May 21, 2012, 9:34 pm
Source: CIA World Factbook
Content Cover Image

Source: NASA

Greenland, the world's largest island, is  between the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic Ocean, northeast of Canada. It is a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark.

Kalaallit Nunaat, the local name for Greenland, is geographically a part of North America, though politically a member of Europe.

Greenland is about 81% ice capped and has the largest ice sheet in the world outside Antarctica; permanently covered in ice up to 3,375 meters (11,070 feet) thick. Ice-free areas are restricted to the coastal fringes, which can be divided into two biogeographic regions: the low and the High Arctic Tundra.

It is home to just under 60,000 people, confined to small settlements along coast; close to one-quarter of the population lives in the capital, Nuuk.

Vikings reached the island in the 10th century (982 A.D) from Iceland and brought with them cattle and sheep. These herds exploited the natural vegetation until the late 15th century. Birch forests were greatly diminished by clearing for grazing and for attempts to farm cereal crops. An impact was also made by peat-cutting. The Norse settlers introduced many plant species, such as yarrow, sheep’s sorrel, and tufted vetch to the island.

Small-scale sheep farming by Danish colonists began in 1782, then went large-scale in 1906, with sheep being grazed year round on natural vegetation. Sheep are now overwintered in barns and fed hay grown for the purpose.

Greenland was made an integral part of Denmark in 1953.

It joined the European Community (now the European Union) with Denmark in 1973 but withdrew in 1985 over a dispute centered on stringent fishing quotas.

Greenland was granted self-government in 1979 by the Danish parliament; the law went into effect the following year.

Greenland voted in favor of increased self-rule in November 2008 and acquired greater responsibility for internal affairs in June 2009.

Denmark, however, continues to exercise control of Greenland's foreign affairs, security, and financial policy in consultation with Greenland's Home Rule Government. Greenland actively participates in international agreements relating to Greenland.

There is a managed dispute between Canada and Denmark over Hans Island in the Kennedy Channel between Canada's Ellesmere Island and Greenland.

Denmark (Greenland) and Norway have made submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental shelf (CLCS) and Russia is collecting additional data to augment its 2001 CLCS submission.

Though the population has always been small in this harsh environment, Greenland has experienced many environmental crises throughout its history. These have been due in large part to overhunting of many of the larger animal populations. Several of these, such as arctic fox, came close to extinction just before regulations were initiated. Populations are generally recovering well, though a regulated amount of hunting is allowed. Overgrazing and mechanical destruction of some species’ food sources has had an effect on populations. The Søndre Strømfjord, the most important area for caribou in Greenland, began to experience a dramatic decrease of populations in the late 1970's, which was explained in part by destruction of lichen areas, climate, and lack of natural predators.

Its major environmental issues include:

  • protection of the arctic environment;
  • preservation of the Inuit traditional way of life, including whaling and seal hunting

There is continuous permafrost over northern two-thirds of the island.


Location: Northern North America, island between the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic Ocean, northeast of Canada

Geographic Coordinates: 72 00 N, 40 00 W

Area: 2,166,086 sq km (410,449 sq km ice-free, 1,755,637 sq km ice-covered)

Coastline: 44,087 km

Maritime Claims:

territorial sea: 3 nm
exclusive fishing zone: 200 nm or agreed boundaries or median lines
continental shelf: 200 nm or agreed boundaries or median line

Natural Hazards: continuous permafrost over northern two-thirds of the island

Terrain: flat to gradually sloping icecap covers all but a narrow, mountainous, barren, rocky coast.  The highest point is Gunnbjorn Fjeld (3,700 m)

Climate: arctic to subarctic; cool summers, cold winters


Ecology and Biodiversity

Kalaallit Nunaat low arctic tundra - Low arctic tundra covers the ice-free coastal region of southern Greenland, mostly covered in stunted vegetation, yet teeming with wildflowers such as chamomile, dandelion, harebell, and Arctic poppies, and also wild berries in the lowland areas during summer. Few animals tolerate the harsh environment, but those that are present are fascinating. Polar bear and reindeer (or caribou) make their home here, as well as a population of muskox introduced from the northeast high tundra ecoregion. Atlantic puffin, whooper swan, rock ptarmigan, and gyrfalcon are just a few of the island’s spectacular birds.

There are eight Ramsar sites along the west coast of Greenland’s low arctic tundra: Aqajarua-Sullorsuaq, Eqalummiut Nunaat-Nassuttuup Nunaa, Kitsissunnguit, Kitsissut Avalliit, Kuannersuit Kuussuat, Naternaq, Qínnquata Marraa-Kuussuaq, Ikkattoq & adjacent archipelago. Most of these are designated due to important populations of seabirds, which use the sites for breeding, staging, or molting.

