. At the beginning of the 10th century, Norsemen from Iceland settled the uninhabited southern part of Greenland, but they disappeared in the late 15th century. The Inuit migrated here from Asia in the 13th century and their bloodline survived to this day. Most Inuit Greenlanders are their direct descendants, and continue to practise some of the centuries-old traditions.

“Humans have inhabited Greenland for more than 4,500 years.”

5. Inuit Culture

Today, 88% of Greenland’s population are Inuit (predominantly Kalaallit) or mixed Danish and Inuit. The remaining 12% are of European descent, mainly Danish. Truth be told, Greenlanders actually don’t appreciate being called ‘eskimos’; the proper name for them is Inuit or Kalaallit, which actually means ‘Greenlander’ in the native Inuit language, Kalaallisut. The Inuit Greenlanders identify strongly with Inuits in other parts of the world, like Canada and Alaska, and they actually share some similarities in their languages as well.

6. A Multilingual Nation

The majority of the population in Greenland speaks both Greenlandic (mainly Kalaallisut) and Danish. The two languages have been used in public affairs since the establishment of home rule in 1979. Today, the young generation learn both languages, as well as English, in school. The Greenlandic language is an interesting language with a long history, and it’s closely related to the Inuit languages in Canada, such as Inuktitut. “Kayak” and “igloo” are Greenlandic words that have been adopted directly by other languages.

7. No Roads

Despite having a land size of 2.16 million square kilometres, there are no roads or railway system that connect settlements to one another. There are roads within the towns, but they end at the outskirts. All travel between towns is done by plane, boat, helicopter, snowmobile or dogsled. Boats are by far the most popular mode of transportation and you’ll often see locals out cruising the fjords every summer.

8. Whaling & Fishing

Fishing is a major industry in Greenland. The country imports almost everything except for fish, seafood and other animals hunted in Greenland, such as whales and seals. Each administrative area has a certain quota of whales, seals and fish assigned to it, ensuring that there’s no overfishing. Certain species like the blue whale are protected and thus cannot be fished. No export of whale and seal meat is allowed — they are only consumed locally.

9. A Vibrant Capital City

Almost one-quarter of Greenland’s population lives in the capital city of Nuuk. Vibrant and funky, the city is the biggest, most cosmopolitan town on the island and it packs in quite a lot of museums, hip cafes and fashion boutiques for its small size. To get an introduction to the country, be sure to visit the National Museum of Greenland, the Katuaq Cultural House as well as Nuuk Art Museum. Backed by a panorama of mountains, the city is perched at the mouth of a giant fiord system, making for easy day trips into the fiords and surrounding nature.

10. Midnight Sun

Every year, the sun does not set from May 25th to July 25th, and it stays visible throughout the entire day and night. The midnight sun, as it is called, is a pretty cool natural phenomenon that everyone needs to experience at least once in their lifetime. June 21, the longest day of the year, is the summer solstice and a national holiday in Greenland. You’ll find locals out basking in the sun or enjoying a barbecue out in nature.

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