Greenland, Grønland, Kalaallit Nunaat
written by A. L. Hart Havens on August 1, 2022
The hot weather experienced across Europe and North America in recent weeks has left millions wishing for some relief in the form of a cold beer and a cool breeze. This intense heat wave has provided inspiration to write about one of the coldest places on earth and one that is home to the most northerly point of land on the planet — the semi-autonomous Danish dependency of Greenland. In fact, the vast majority of Greenland, which is known as Grønland in Danish and as Kalaallit Nunaat in the Eskimo-Inuit language of Greenlandic, lies north of the Arctic Circle.
The combination of its extremely frigid temperatures and proximity to the North Pole, its peculiar geographical position between the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, and a number of complex political and historical circumstances make Greenland uniquely difficult to place firmly within either the realm of Europe and the Old World or that of North America and the New World. And despite frequently appearing larger than it actually is on two-dimensional flat projections of the earth, Greenland is the world’s largest island by a clear margin and boasts a land area that would make it the world’s 12th largest country — ahead of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Mexico. But despite its expansive territory, Greenland is home to a resident population of merely 56,000.
This highly overlooked yet fascinating jurisdiction undoubtedly deserves some attention and exploration, particularly given that it is situated only 13 miles (21 kilometers) from Canada at the closest point of convergence. And it is from Greenland that a group of Vikings led by Leif Erikson a millennium ago established a settlement on the island of Newfoundland in present-day Canada (which the Norsemen called Vinland), marking the first confirmed arrival of Europeans in the New World — some 500 years prior to Columbus’ historic 1492 voyage.
Greenlandic Norse, Weather Wars, and Radioactive Contamination
The earliest Norse settlers arrived in Greenland around 980 AD and were led by Leif Erikson’s father Erik the Red, who dubiously chose the name Greenland for the giant ice-covered landmass (which is virtually entirely absent of green vegetation) with the aim of attracting new settlers from Norway and Iceland.
Norse culture flourished on Greenland over the next 500 years and saw the establishment of settlements along the fjords at the previously uninhabited southern tip and southwestern coastline (facing northern Canada). The Norse settlements on the island, which featured a combined peak population of around 5,000, were heavily influenced by Norway and eventually submitted to Norwegian rule in 1261.
The Viking colonies of Greenland also gave rise to a now-extinct language known as Greenlandic Norse, which is documented on large runestones featuring inscriptions that exhibit distinct differences from the other Norse languages/dialects spoken at the time. Pre-Christian Germanic peoples used runic alphabets consisting of symbols called runes prior to their gradual replacement by the Latin alphabet, a process that extended into the Late Middle Ages. The degree to which spoken Greenlandic Norse was mutually intelligible with other Norse languages is unknown.
The sudden disappearance of the Norse settlements in the late 1400s is a circumstance that is not fully understood but is typically attributed to a combination of the bubonic plague and a change in climate which saw the onset of the Little Ice Age, as global temperatures began to drop in the early 1400s following the end of the Medieval Warm Period. Evidence of the numerous farms on Greenland suggests that the Greenlandic climate was much more forgiving a millennium ago than it is today. It is of minor note that Portuguese explorers visited Greenland in 1499 and briefly claimed it as a Portuguese possession.
Although the Inuit were the only remaining population on Greenland after the disappearance of the Norse, the Norwegian government, which in the early 1500s had become part of a political union called Denmark-Norway, maintained its territorial claims to Greenland although it had lost contact with the island and was unaware of whether any of the original Norse settlements had survived. Denmark-Norway began recolonizing Greenland in the mid-1700s and established the settlement of Godthåb on the island’s southwestern coast (today the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk).
Without going into excessive detail, Greenland and Iceland had become Danish possessions after Norway was separated from Denmark-Norway and ceded to Sweden in 1814 in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Norway regained its independence in 1905 and in 1931 it occupied a small uninhabited section of eastern Greenland and named it Erik the Red’s Land, much to the objection of the Danish government. The dispute was eventually resolved in 1933 when the Hague-based Permanent Court of International Justice (the predecessor of today’s UN-operated World Court) declared the Norwegian occupation illegitimate.
On April 9, 1940, German troops invaded Denmark and quickly gained control of the country after a brief battle that saw the Danish government fully surrendering after only six hours of combat. This prompted the United Kingdom to invade and occupy Iceland (also a Danish possession at the time) and the United States to occupy Greenland, although the US occupation remained unofficial until America’s entry into the war in December 1941.
Without consulting the Icelandic parliament, the British government asked the US military to take over the occupation of Iceland so that British troops could be deployed elsewhere, and it came as no surprise when FDR expressed his eagerness to lend a helping hand. While the two Allied countries used the threat of a German attack as a pretext for the invasions and occupations of Iceland and Greenland, Germany cited the threat of an impending Allied invasion of Norway to justify its own preemptive invasion and occupation of that country.
