It is the world’s largest island, has the closest point of land to the North Pole, and is the least densely populated political territory on the planet.
80% of it is covered by an ice mass that is second only to the Antarctic ice sheet.
Beneath that ice might just lie the largest collection of untapped natural resources on Earth.
Learn more about Greenland, the island, and the people who live there on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Greenland is a bit of a paradox. It is big. The biggest island on the planet. However, its size is often exaggerated on Mercator Projection maps.
If it were an independent country, it would be the 12th largest in the world.
The defining thing about Greenland would have to be its ice sheet which covers the vast majority of the island. The size of the ice sheet is a function of the size of the island, its northern latitude, and its unique geology.
Because of the massive weight of the ice cap, it has depressed the land in the interior of the island to create what is, in effect, a massive bowl. There is a ridge of mountains around the island which contain the ice mass.
That is the reason why Greenland has a massive ice sheet and the islands close by in Canada do not.
There have been people on Greenland for about 4,500 years, as far as researchers can tell. The very first people were known as the Saqqaq people, and they lived on the southern and western shores of the island. They are classified as a proto-Inuit culture.
However, these early settlers didn’t remain in Greenland. Either they left, or the population died out.
Around the same time, a group is simply known as the Independence I culture, named from Independence Bay in the north of the island, also existed. They were followed by a group known by the original name of Independence II.
Likewise, the Saqqaq people were replaced in the south by the Dorset people, who may have just been the southern community of the people who lived at independence Bay.
However, none of these groups were the direct ancestors of the people who live there today.
The peopling of modern-day Greenland began about 1000 years ago.
During the late 10th century, the first Viking discovered the island when Gunnbjörn Ulfsson was thrown off course during a storm and landed on the shore of the island.
In 982, Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland for committing murder. He sailed west and landed on the shore of Greenland and claimed it for himself. When he landed, he found it uninhabited.
Erik returned to Iceland and recruited a group of settlers to come back to Greenland with him. Twenty-five ships filled with people sailed back in 986, and 14 of them arrived and created three settlements on the southern tip of the island.
There were creatively called the east, west, and middle settlements.
Here I should address the naming of the island.
There is a myth floating around that Greenland was named as such in an attempt to get people to go there, and Iceland was named that way so that people wouldn’t come there and go to Greenland instead.
This is false.
Iceland was originally named Snæland or “snowland” but later changed to Iceland, according to the Icelandic Sagas, by Flóki Vilgerðarson, who climbed a mountain and saw icebergs in a fjord.
This occurred over a century before the Vikings had any idea Greenland existed.
Erik the Red named the island Greenland in an attempt to convince people to come and settle the island.
So, Greenland was named to get people to migrate there, but it wasn’t as a ruse, it was really to get people to migrate there.
It is entirely possible that in the late 10th century, the southern tip of the island was green. There could have been more scrub brush along the coast, which could have been cut down by the Viking settlers for construction material and fuel.
However, the Viking settlements didn’t last. Over the next several centuries, the Norse communities dwindled until they eventually disappeared around the 14th or 15th centuries. This disappearance of Nordic settlements after 500 years might have corresponded with a climatic event known as the Little Ice Age.
The areas around the southern tip of the island were eventually taken over and settled by a group known as the Thule people, who are the direct descendants of the native people who live in Greenland today. The Thule people are today known as Inuit, and the people in Greenland call themselves the Kalaallit.
The name of the island in their native language is Kalaallit Nunaat.
Genetic testing of remains of the earlier paleo-Inuit people found that they were different from the group which settled the south around the year 1300. The Thule/Inuits probably originally came from northern Siberia and were distinct from the Dorset people who originated elsewhere.
For several centuries the Kalaallit had the island to themselves. In the year 1500, Portuguese sailors visited the island searching for a northwest passage to Asia, but they didn’t establish any settlement.
Even though the Norse settlements on Greenland vanished, they were not forgotten. Denmark argued that they inherited the ancient Norse claim to Greenland, even though they hadn’t bothered to actually visit the island in centuries.
In the early 17th century, King Christian IV of Denmark sent a series of expeditions to Greenland, which were led by the English explorer James Hall. However, the expeditions didn’t amount to anything and were considered a failure.
One of the purposes of the expedition was that the Danes thought that there was still a Norse colony on Greenland. When the last Norse settlement ended centuries before, there was no announcement that it had happened. The other Nordic countries never got the message.
The Danes sent another expedition about a century later, and this time they laid claim to the island. Even as late as 1721, the Danes still thought that there was a Norse settlement in Greenland that they could make contact with.
The Danes set up a small colony on the island, but it didn’t go very well. Soldiers mutinied, and civilians suffered from scurvy. In 1733, two Kalaallit children were sent to Copenhagen to attend the coronation of King Christian VI. While they were there, they contracted smallpox, and when they returned to Greenland, it spread throughout the Kalaallit community, devastating the population.
Greenland remains a part of Denmark to this day.
There was never a large Danish population, or any population for that matter, in Greenland. At the beginning of the 20th century, the total population of Greenland was estimated to be around 14,000 people. The economy wasn’t very developed, including the fishing industry.