Kalaallit Nunaat high arctic tundra is located above 75°N latitude at Melville Bay on the West Coast and 70°N at Scoresby Sound, on the East Coast. This region is less mountainous than the southern portion, with some rolling hills, such as in Peary Land at the extreme northeast. At 80°N latitude, Peary Land is the most northern ice-free landmass in the world.

Veiled in near-darkness for as many as four months out of the year and enduring summer temperatures that seldom break 5°C, this ecoregion supports only plants and animals adapted to the most extreme of conditions. Often existing at their limits of survival, the natural assembly of this ecoregion is vulnerable to even minor disruptions. The muskox, arctic wolf, polar bear, seals, and others of this ecoregion were heavily targeted by hunters in the past, but are mostly recuperating under new regulations. The largest National Park in the world, covering 1,000,000 square kilometers (km2), was established here in 1974. A significant cause of concern for the ecoregion is the expected results of climate change faced by the region.

Ecoregions of Greenland. Source: World Wildlife Fund

Tundra comes from a Finnish word meaning, simply, free of forest. The term also now includes the presence of permafrost: the lower soil is permanently frozen, causing poor drainage.

See also:

Nuussuaq district in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, with the Sermitsiaq mountain in background. Source: Oliver Schauf/Wikimedia Commons.

People and Society

Population: 57,695 (July 2012 est.)

The coast of Greenland as seen from the air.
Glacier in the fjords of Greenland, as seen from the air.

Ethnic Groups: Inuit 89%, Danish and other 11% (2009)

Age Structure:

0-14 years: 22.3% (male 6,514/female 6,330)
15-64 years: 70.2% (male 21,599/female 18,861)
65 years and over: 7.6% (male 2,269/female 2,097) (2011 est.)

Population Growth Rate: 0.038% (2012 est.)

Birthrate: 14.58 births/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Death Rate: 8.22 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.)

Net Migration Rate: -5.98 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Life Expectancy at Birth: 71.25 years 

male: 68.6 years
female: 74.04 years (2012 est.)

Total Fertility Rate: 2.11 children born/woman (2012 est.)

Languages: Greenlandic (East Inuit) (official), Danish (official), English

Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write)100% (2001 est.)

Urbanization: 84% of total population (2010) growing at an annual rate of change of 0.3% (2010-15 est.)



On June 21, 2009, Greenland assumed increased autonomy under a Self Rule Act, deepening the “home rule” that had been in effect since 1979. Under self rule, the Greenlandic government (Naalakkersuisut) and the Danish Government are recognized as equal partners and Kalaallisut, the Inuit dialect, becomes the official language of Greenland.

The Greenland Government intends to take responsibility for additional government functions gradually, such as prisons, criminal justice, courts of law, family law, passports, and mineral resources. The Danish Government freezes its annual block grant at the 2007 level of 3.2 billion kroner ($570 million, 2010 exchange rate). That grant will be adjusted for Danish inflation, though not the often higher Greenlandic inflation, meaning the value in real terms is expected to shrink in coming years. However, Greenland gains rights to its mineral, oil, and natural gas resources: the first 75 million kroner ($13.3 million) from mineral/oil/gas revenues would go to Greenland, with further revenues split equally between the two governments, and with Denmark’s share being subtracted from the annual block grant. Once the block grant is eliminated, any additional revenue would be subject to renegotiation between the Danish and Greenlandic governments.

Dependency Status: part of the Kingdom of Denmark; self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark since 1979

Capital: Nuuk 15,000 (2009)

Administrative divisions: 4 municipalities (kommuner, singular kommune);


  • Kujalleq
  • Qaasuitsup
  • Qeqqata
  • Sermersooq.


The North and East Greenland National Park (Avannaarsuani Tunumilu Nuna Allanngutsaaliugaq) and the Thule Air Base in Pituffik (in northwest Greenland) are two unincorporated areas

Tthe national park's 972,000 sq km - about 46% of the island - make it the largest national park in the world and also the most northerly


Source: Wikimedia Commons


Legal System:  the laws of Denmark, where applicable, apply


Natural Resources: coal, iron ore, lead, zinc, molybdenum, diamonds, gold, platinum, niobium, tantalite, uranium, fish, seals, whales, hydropower, possible oil and gas

Land Use:

arable land: 0%
permanent crops: 0%
other: 100% (2005)


Because the island is covered by such a thick sheet of ice, it is easy to picture Greenland as a flat, featureless white plain. In reality, the ice’s elevation rises dramatically between sea level around the coastline and the east-central interior, where elevations reach 3,200 meters (10,499 feet). The bright line running north to south roughly through the center of the island shows where the ice sheet peaks in a long island-spanning ridge. Fainter (lower elevation) ridgelines are visible near the northwest coast. The deeper shadows on the eastern (right) side of the major ridgeline indicate that the elevation drops off to the sea more rapidly. On the western slopes, the descent is more gradual.

Over time the Geoscience Laser Altimeter System (GLAS) aboard ICESat will produce maps showing change in the ice sheets and the glacial rivers that flow from the island’s interior. Greenland’s unique ice sheets hold the key to Earth's past climate, and may provide some clues for our future climate, too.

