History and Geography of Greenland

Greenland flag on tourist vessel, Greenland
Mint Images - Frans Lanting/Mint Images/Getty Images

Greenland is a located between the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, and although it is technically a part of the North American continent, historically it has been linked with European countries like Denmark and Norway. Today, Greenland is considered an independent territory within the Kingdom of Denmark, and as such, Greenland is dependent on Denmark for the majority of its gross domestic product.

By area, Greenland is distinctive in that it is the world's largest island with an area of 836,330 square miles (2,166,086 sq km); it is not, however, a continent, but due to its large area and the relatively small population of 56,186 people, Greenland is also the most sparsely populated country in the world.

Greenland's largest city, Nuuk, also serves as its capital and is one of the world's smallest capital cities with a population of only 17,036 as of 2017. All of Greenland's cities are built along the 27,394-mile coastline because it is the only area in the country that is ice-free. Most of these cities are also along Greenland's west coast because the northeastern side is comprised of the Northeast Greenland National Park.

A Brief History of Greenland

Greenland is thought to have been inhabited since prehistoric times by various Paleo-Eskimo groups; however, specific archaeological research does show the Inuit entering Greenland around 2500 B.C., and it wasn't until 986 A.D. that European settlement and exploration started with Norwegians and Icelanders settling on Greenland's west coast.

These first settlers were eventually known as the Norse Greenlanders and they were formally taken over by Norway in the 13th century, and in that same century, Norway entered into a union with Denmark which effectively started Greenland's relationship with that country as well.

In 1946, the United States offered to buy Greenland from Denmark but the country refused to sell the island. In 1953, Greenland officially became a part of the Kingdom of Denmark and in 1979 Denmark's Parliament gave the country powers of home rule. In 2008, a referendum for greater independence on Greenland's part was approved and in 2009, Greenland took over the responsibility of its own government, laws, and natural resources, and in addition, Greenland's citizens were recognized as a separate culture of people, even though Denmark still controls Greenland's defense and foreign affairs.

Greenland's current head of state is Denmark's queen, Margrethe II, but the Prime Minister of Greenland is Kim Kielsen, who serves as the head of the country's autonomous government.

Geography, Climate, and Topography

Because of its very high latitude, Greenland has an arctic to a subarctic climate with cool summers and very cold winters. For example its capital, Nuuk, has an average January low temperature of 14°F (-10°C) and an average July high of just 50°F (9.9°C); because of this, its citizens can practice very little agriculture and most of its products are forage crops, greenhouse vegetables, sheep, reindeer, and fish, and Greenland mostly relies on imports from other countries.

Greenland's topography is mainly flat but there is a narrow mountainous coast, with the highest point on the island's tallest mountain, Bunnbjørn Fjeld, which towers over the island nation at 12,139 feet. Additionally, most of Greenland's land area is covered by an ice sheet and two-thirds of the country is subject to permafrost.

This massive ice sheet found in Greenland is important to climate change and has made the region popular among scientists who have worked to drill ice cores in order to understand how the Earth's climate has changed over time; also, because the country is covered with so much ice, it has the potential to significantly raise sea levels if the ice were to melt with global warming.