Despite political changes in Europe, especially the division of Norway and Denmark in 1814, Greenland remained in Danish control the entire time.
The next big event occurred during the Second World War when Denmark was invaded and occupied by Germany.
As the Americans didn’t want a Nazi base so close to them, they occupied Greenland on April 8, 1941.
The Americans built two air bases on the island, which later became the basis for Greenland’s major airports, and occupied it until the end of the war in 1945.
During the occupation, the Americans worked with free Danish forces to patrol the coast, and the Danish governor of Greenland worked out of Washington to coordinate logistics.
At the end of the war, the United States offered to buy Greenland from Denmark for $100,000,000 dollars, but the Danes declined.
This would not have been the first territory the United States purchased from Denmark, as they purchased the US Virgin Islands from them in 1917.
In 1956, now in the middle of the Cold War, the United States and their now NATO ally Denmark signed a treaty allowing the US to establish an air base in northern Greenland. Thule Air Base in northwestern Greenland is still in operation today and is administered by the US Space Force.
After the war, there were major changes made to the administration of Greenland.
In 1953, Greenland was elevated in status from a colony to a constituent country in the Kingdom of Denmark, and full Danish citizenship was extended to Greenlanders.
In 1979, Greenland was granted home rule. They created their own legislature, that dealt with internal affairs, while the Danish parliament still covered foreign policy.
In 2008 there was a referendum that passed with 75% of the vote, which granted Greenland even greater autonomy, including control of law enforcement and the legal system. In 2009 the official language was changed from Danish to Greenlandic.
Today, Greenland still has a very small population. There are only 56,000 people in Greenland, and about ? of those live in the capital city of Nuuk.
Greenland has a population density of 0.03 people per square kilometer, making it 67 times more sparse than the least densely populated country, Mongolia.
One of the big issues which has hung over the people of Greenland for the last several decades has been the issue of independence. At this point, nothing is stopping Greenland from becoming independent.
There have been polls that have shown support as high as 68% in favor of independence. However, Greenland’s economy is largely dependent on money from Denmark. Independence would probably end or significantly reduce the amount of money they received.
Greenland currently gets 20% of its GDP and half of its government’s budget from Denmark.
78% of people in Greenland are against independence if it means a drop in the standard of living.
There is little else to the economy of Greenland beyond fishing and tourism.
However, under the massive ice sheet which covers most of the island, there is believed to be a fantastic treasure of natural resources.
A previous study done by the US Geological Survey estimates that there could be as much as 17.5 billion barrels of oil and 148 trillion cubic feet of natural gas underneath Greenland.
As of right now, that isn’t going anywhere because, in 2021, Greenland banned the exploration of oil and gas. Greenland currently gets 70% of its energy from renewable sources, primarily hydroelectric power.
Even if they ignore oil and gas, Greenland could potentially be a superpower in the area of rare earth minerals. One Australian mining company which did a survey said the Kvanefjeld mine has the potential to be the biggest source of rare earth metals outside of China.
I’ll close this episode with a rather interesting story that has put Greenland into the news recently.
Greenland’s northwest is separated from Canada’s Ellesmere Island by the Nares Strait.
The maritime border between Greenland and Canada is, both countries agree, right down the middle of the strait. However, right in the middle of the strait is an island known as Hans Island.
There is nothing on Hans Islands. No one lives there. No one has ever lived there. There are no resources on the island. It is just a rock in the water that has the distinction of being exactly midway between the territory of Canada and Greenland.
Both Denmark and Canada claim Hans Island. In 1972, when they sat down to delineate the border between the two countries, they managed to hammer everything out fine, except for Hans Island, which they just left unresolved.
In the years since the issue was left unresolved, what has been called the most passive-aggressive border conflicts in history erupted between the two countries.
The first shot in this war was fired by Canada in 1984 when several Canadian soldiers landed on Hans Island, raised the Canadian flag, and left a bottle of Canadian whiskey.
Not to be outdone, the Danish Minister of Greenlandic Affairs came to the island later that year, took down the Canadian flag, raised the Danish flag, and left a bottle of cognac with a note that read “Welcome to the Danish Island.”
Every few years, Danish and Canadian personnel would land on the island and swap out the flag and leave some booze for the other country.
Both countries also purchased advertising on Google to promote their case for sovereignty over the island.
Eventually, diplomats began to complain, and there were calls to resolve the issue, but for years nothing happened. Leaving the issue unresolved was more valuable to both countries because it could be brought up during an election cycle to drum up some cheap patriotism.
Finally, the two sides sat down and did what everyone in the world saw was the obvious thing to do. They agreed to split the island and put the border down the middle.
On June 14, 2022, Denmark and Canada announced that they would share the island, pending approval of the treaty by both countries’ parliaments.
The new border will be 1.28 kilometers or 0.8 miles long, and it will be the third shortest land border in the world.
So, if you want to stump your friends on trivia night, just ask them what countries share a land border with Canada, Denmark, or Greenland.
Greenland’s size, its sparseness, and of course, its ice, make it unlike any other place on Earth.
The future of Greenland probably has more questions hanging over it than any other territory on Earth. Independence, resource extraction, and the potential of its ice sheet melting make this tiny population on a very large island something to pay attention to in the years to come.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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