Focus on Greenland

About Greenland

Greenland is the world’s largest island, with around 56,000 people living there. It has one of the smallest capitals in the world – Nuuk – with a population of around 16,500 people. In the Greenlandic language (Kalaallisut) the name for Greenland is Kalaallit Nunaat which means “The Land of the People”. The Greenland flag and Coat of Arms are pictured to the right.

It is a country of contrasting landscapes and diverse climates – rugged mountains, Arctic desert, lush sheep farms and of course the enormous Greenland Ice Sheet at the center. In the summer, it is the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’, while in winter the Northern Lights (also known as Aurora Borealis) put on their spectacular display.

Did you know?

  • The country is 82% ice cap with a small strip of inhabitable land along the shorelines.
  • The land mass makes Greenland the world’s 12th largest country, but it is one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet.
  • About 90% of the population is Greenlandic, while 10% are immigrants, mostly from Denmark, but increasingly from other parts of the world.
  • The first language is Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) and Danish is the official second language. Walking down the street however you could hear Thai, Norwegian, Icelandic, Filipino, English, and other languages!

Explore the interactive map below to find out more about this amazing country…

The People of Greenland

Most of the people who live in Greenland are Inuit. Greenland has a distinct culture that shapes the way people live. The old and the new combine together – traditional hunting and fishing sit alongside wireless internet; dogsledding and skateboarding exist side by side and fishermen and academics come from the same families.

Greenlandic belongs to the Eskimo family of languages. It is a ‘polysynthetic’ language, which means that a Greenlandic word can be very long and can mean the same as a whole sentence in other languages.

In the past, Inuits wore clothes made from animal hides or skins. These were warm – they could cope with the Arctic’s freezing winter temperatures – and lasted a long time. Men’s clothing was also made so that it would keep the men dry when hunting by kayak.

Europeans brought new types of material and glass beads to Greenland in the 17th and 18th centuries which gradually became part of the Inuits’ dress, particularly for celebrations. For men, hide trousers were replaced with a thick woollen material called ‘holmensklæde’ (island cloth), and for women the anorak was sewn in silk. The glass beads became a feature of the Greenlandic national costume, which is worn today on festive occasions such as Greenland’s National Day.

Photo of traditional dress courtesy of greenland.com.

Photo of a typical Greenland house taken during the Polar Ocean Challenge.

Animals and plants (fauna and flora)

Animals

The polar bear is the biggest predator (hunter) and features on Greenland’s national coat of arms. Greenland is also home to other distinctive animals such as the musk ox, the narwhal and the walrus. Reindeers, wolves, arctic foxes, mountain hares and other small land mammals are also found and around 60 species of bird breed in Greenland, including the white-tailed eagle.

Whales can be seen all over Greenland, particularly during summer. Fin whales, humpback whales and minke whales are the most common, however bowhead whales, blue whales and sperm whales also visit the waters off Greenland.

Animals have traditionally been an important source of food, clothes and income for Greenlanders and played a key role in their way of life. However, today hunting is an important source of income for only a few Greenlanders.

Trees, plants and flowers

Greenland is much greener than you think! More than 500 species of flowering plants grow in Greenland, half which are found on Disko Island. Colourful flowers, lush meadows and hardy plants thrive in the mild summer. Greyleaf willow grows at the base of fjords and can often grown to the height of a person, and five types of orchid flower in Greenland. Small trees even grow in the innermost fjords in Southern Greenland.

Climate Change in Greenland

When scientists and others talk about the impact of global warming, they often mention that the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting. Greenland also acts as an important indicator of how healthy our global climate is. Climate change is therefore an important topic to explore when understanding more about this unique country.

Read more about the impacts of melting ice on the world in this infographic from greenland.com.

Melting ice

Ten percent (10%) of all the fresh water in the world is found in Greenland in the form of ice – millions of cubic meters of frozen fresh water. The rise in global temperatures is causing this ice to melt at an alarming rate. Sealers and whalers at Qaanaaq say that the sea ice is 1 metre (3 feet) thinner today than previously.