Source; NASA. Image courtesy John P. DiMarzio and the ICESat Science Team

The economy remains critically dependent on exports of shrimp and fish and on a substantial subsidy - about $650 million in 2009 - from the Danish Government, which supplies nearly 60% of government revenues.

The public sector, including publicly owned enterprises and the municipalities, plays the dominant role in Greenland's economy.

The public sector in Greenland, including publicly-owned enterprises and the municipalities, plays the dominant role in the economy and employs roughly 50% of the workforce. A large part of government revenues still comes from the Danish Government block grant--46% in 2009. The block grant remains an important supplement to GDP. About one-third of government revenue came from taxes in 2009.

Greenland's economy has been relatively unharmed by the global economic crisis. The main sources of income for Greenland are transfers from abroad, the value of fish production, and the direct and indirect effects of mineral exploration. Transfers from abroad are contained in agreements and will not be influenced by international trends, while the value of fisheries and mineral resource exploration is influenced by international economic developments. According to the Greenlandic Economic Council, real GDP is estimated (the most recent national account statistics are from 2007) to have contracted by 1.0% in 2009, followed by a recovery of 2.0% growth in 2010 and 3.0% growth in 2011. The outlook for 2012 is for zero GDP growth. The recovery was primarily driven by hydrocarbon and mineral exploration and exploitation investments, as well as high levels of construction activity in the capital Nuuk in 2010-2011 and the 2010-2011 increase in the price of fish and shrimp, Greenland’s main export. The 2012 outlook is highly uncertain depending on continued exploration activities. A commercial find of hydrocarbons or minerals could add significantly to activities, while disappointments could lead to contraction. Unemployment rose in 2008-2010 after an extended period from 2003 with lower unemployment. Unemployment now seems to have stabilized at the 2010 level. Structural reforms are still needed in order to create a broader business base and economic growth through more efficient use of existing resources in both the public and the private sectors.

During the last decade the Greenland Home Rule Government (GHRG) pursued conservative fiscal and monetary policies, but public pressure has increased for better schools, health care and retirement systems. The Greenlandic economy has benefited from increasing catches and exports of shrimp, Greenland halibut and, more recently, crabs.

Due to its continued dependence on exports of fish (mainly shrimp), which make up 85% of goods exports, Greenland’s economy remains sensitive to foreign developments. Greenland has registered a growing foreign trade deficit since the closure of the last remaining lead and zinc mine in 1989. The trade deficit reached $391 million, or 24% of GDP, in 2010.

International interest in Greenland’s mineral wealth is increasing. International consortia are increasingly active in exploring for hydrocarbon resources off Greenland’s western coast; in November 2010, seven exclusive licenses for exploration and exploitation of oil and gas were awarded. There are international studies indicating the potential of oil and gas fields in northern and northeastern Greenland. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that up to 17 billion barrels of oil and gas are present in the area between Canada and Northwest Greenland. Cairn Energy carried out three exploration drillings in Greenland in 2010, the first exploration drilling in Greenland in 10 years, and discovered gas and oil-bearing sands in one of the drillings. Drilling continued in 2011 but without significant finds.

The U.S. aluminum producer Alcoa in May 2007 concluded a memorandum of understanding with the Greenland Home Rule Government to build an aluminum smelter and associated power generation facility in Greenland to take advantage of abundant hydropower potential, although progress on that project has been delayed. It is estimated that, upon completion, the Alcoa investment would be worth approximately $2.5 billion.

Tourism also offers another avenue of economic growth for Greenland, with increasing numbers of cruise lines now operating in Greenland’s western and southern waters during the peak summer tourism season..

GDP: (Purchasing Power Parity): $2.133 billion (2011 est.)

GDP: (Official Exchange Rate): $2.16 billion (2011 est.)

GDP- per capita (PPP): $37,400 (2008 est.)

GDP- composition by sector:

agriculture: 4%
industry: 29%
services: 67% (2009 est.)

Agricultural products: forage crops, garden and greenhouse vegetables; sheep, reindeer; fish

Industries: fish processing (mainly shrimp and Greenland halibut); gold, niobium, tantalite, uranium, iron and diamond mining; handicrafts, hides and skins, small shipyards

Currency: Danish kroner (DKK)


Along Greenland's western coast, a small field of glaciers empties into Baffin Bay, 80% of which is covered by ice in winter. Calving icebergs may be seen in the lower right of this high-resolution satellite photo. Baffin Bay is only 1,000 m (3,300 ft) deep along the coast. Between May and July a polynya, an area of navigable open water surrounded by sea ice, forms at the northern part of the bay. This polynya, the largest in the Canadian Arctic, is stable in location and has existed for nearly 9,000 years. Image courtesy of USGS.



Agency, C., & Department, U. (2012). Greenland. Retrieved from


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