ONE OF THE MOST northerly territories in the world is Greenland, located between the North ATLANTIC, the northeastern coasts of CANADA (Ellesmere and Baffin islands), and the ARCTIC OCEAN. More than two-thirds of the region lies above the ARCTIC CIRCLE. Greenland is technically considered part of North America, though ICELAND (usually considered part of Europe) lies only 186 mi (300 km) to the southeast. Greenland is the world’s largest island that is not considered a continent (like AUSTRALIA). It is roughly onethird the size of the UNITED STATES, and 50 times the size of its parent nation, DENMARK. Greenland has been a part of Denmark for centuries, officially integrated within the kingdom in 1953, but has had internal selfrule since 1978.
A victim (or beneficiary) of early Viking propaganda to encourage new settlements, Greenland is in fact mostly ice. The island consists almost entirely of a vast inland plateau covered in ice up to 9,800 ft (3,000 m) thick. It is estimated that this ice sheet, second in size only to ANTARCTICA, holds up to 10 percent of the world’s frozen water.
The interior plateau is surrounded on all sides by mountains, the highest being those along the east coast (including Greenland’s highest point, Gunnbjørn). A narrow coastal plain supports most of the settlements, mostly along the south-west coast. Here there is a short summer growing season, but, as in most of the rest of the island, the chief industry is fishing. Other economic activities include the hunting of whales and seals and, to some extent, tourism. Adventurous tourists are drawn to the rugged subarctic terrain and the dramatic ice fjords but primarily to the celestial attractions: the northern lights and the midnight sun. North of the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets between late May and late July. The town of Ilulissat (Jakobshavn) is one of Greenland’s tourism centers, both for the midnight sun and for its position among dramatic glaciers and icebergs that flow into Disko Bay. In contrast to the summer, however, most of these northern settlements see no sunlight at all from November to January. The east coast of Greenland is almost entirely uninhabited and has mostly been isolated from European contact.
Greenland’s official name, Kalaallit Nunaat, means “land of the people.” Most of its population are Inuits, closely related by language and culture to Canadian Inuits and Alaskan Eskimos. Migrations from North America occurred as recently as 150 years ago. Many traditional Inuit practices continue today, such as the use of kayaks in hunting (the word qajaq is Inuit), and the crafting of tupilaks, small grotesque figures carved in walrus tusk or reindeer antler to represent evil spirits. Europeans first arrived in southern Greenland around the year 1000, under the leadership of the Norwegian (Viking) chieftain Erik the Red.
By the early 15th century, however, these settlements were abandoned. English navigators charted the island again in the late 16th century, in the process of searching for the Northwest Passage to the Pacific. Danish and Icelandic settlers gradually established small fishing villages on the southwest coast, but it was not until 1921 that Denmark declared the entire island to be Danish territory, following the 1917 treaty by which Denmark sold the Virgin Islands to the United States, and in exchange, the United States relinquished its claims to the northern parts of Greenland.
Greenland has been developed economically only since the 1950s, as Denmark made strides to integrate Greenlanders more fully into the kingdom. There are still no roads between settlements, however, and attempts to commercially mine minerals beneath the interior ice cover (primarily zinc and lead) have been slow to develop. There is also potential for large deposits of uranium and oil, but these remain mostly unexplored. The population continues to rely heavily on subsidies from Denmark (nearly $200 million a year). A 1978 referendum brought self-rule, and through afurther vote in 1985, Greenlanders chose to leave the markets of the European Union after many years of haggling over fishing and mining rights.
The capital city, Nuuk (Godthåb, Danish for “the headland”), is a very modern city, built mostly since the 1950s, and housing over 13,000 people, three times the population of the second-largest town. Rapid modernization has, however, taken a toll, and the city is marked with high unemployment, alcoholism, and teen suicide.