History and Geography of Greenland

The Greenland flag flapping in the wind

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.

Fast Facts: Greenland

  • Capital: Nuuk
  • Population: 57,691 (2018)
  • Official Language: West Greenlandic or Kalaallisut
  • Currency: Danish kronor (DKK) 
  • Form of Government: Parliamentary democracy
  • Climate: Arctic to subarctic; cool summers, cold winters
  • Total Area: 836,327 square miles (2,166,086 square kilometers)
  • Highest Point: Gunnbjorn Fjeld at 12,119 feet (3,694 meters) 
  • Lowest Point: Atlantic Ocean at 0 feet (0 meters)

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 square kilometers). It is not a continent, but due to its large area and the relatively small population of less than 60,000 people, Greenland is also the most sparsely populated country in the world.

Greenland's largest city, Nuuk, also serves as its capital. It's one of the world's smallest capital cities, with a population of only 17,984 as of 2019. 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.

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 BCE, and it wasn't until 986 CE 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, though it wasn't until the 13th century that Norway took them over, and subsequently entered into a union with Denmark.

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. 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 degrees (-10 C) and an average July high of just 50 degrees (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. 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 island is covered with so much ice, it has the potential to significantly raise sea levels if the ice were to melt with global warming.