The ABCs of Greenland

Greenland [Map via Wikimedia Commons]

by Mingming Shi

Geography and Inhabitants

Greenland, (Kalaallit Nunaat in Greenlandic and Grønland in Danish), is the largest island in the world, measuring 2,166,086km2. The island possesses the world’s second largest ice sheet, after the one in Antarctica, and is now seen as seriously endangered. Most of the territory of Greenland is located within the Arctic Circle, and approximately eighty-one percent of the country is covered by snow and ice all year round, with only the narrow edge of the island being inhabited and suitable for human activity. Greenland is surrounded by ocean, and has a long coastline with a length of around 44,000 km, with numerous fjords and smaller islands.

For Nordic nations, Greenland is widely viewed as being part of Europe, given the short distance to Iceland, as well as cultural, societal and historical connections. However, in terms of geography, Greenland is connected to North America.

The population density of Greenland is low, with the number of inhabitants at around 57,000, most of whom live in the coastal regions in the southwest. The majority of Greenland’s population are Inuit, (a word which means “people” in the local languages), and most of the rest are Danes, with a smaller number of immigrants from Thailand and the Philippines. According to a report by Statistics Greenland [pdf] in 2018, the rate of emigration from the nation has surpassed that of immigration since the 1970s.

The Capital

Nuuk is the capital of Greenland, located in the southwest part of the country, which was founded in 1728 by Danish missionary Hans Egede. The town used to be referred to as Godthåb, but that name was changed in 1979 to its present one. Nuuk is the center of politics, economy and culture of Greenland, and has the first and only shopping mall, Nuuk Center, [in Danish / Greenlandic] on the island to date. There are around 15,000 residents in the city.


The foods of Greenland feature diversified wild animal products. Reindeer, seal, whale, crabs, and prawns are commonly served, while there are only limited amounts of imported fresh fruits and vegetables at comparatively higher prices. Due to  the country’s location in the high north, and mostly inhospitable climate for agriculture, Greenlanders can collect fruits, such as berries, during the summer months and store them for the long and cold winters. However, the island is still highly dependent on imported foods, including dairy and meat products, including from Denmark, Iceland and Spain.


To date, there are two main ways of traveling to and from Greenland, namely by plane and by ship. Air Greenland and Air Iceland Connect oversee most of the flights to link Greenland and the outside world, with routes which cover Iceland, Denmark, and a few European cities. There are no road or railway systems between towns and settlements within the island, and so small planes and ships are used to transport people and goods. However, tickets for these are pricey. Dog-sledding is also an alternative when it comes to short distance traveling in some regions.

Leisure Activities

As mentioned above, Greenland is a realm of snow and ice, with long and chilling winters. Snow and ice activities are unsurprisingly on the top of the list of favorites among local populations. A typical winter activity for local inhabitants during the weekend is to go skiing. For example, the Arctic Circle Race is regarded as the toughest skiing race in the world, and tempting for a number of world-class participants, given the intense schedule, challenging weather, and not to mention gorgeous Arctic views. Additionally, fishing, hunting, (permits and licenses required), and indoor sports like badminton are also popular.

A skiing field near the center of Nuuk [Photo by Mingming Shi]


Both Greenlandic (Kalaallisut, meaning ‘the Greenlanders’ language,’) and Danish are the official languages in Greenland, with English also taught at school. However, English is less frequent compared with Danish. The Greenlandic language consists of three major types of dialects on the island: North, East and West Greenlandic, and the written and administration language is based on the latter dialect.


Education in Greenland is free, and the mandatory school system covers ten years. In order to obtain a secondary education, many students have to move to larger towns, far away from their families, while a great number of residents decide to drop out because of long distance from home. According to the data collected in 2019, there are only four towns throughout the island that provide high schools. Greenland has its own university: Ilisimatusarfik (The University of Greenland), based in Nuuk. As well, Denmark is another studying option for many Greenlanders, especially those who choose to pursue a university education.

Flags of the University of Greenland [Photo by Mingming Shi]


Generally, Greenland is subject to Arctic climates given its location, and the types of local climate are often divided into three [pdf] levels, namely the Low Arctic, the Arctic and the High Arctic. Summers are brief and cool, and winters are long and thrilling. Some regions at higher latitudes on the island experience the polar day (24-hour daylight) in the summer and polar night (no daylight) in winter.

Flora and Fauna

There are more than two hundred kinds of birds which have been observed in Greenland. Polar bears, Arctic foxes, walruses, seals, whales, reindeer and other Arctic and circumpolar animals coexist on and around the island as well. Sturdy and thick-furred Greenland dogs are adaptable to the harsh climate and known for being loyal to their masters. They have been co-working with humanity for around one thousand years, undertaking tasks such as hunting and transportation.

Most vegetation in Greenland is short in stature and, technically, there are no forests on the island, owing to the Arctic climate and local soil conditions.

National Dress

Due to the prevailing occupations of hunting and fishing in Greenland for approximately the past one thousand years, clothing for Inuit peoples used to be subject to the practical functions of waterproof and warm keeping, whose materials were mostly fur from animals, such as seals and caribou. However, with increasing contact with other parts of the world and the expansion of Danish colonialism, new clothing sources were introduced, for example, based on cotton. More ready-made garments have started to be more popular.

The Greenlandic national dress nowadays is also the result of exposure to, and communication with, the outside world. They are often worn for special occasions, such as the country’s National Day, weddings and other formal events.

The number of professions, such as hunters and fishers among Greenlanders are declining, however, clothes made of animal hide are still in fashion. Additionally, foreign brands including Canada Goose and North Face are enjoying market share in Greenland as well.

