30: What’s going on with Greenland?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t really know much about Greenland other than it’s not very green, has polar bears and the President of the U.S supposedly wanted to buy it at one point. This is odd considering it is a great big land mass with people and culture and history, so to remedy my lack of knowledge I decided to do a bit of research. If you want to know what I found out, here is a sprinkling of ice facts, history and flaming coffee. Enjoy!

A small village in Greenland

Nature and landscape

Let’s start with a little overview of Greenland. It is the world’s largest island at 836,330 square miles, this being more than three times the size of Texas. Parts of it are less than 500 miles from the North Pole, and two thirds of the island are in the Arctic Circle. On the west coast it is only 16 miles from Canada’s Ellesmere Island.

Perhaps Greenland’s most obvious feature is its massive ice sheet, second largest in the world after Antarctica’s ice sheet. This ice covers over 700,000 square miles and can be up to 3,000 m thick in some areas. Basically, it is a lot of ice.

Home to fjords, mountains and huge windswept plains of snow, you might wonder at Greenland’s name, but it does actually have some green bits too with sedges, cottons grass and shrubs, and some agriculture. As for wildlife there’s polar bears, Arctic foxes (see plog 9), reindeer, muskox (plog 28), ermine and lemmings (plog 23) amongst other things. Seals, whales and fish like cod, halibut and salmon are also in the area and are an essential source of food for people living there.

In terms of climate, Greenland is pretty big so there are notable differences in conditions between the north and south. In winter the average temperature can go from about −7 °C (low 20s F) to around −34 °C (−30 °F) in the north, whilst summer averages go from a balmy 7 °C (mid 40s F) in the south to 4 °C (around 40 °F) in the north. There are also 2 months in summer which experience midnight sun. Due to the lack of rainfall, many parts of Greenland qualify as Arctic deserts.

Ethnically, around 89% of people in Greenland are Inuit, with the rest being mostly Danish. Fishing, mining and tourism all play a role in the local economy, and whilst I’m throwing out facts here, Nuuk is the capital.

Polar bears make up part of the wildlife of Greenland (Picture: Andreas Weith/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0)


Now that we’ve had a brief overview of the place, let’s get into the nitty gritty, starting with the history.

Greenland was first thought to be populated by people in around 5000 B.C. from the Eastern Canadian Arctic, with their spread thought to be connected with the movement of muskox. These people, many from what is known as the Dorset culture, seemed to all disappear around 1200 A.D when the Thule people arrived on the island. The Thule people are the ancestors of modern Inuit, and with their cold climate adapted skills they were able to survive in this chilly place.

From the other side of the world came the Vikings. According to sagas, Erik the Red sailed over and established two settlements in the south west of the island around 985 A.D, which were farming communities. By the year 1450 A.D however, they all seem to have disappeared. Why? Some say they failed to adapt to the climate and learn local skills, and it is noted that they generally interacted little with the Thule/Inuit people. Others say they did adapt by trading and relying more on marine life for food, but they were still beaten by the climate anyway. Their disappearance left the island to the Thule/Inuit people for the next few hundred years.

However, the Vikings in what was then a joint Denmark-Norway believed their ancestors had survived and had just been cut off, and they also thought that this meant they “owned” Greenland. They sailed back again in 1721 with the idea of converting their distant long-lost cousins to Protestantism, in case they had become pagan in the meantime. Upon arrival they found out that their ancestors had not survived, so they promptly baptised the local Inuit instead and created some trading colonies deciding they still owned Greenland anyways. After this Greenland became a colony of Denmark-Norway. After Denmark-Norway split, Denmark kept the colony.

Abandoned Viking settlement on Greenland (Picture: thehistoryblog)

More modern history

When Denmark got invaded by Germany during World War 2, Greenland developed closer ties with Canada and the U.S, becoming more distant from Denmark. After the War Denmark still “owned” Greenland, but in 1952 changed the status of this “ownership” from a colony to an overseas county, and in 1979 Greenland gained home rule. This is somewhat similar to the relationship between Scotland and Great Britain. Greenland remains part of the Kingdom of Denmark but has more extensive powers to govern itself, e.g. Greenland made the decision to leave the European Economic Community (EEC) whilst Denmark is still part of it. The official languages are both Greenlandic (a.k.a Kalaallisut) and Danish.

Nowadays there is a broad feeling in Greenland of wanting independence from Denmark. Most political parties there have it as a long term goal, others hoped to get it done by 2021. Of course there are people in the other camp pointing out that Greenland relies on a lot of financial support from Denmark so independence may not be the best idea. However, I am neither a politician or economist so won’t delve into that discussion. Suffice to say many on the island are hoping for independence.

Greenlandic women wearing the national costume. Whist they are still part of the Kingdom of Denmark, they have their own unique culture. (Picture: Visit Greenland)

Some bits and pieces of culture

There are many subcultures and languages within Greenland, who have their own traditions, music and clothing. In terms of popular culture handball is often referred to as the national sport, with the Greenlandic men’s team being in the world top 20 in 2001.

A local speciality drink is Greenlandic coffee, which involves coffee mixed with whiskey, Kahlúa (a Mexican coffee flavoured liqueur), Grand Marnier and whipped cream set on fire, so it’s not for the faint hearted! Otherwise food is often marine life like fish and seal.

In terms of older cultures, the drum dance used to be used as a way to resolve issues that couldn’t be sorted through dialogue. The drum dance was a sort of dance off where you’d make fun of one another, like a rap battle, and whoever lost often got so embarrassed they’d leave the village. I’m not sure if it is still done today, but either way it sounds like a novel system for working out disputes!

Greenlandic Coffee. Would you dare?

As a final little tidbit, the flag of Greenland was designed by a Greenlander when the island gained home rule and created a competition to design their new flag. Thue Christiansen, who came up with the design, said that the white stripe symbolised the glaciers and icecap on Greenland whilst the red stripe represented the ocean. The sun is symbolised by the red semicircle and icebergs are symbolised by the white semicircle, so it is a flag that encapsulated the landscape of Greenland.  

Of course there is so much more to Greenland’s culture, history and politics than mentioned here, this is just a very brief overview, but hopefully you found it interesting getting a bit more familiar with this big island in the north!

For more info:

More on Viking history in Greenland: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/11/why-did-greenland-s-vikings-disappear

A documentary trailer about a band in Greenland that was quite revolutionary in its decision to sing in Greenlandic, which looks at the general social situation of the island at the time (the 70s I think?) I haven’t watched this yet myself admittedly… but I’ve heard it is good from reliable sources!

Music: kongano.com and “Inuit Nunaat” by Sumé

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