Greatest Places Physical Geography: Dr. Cecil Keen, July 1997


Geographic Description: Harsh, forbidding, and almost completely buried beneath a cap of permanent ice and snow, Greenland is the world's largest island. From north to south it is 1,600 miles long, about equal to the distance between New York and Denver, while at its widest point it spans about 750 miles. Its total area (840,000 square miles) is more than three times the size of Texas. And its rugged coastline, deeply indented by fjords and inlets, totals some 25,000 miles, just about equal to the circumference of the Earth at the equator.

Much of the great wedge-shaped island lies north of the Arctic Circle. (Its northern tip is less than 500 miles from the North Pole.) In this frigid Arctic environment, approximately 85 percent of the island's surface is covered by a permanent ice cap. Averaging 5,000 feet in thickness, the ice cap in some places is as much as 14,000 feet thick and includes about 10 percent of all the ice in the world. Only a relatively narrow coastal strip and scattered nunataks (isolated mountain peaks that project above the surrounding ice) are free of permanent cover of ice and snow. The Greenland ice cap, in fact, is the second largest in the world, exceeded only by the massive ice cap that covers Antarctica.

The bedrock beneath the ice is an eastern extension of the Canadian Shield, the expanse of ancient granite rock that makes up much of Canada's vast interior lowland plain. The surface of the bedrock is far from even. In some places it lies below sea level, while elsewhere it rises up to form high mountain ranges. (The highest peak in Greenland, Mount Gunnbjorn in the eastern coastal range, reaches 12,139 feet.) In overall contours the land surface beneath the ice is more or less saucer-shaped, with a central depression bordered by mountain ranges.

Climate: Snow falls in Greenland every month of the year, and annual precipitation is substantially heavier in the south than in the northern part of the island, which is relatively arid. Since the temperature of the inland ice mass averages only 10 degrees Fahrenheit even in July, very little is lost by melting. Instead, the snow continues to accumulate, gradually compressing into ice.

Ice Movement: The ice, moreover, is constantly on the move; the great weight of the accumulating ice and snow causes it to spread slowly outward toward the edges of the ice cap. Nearing the sea, the ice is gradually forced through gaps between the coastal mountains in the form of glaciers. Some of the glaciers, however, move quite swiftly (One of the biggest, the Jakobshavn Glacier on the western coast of Greenland, advances at the relatively rapid rate of approximately 100 feet per day).

Glaciers: Once the glaciers reach the sea, they break up into tremendous icebergs that crash into the water with a roar and slowly drift away. In all, some 10,000 to 15,000 icebergs are calved by Greenland's glaciers each year; they dump as much as 125 cubic miles of ice into the sea. Thus the snow that falls on Greenland slowly but surely finds its way to the sea, where it melts and returns to the never-ending water cycle, perhaps to fall once again on Greenland.

Political and Cultural Heritage: Home rule was instituted in 1979, which was preceeded by Greenland becoming part of the Kingdom of Denmark, no longer a colony in 1953. However, Denmark retains control of foreign affairs, and Greenlanders are Danish citizens. Todaymore than four-fifths of the population are native Greenlanders, mostly descended from Inuit with a mixture of early European settlers. The remainder are largely Danes. The official languages are Greenlandic (Eskimo dialects) and Danish, and most people belong to the Danish Lutheran church.

Settlements: Settlement is limited to the coastal fringe. Sheep and reindeer are raised in the extreme south where hay can be grown during the summer for fodder. Fishing has displaced seal hunting as the leading industry. It is largely state-financed, as are the onshore canning and freezing plants.

Resources: Greenland's mineral resources are large but difficult to exploit. Mining of the world's largest cryolite deposits was abandoned as uneconomic in 1963. Exploration has revealed valuable metal deposits, of which zinc and lead are now being mined along the western coast. Electricity, from thermal stations, relies on imported fuels.

Greenland has no railroads. The small road network is well used, but dog sleds remain the chief form of surface transportation. Most freight arrives by sea, but there is a well-developed internal and external air service. A sophisticated telecommunications network is available to most of the population. Radio, television, and newspapers are given in both Greenlandic and Danish.

A full range of welfare services is funded by the Danish government. Free health care is available to everyone. Nine years of elementary education are free and compulsory; four years of secondary education are optional. Both vocational and university education are available for Greenlanders in Denmark.

Land Use:
0 percent arable land; 0 percent permanent crops; 1 percent meadows and pastures; negligible percent forest and woodland; and 99 percent other

Major Cities: Nuuk, (Godthab) capital, population 12,233

Population: 56,600

Climate: Arctic very cold. Average temperatures in Nuuk are 10-19 degrees Fahrenheit in January; 37-57 degrees Fahrenheit in July

Ethnic Groups: 86 percent Greenlander (Eskimos and Greenland-born whites), and 14 percent Danish

Danish, Eskimo dialects

Evangelical Lutheran

Government Type: Self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark

Natural Resources: Zinc, lead, iron ore, coal, and molybdenum

Major Industries: Mining, fishing, and sealing

Exports: Fish and fish products, metallic ores and concentrates

Imports: Petroleum (and products), machinery and transport equipment, and food products

Major Trading Partners:
Exports: Denmark (74 percent), Germany (11 percent), and Sweden (6 percent):
Imports: Denmark (69 percent), Norway, and German








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