Greenland

by Michael Sones

The arctic lands have a foreboding beauty to them. Harsh, rugged, treeless. They are, to people accustomed to the comforts of modern civilisation and holidays in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, or Pacific, the antithesis. Yet the clarity of the skies during a clear day and the dancing play of the northern lights, aurora borealis, are a visual feast to the eyes.

As well as being arctic Greenland is the world’s largest island. It is 2,175,600 square kilometers or roughly 840,000 square miles. This is big. Australia is the only island in the world that would be a bigger island if Australia was not classed as a continent. The coastline of Greenland, with its spectacular indented fjords, is more than 24,000 miles long which is nearly the distance around the world at the equator.

Approximately 80% of Greenland is covered by glaciers. The interior of Greenland is mountainous and ice-covered year round with a glacier which is on average 1500 metres thick. (That’s nearly a mile for those who still think in feet and miles.) The temperature in the interior goes as low as -47C in the winter and -11C in the summer.

The southwestern coast is the warmest part of the island as the climate is moderated somewhat by the Gulf Stream. This is where most of the population live. There the winter temperatures average about -10C and summer temperatures about 10C. Godthab (Nuuk) in southwest Greenland is the capital with a population of 11,000.

Greenland was discovered by Vikings in the 10th century and called “Greenland” in an attempt to lure settlers to colonize it. Eric the Red sailed from Iceland to Greenland in 982 AD. He explored it for three years before returning to Iceland. He then returned to Greenland in 985 AD with about 500 colonists and by 1300 AD Greenland had a population of between 3000-4000 Europeans. They lived by farming and hunting primarily of seals. The Norse colonies had died out by 1500 AD. though why remains a mystery. Reasons which have been suggested include disease, annihilation by the Inuit (it is known there was contact and violence between the two), assimilation by the Inuit (early explorers reported ‘blonde-haired’ Inuit), or re-emigration back to Iceland.

There is actually little green in Greenland. There is a short growing season, no forests, a few stunted trees, but it is very beautiful anyway. It is a dependency of Denmark and there are strong links with that European country. The population of Greenland is approximately 59,000 (1998). About 80% of Greenlanders were born on the island with the rest mainly coming from Denmark though most native Greenlanders have mixed Danish and Inuit ancestry. The official church is the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Inuits (formerly called Eskimos but many Inuit think this is an insulting term) mainly live in the northwest where they continue many of their ancestral traditions. They depend on hunting seal and other animals for survival. Commercial fishing provides an income and the kayak has being replaced by the motor boat.

The musk-ox, the reindeer, the polar bear, the arctic fox, reindeer, the snow hares, the lemming and the ermine are the native land animals. Cape Morris Jessup is the northern most limit of the wolf’s habitat. Sheep are also farmed. Seals and whales are hunted in the surrounding waters.

Farming and mining are severely limited because of the harsh climate though there are plentiful mineral resources.

An Aerial View of Greenland courtesy of NASA

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