Greenland was of particular significance to the meteorological intelligence war of the North Atlantic during World War 2, as the weather stations on the island provided critical meteorological information needed for the planning of military operations and the routing of ships. Despite the US occupation of the island, Germany with some assistance from the First Slovak Republic (an Axis signatory and German client state) secretly established four weather stations on Greenland’s uninhabited northeastern coast in mid-1942.
And although German forces recorded some military successes in the Greenland campaign such as besieging and burning down an important Allied radio and telegraph station at Eskimonaes in 1943, by the end of 1944 the American side had gained the upper hand and captured or destroyed all Axis installations on the island.
When Greenland was reintegrated into Denmark following the war, it was abundantly clear that Danish sovereignty over Greenland had been heavily eroded by an ever-expanding American influence, which was evidenced among other things by the US military’s refusal to close its military bases at the war’s end.
In the very early stages of the Cold War, US president Harry Truman discerned considerable geostrategic value in northern Greenland due to its proximity to the arctic regions of the Soviet Union and offered to purchase the island from Denmark for $100 million in 1946. However, the Danish government reiterated that Greenland is not for sale and rebuffed the US proposal as it had done before in 1867 (Andrew Johnson) and 1910 (William Howard Taft) and would do again in 2019 (Donald Trump).
The US military in the early 1950s significantly expanded its Thule Air Base in northwestern Greenland, marking an undertaking that saw the forcible relocation of the inhabitants of three Inuit villages and which instilled feelings of severe resentment among the local population. Further resentment arose among the Greenlandic population in 1968 when a US B52 bomber carrying four thermonuclear bombs crashed into Greenland’s northwestern coastline causing radioactive contamination of the surrounding area. Three of the four bombs were recovered, but one of them has never been found to this date.
The Danish government became embroiled in an embarrassing scandal in connection with this incident (Thulegate) when it came to light that it had been secretly allowing the US military to station and transport nuclear weapons in and across Greenland in violation of Denmark’s nuclear-free policy.
In fact, the US military from 1959 to 1967 had also operated an elaborate nuclear-powered complex of tunnels beneath the Greenland ice cap intended to house 600 nuclear missiles, but the plan — dubbed Project Iceworm — was eventually canceled due to unforeseen difficulties resulting from glacial movements. Today, the long-abandoned complex that was known as Camp Century still contains a significant amount of hazardous waste with the potential to cause severe environmental contamination in the future.
As a quick aside, the late 19th and early 20th centuries marked the era of great polar expeditions in Greenland by American explorers, most notably Robert Peary, who traversed the then-unchartered territory of northern Greenland and is often credited as being the first man to reach the North Pole. Peary’s 1909 expedition led to the important discovery that the furthest northern reaches of Greenland do not extend over the North Pole, as it was widely believed prior to this discovery that the North Pole was covered by land. A 1911 Norwegian expedition headed by Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole.
Self Rule, Greenlandic Citizenship, and Doomsday Prepping
It is fair to say that the outcome of World War 2 effectively brought forth a de facto transition of control over Greenland from Danish to American rule as well as a de facto transition of control over Denmark from German to American rule. Officially, however, Greenland has undergone a two significant independence reforms over the past half-century, which came in 1979 (home rule) and 2009 (self rule). These reforms transferred responsibility for economic, legal, and many other official matters to the local Greenlandic government, although the Danish government continues to exercise control over Greenland’s military and defense matters as well as its monetary policies.
Polls show that 65% of Greenlanders today favor eventual independence from Denmark, although it’s unclear whether the potential relinquishment of the generous annual subsidy from the Danish government would give rise to a change in attitude. Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944.
The 2009 reforms brought about a renaming of the island’s towns to their Greenlandic-language designations and a declaration of Greenlandic as the island’s sole official language. Danish nonetheless remains predominant in government and higher education, which is evidenced among other things by the fact that the majority of courses offered at the University of Greenland are conducted with Danish-language instruction.
Ethnic Danes comprise around 10% of Greenland’s population of 56,000 and usually do not speak fluent Greenlandic, whereas the Greenlandic Inuit and mixed populations typically speak Greenlandic as a first and Danish as a second language (with varying degrees of proficiency). Greenlandic features three primary dialects, which are West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), East Greenlandic (Tunumiit), and North Greenlandic (Inuktun). As West Greenlandic is spoken by 90% of Inuit Greenlanders, it was decided that the official language of Greenland would be based on this dialect.
Greenland’s 72 towns and settlements are spread across seven administrative subdivisions, which consist of five municipalities, one unincorporated territory (Northeast Greenland National Park), and one US military base (Thule Air Base). Northeast Greenland National Park is larger than the country of Turkey by a fair margin but remarkably has a permanent population of zero (although it is home to a few military and research installations and is a small-time summer vacation destination).
Of the thirteen towns in Greenland with a population greater than one thousand, twelve are on the island’s western coast (facing northern Canada) and only one is on the eastern coast (facing Iceland/Norway). Greenland’s five largest towns, all of which are on the western coast, are the capital Nuuk/Godthåb (19,000), Sisimiut/Holsteinsborg (6,000), Ilulissat/Jakobshavn (5,000), Qaqortoq/Julianehåb (3,000), and Aasiaat/Egedesminde (3,000). The original Danish names of the towns, which were officially replaced in 2009, are still widely used in casual conversation.