Coat made of local seal skin for sale at Nuuk Centre [Photo by Mingming Shi]


Igloos seem to have appeared in the popular imagination of many people regarding housing in the High North region. In reality, modern homes in Greenland are not very different from those elsewhere in Europe, with heating systems and directly accessible tap water. Nevertheless, in some remote areas, housing conditions are less favorable and inhabitants still have to obtain water from outside sources. One of the striking features of Greenlandic houses and apartment buildings is diverse, vivid colors.


Greenland is divided into five local administrations, excluding the national park in the northeast. Greenland has a self-rule government and a parliament. There are a number of political parties of different sizes within Greenland, despite its small population. Siumut and Inuit Ataqatigiit are two of the biggest and most influential parties in Greenlandic politics, constantly obtaining the most seats in the parliament compared with others. Kim Kielsen, head of the Siumut Party, has been Greenland’s sixth Prime Minister since 2014.

Greenland also has its own national flag and anthem. The red and white of the flag represent the sun and ice respectively, and the national anthem is sung to convey the praise of Greenlanders towards the land.

Flag of Greenland [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

Relations with Denmark

The ties between Greenland and Denmark are complex. Early in the late fourteenth century, Danish interests in Greenland was accentuated when Denmark and Norway were merged into one united realm between the early sixteenth century and 1814. However, nowadays, it is universally thought that the milestone in the historical link between Greenland and Denmark began in 1721, when the Danish-Norwegian missionary, Hans Egede, landed on the island, heralding the beginning of the colonialist period in Greenland.

In 1953, the colonial phase in Greenland officially ended, and Greenland became part of the Danish Kingdom. Greenlanders have enjoyed most of the same rights as Danes, use the Danish krone as currency and have two seats in the Danish Parliament. In 1979, the Home-rule Act came into force, and then was superseded by the Self-rule Act of 2009. The latter agreement has allowed for greater autonomy rights to Greenland. However, foreign policy and defense remain the supervision of Denmark. There has been a trend towards support for independence within Greenland. Nevertheless, not every political party or individual Greenlander agrees on the approach, or time frame, of gaining full sovereignty.

International Ties

In addition to Denmark, so far Nuuk has opened three representative offices abroad, namely in Washington D.C, Brussels (overseeing the European Union), and Reykjavík, Iceland. There have been discussions about opening the next diplomatic office, which probably will be placed in Asia. Due to its political status, Greenland has been participating in regional and international affairs primarily through the Kingdom of Denmark, for example in the Arctic Council. Greenland is also a member of Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), a non-governmental organisation representing Inuit peoples across Alaska, Canada, Greenland and the Chukotka region of Russia.


The seafood industry has been one of the pillars of the Greenlandic economy and a significant source of exports, of which prawns make up the lion’s share. Abundant amounts of mineral deposits have been discovered, and estimated, in the soil of Greenland. Thus, there are a number of small scale mining operations on the island, with only a handful of active bigger projects including ruby and anthracite mining. Moreover, Greenland receives annual grants [pdf] from Denmark, (around 3.5 billion Danish kroner), according to the Self-rule Act, which is fluctuating yearly and may be reduced based on the revenue from mining of the year.

With the Arctic becoming a trendy travel destination, Greenland has been seeking to develop its tourism sector. Sightseeing, outdoor sports, dog sledding and other polar activities are on the top of the list for foreign visitors. Accordingly, infrastructure investment, such as airport expansion and new road building projects, as well as language training have appeared on the agenda of the Greenland government.

In some ways, Greenland may be benefiting from climate change. First, accelerated melting of ice and snow has paved the way to more accessible natural resources [pdf]. Greenland may also develop as an hub for international marine transportation in the Arctic Ocean.

Second, large deposits of natural resources are becoming more accessible and trade-able, including rare earth elements and other minerals have put Greenland in a prominent position in the international market, which may advance its economical performance greatly.

Third, Nuuk has been considering water [in Danish] exports, thanks to glacial melting and retreating. However, all gains may not come without pain, since the impact on the environment and society, of tourism, glacial retreating, mining operations and other activities have yet to be precisely estimated.

Social obstacles 

Greenland had been ranked highest globally in terms of suicide rates. In addition, other societal obstacles include incidents of alcoholic abuse, violence, medical shortage, regional imbalance of development, and labour shortages [in Danish] are waiting to be addressed.

New Times, New Thoughts and New Challenges 

In short, Greenland may be summed up in a few words: vast territory, small population, breathtaking scenery, and an uncertain future.

In the summer of 2019, Donald Trump, the President of the United States, suggested the idea of purchasing Greenland, a move which was intensely unpopular with both Greenlanders as well as Danes. However, this unwelcome proposal appears to not have seriously affected ongoing cooperation between Nuuk and Washington. Earlier in 2020, a US consulate was opened in Nuuk, and there has been discussion about increased American investment in the country.

In the wake of the spreading of Black Lives Matter Movement in the West, the longstanding statue of Hans Egede in Nuuk has been a source of controversy within Greenlandic society. The missionary, who started to colonise Greenland in the eighteenth century, has been regarded as a pioneer exploring this Arctic island. However, this is also a reminder of the unpleasant colonial history. Some local inhabitants have demonstrated their will to remove the statue. However, in a referendum on the removal of the statue, which around 23,000 voters were eligible to participate in, the result was a larger number of people agreeing to keep the statue in its current location. However, only a small fraction of those able to vote actually did so.

Greenland has been advertising itself as an emerging Arctic destination for sightseeing and other outdoor ventures. However, the global COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, and subsequent travel restrictions in the country, have blunted this ambition. Additionally, the affected income from fishery product export may be also a developing concern for Greenland due to the pandemic.