In certain areas of the country glaciers are retreating year after year. The UNESCO-protected ice fjord near Ilulissat, has pulled back almost 10km (6 miles) between 2001 and 2004.

Why does this matter?

Recent studies suggest that the ice in Greenland is melting faster than it can be created again. As temperatures continue to rise at the current rate or faster, the ice will melt too quickly and cause the levels of the sea to rise. If the world’s oceans rise by just 44 centimeters, 100 million people will be affected.

Global warming and the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet will have a big impact on the people, nature and wildlife in the Arctic and the rest of the world.

Diving in the presence of icebergs

 

In summer 2017, WWW partner Ocean Imaging went to Greenland to capture and document marine life and the impact that climate change may be having on the Arctic waters around Greenland’s coast. It was also their dream to dive with icebergs and film them underwater – a view most us will never get to see first hand. Here Stefan Edwards tells of their expedition and shares some of their stunning photos.

 

We arrived in Greenland with expectations of blistering winds and ice capped mountains. Our first impressions were vastly different. Working up a sweat as we hiked from the tiny airport to our accommodation, Kangerlussuaq felt were more like it was situated in the middle of a desert than the Arctic.

“There it is!” Kiki announced pointing to the centre of the harbour. In the distance we saw a tiny boat overshadowed by two huge cruise vessels. It was Breskell, a hand crafted wooden sailing boat which would be our home for the next two weeks.

Upon boarding the boat we were greeted by our skipper Olivier. His confidence in the success of the mission through decades of sailing experience was the big reason we felt like we could make this trip work. The plan for the trip was to try and make it up to The World Heritage listed Ilulissat Icefjord, scuba diving at various sites along the way to document marine life.

Before long, we were underwater. We were diving in The Arctic! The site was spectacular. Vibrant, healthy fields of seaweed. Aside from a few curious Greenlandic Cod, fish life though was limited. But at a closer look within the rocky reef, loads of small shellfish filtered the nutrient rich water and small macro life hid in the gaps of the reef. The was the base of the important ecosystem.

With strong winds limiting our daily progress, the crew discussed the logistics of what lay ahead. In the build up to this trip, visions of the expedition involved glaciers, icebergs and whales. While the kelp beds we had just experienced were impressive, our sights were really set on Disko Bay and the Ilulissat Icefjord.

“Impossible” explained Oliver over dinner. “We won’t be able to make it up there with these conditions”.

With the conditions that we were facing, Oliver explained the importance of having set destinations each day with sheltered places to moor overnight. The next few mornings involved 4am starts, lots of coffee and long shifts at the helm and on watch. Each day the wind grew crisper and the extra layers of clothes we packed, finally became useful.

“Iceberg!!!!” A loud call came from up deck. We all raced upstairs. As we sailed closer, the white floating structure grew larger and larger. It was massive… and there was more in the distance too. Our captain Olivier told us right from the start that for him, Icebergs were somewhat of a concern. As a wooden hulled boat, a collision would be catastrophic.

After confidently navigating between icebergs for a few days Oliver’s Arctic sailing confidence was soaring. “I am not scared of icebergs no more” explained Olivier. “It’s the growlers we need to watch out for” he rolled off with a distinct French accent.

I looked at Kinglsey puzzled “Growlers?”… thinking grizzly / polar bear hybrids or something like that. He shrugged his shoulders. The boat was fitted with a radar that would pick up icebergs on the surface but the smaller partially submerged “growlers” were something we needed to watch carefully for.

The call “growler” became a familiar echo as the icebergs grew more dense. We were getting close to Aasiaat, a small town at Disko Bay’s southern edge. Finally it really felt like the real Arctic experience that we had envisaged. It was beautiful.