While it is possible to visit Greenland by sea as part of an organized transatlantic cruise, there are no commercial flights connecting the island to the United States or Canada. In fact, the only way to reach Greenland via civilian air travel is from Denmark or Iceland aboard a flight on Icelandair, Norlandair, or Air Greenland (formerly Grønlandsfly).
Ilulissat/Jakobshavn, Greenland’s third largest town, is arguably the island’s most popular international tourist destination and is home to the impressive Ilulissat Icefjord and many of Greenland’s nicer restaurants and hotels. There are no roads in Greenland connecting the towns and settlements, and any travel within Greenland is undertaken by boat or plane and occasionally by hiking or snowmobile.
Greenland withdrew from the European Community in 1985 due to a dispute over fishing waters and today is not part of the European Union or the Schengen Area (although it is classified as one of the EU’s overseas territories and countries). It is also outside of the Eurozone, as the Danish krone is the official currency of the island. Greenland became part of NATO when Denmark, one of the alliance’s 12 founding members, joined in 1949. For information about Greenland’s affiliations with the Arctic Council, the Nordic Council, and the Nordic Passport Union, please see the Liberated Services article entitled Scandinavia’s Nordic Passport Union.
With regard to passports, Greenlanders have the option of choosing between the standard Danish passport cover and a Greenland-themed cover showing Kalaallit Nunaat at the top. The passport cover design chosen has no bearing on its holder’s Danish or EU citizenship status. Native Greenlanders enjoy the rights and privileges of EU-country citizens by virtue of their Danish citizenship, and there are approximately 20,000 Inuit Greenlanders living in Denmark.
In view of Greenland’s aspirations to achieve full independence from Denmark and establish itself a sovereign country, a number of economic concerns would first need to be addressed, for example avoiding a decline in the standard of living following the potential discontinuation of Danish subsidies. The local government, operating under self rule since 2009, plans to augment the Greenlandic economy, which is currently heavily dependent on fishing, sealing, whaling, and exports thereof, with the large-scale extraction of natural resources.
Greenland is believed to be sitting on massive deposits of valuable minerals and precious metals (including platinum, silver, copper, nickel, iron, uranium, and rare earth metals) that could soon become accessible in the face of technological advancements and a gradual erosion of the ice cap, which mainstream scientists naturally attribute to man-made climate change.
Some geologists also suspect significant petroleum deposits, and this has prompted the Greenlandic government to sell prospecting, drilling, and extraction licenses to ExxonMobil, Chevron, and other multinational energy corporations. The Greenland ice sheet, which consists of fresh water, currently covers 80% of the island and has an average thickness of 1 mile (1.5 kilometers) and a maximum thickness of 2 miles (3 kilometers).
The prospect of Greenlandic citizenship or a residency permit is certainly an intriguing one, as a number of internationally minded preppers have suggested Greenland as an ultimate bugout location in the event of a societal collapse, nuclear war, or other global catastrophe, particularly given that the vast majority of the island’s expansive territory is entirely uninhabited by humans. There are no humans living in the Greenlandic interior.
In fact, the high-ranking German minister Albert Speer explained in his autobiography that he had seriously considered a plan in the waning days of World War 2 that involved escaping to Greenland together with several confidants, where he believed they could live undetected by Allied reconnaissance for some time. While Speer had planned on hiding out at a quiet bay on Greenland’s uninhabited eastern coast, the seemingly absurd notion of establishing an inland camp is one that would presumably pique the interest of only the most experienced, hardened, and extreme of doomsday preppers.
An inland camp within 20 miles of the northeastern coastline would provide an extremely remote location that would allow for the hunting of animals like muskoxen and arctic hares, although there would be no access to fishing and the presence of polar bears and wolves could pose a concern. The conditions prevailing any further into the interior of Greenland, particularly the areas near the center, appear far too harsh and desolate to even consider from a wilderness survival perspective.
Individuals interested in relocating to or establishing a second home in Greenland but wish to have access to modern amenities, Scandinavian culture, and a small expat community should consider the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk/Godthåb, which is the island’s most populous town and also has the highest percentage of ethnic Danish and European residents.
Living in a smaller settlement is generally not advisable, as there are sadly very serious problems among the Greenlandic Inuit population with regard to alcoholism and alcohol-fueled violent crime, domestic abuse, homicides, and suicides. A number of local municipalities have experimented with temporary bans on the sale of alcohol following sharp spikes in violence, with some voices calling for a complete and permanent ban of alcohol across Greenland. The severity of the problem is evidenced by the Danish compound-word expression grønlænderstiv, which is commonly used in Denmark to crudely describe a state of excessive intoxication. Grønlænderstiv roughly translates to… as drunk as a Greenlander.