As we entered the bay of Aasiaat we were greeted by whales. “Humpback’s and Minke’s” Kingsley called! The boat slowed down to a gentle drift. Without hesitation I was in my suit and ready to go, waiting for the whales to come close. The pod frolicked playfully closely as I lay in the water camera in hand, welcoming their presence. I could hear their calls in through the water. At one point I looked down and saw bubbles rising from the depth. They were underneath me! But that was as close as they would come. The whales kept their distance and after some time we returned to the boat.

The crew were ecstatic, we had made it to Disko Bay. The plan was a quick stock up of supplies at the store and with just a few days left before we had to fly out, there was still hope to make it up to the Illulisat Iceford.

The following morning when I woke up, it was clear something was very wrong.

“We can’t go anywhere without the maps” I saw Olivie with his head in his hands leaning over his maps. His computer had crashed, along with all of the navigational software necessary to continue the journey. Desperately seeking solutions, Breskell remained docked in port all morning. We were wasting precious time and things weren’t looking good.

After several hours went by, eventually there was a cheer of celebration and high fives all round. Somehow Maluk’s technical genius managed to reboot the computer and get the navigational gear back up and running.

Between Aasiat and Disko Island there is a small group of islands that we were aiming for that night. This would put us within a day’s sail of Ilulissat. We wasted no more time, lifted the ropes and got going. Upon arrival at these islands it was late in the afternoon but there was still plenty of sunlight. With just days left in our expedition, Kingsley and I knew exactly what we wanted to do… another dive!

The following morning we rose again at 4am to get going. Excitement, anticipation and… more coffee, helped us push through. By midday, what appeared to be a wall of ice appeared at the horizon. It was the Icefjord!  But none of us knew exactly what to expect ahead.

With Icebergs literally everywhere now making navigation a challenge. A path through the ice was not clear. Earlier that day Olivier explained that we may not be able to reach the town. Not going any further from here may be too dangerous. But by now Oliver was in full captain mode. Calls of growlers didn’t seem to phase him as much as before. Sounds of small pieces of ice colliding with the bow caused for some uneasy looks within the crew. He had confidence in his boat and was determined to reach the port of Illulisat.  After all, by making it into this port, it would mean another successful expedition, safety and a sense of accomplishment.

After some hair raising moments a pathway towards the port emerged from the surrounding icebergs. We were close. “This is one of the greatest moments of my life” Olivier said quietly as a tear roll down his cheek. We had made it.

With two days before we had to fly out, there was still time for our dream of diving in the presence of an iceberg. We had confidence in our equipment, boat and captain. There was plenty of ice around. Our biggest uncertainties was within the icebergs themselves and choosing the right spot to jump in. We had been warned about the dangers of ice collapsing and these bergs weren’t something to mess with.

As I swam towards a humpback tail in the distance, I was already imagining what I would see next. Whales and Icebergs! This is the moment I had been waiting for! As I got closer and closer to the iceberg, it seemed to grown taller and taller. Once I reached the base I looked up and and I felt as though I was at next to a ten story building of ice.

Then… something felt wrong. I heard muffled screams and shouting in the distance. As I pulled my dive hood away from my ear, the shouting grew louder. I was being warned to swim away from the iceberg. It was cracking. I was scared! I frantically swam back to the boat and climbed aboard. My heart was racing but a huge grin came across my face. It was incredible.

Later, we found a safer site to jump in and snorkeled our way along to the base of a smaller berg. With the iceberg in sight. I nodded at Kinglsey and we started our descent. The structure of the iceberg underwater was completely different to that exposed from the top. Initially the surface looked like ripples like those from a sandy beach but as we continued along the slope, the shapes changed.  Further along, deep vertical carvings were engraved in the icy sheet like claw marks from a giant animal had scratched down the side. The changes in shapes and texture along the ice were mesmerising. My imagination was running wild.

The sound of all the ice surrounding us was overwhelming. Cracking, scratching, colliding.

When you’re underwater it’s not uncommon for some of your senses to be heightened. For me these sounds instilled a sense of fear. I was worried that the nearby ice would collapse. The depth of this water was over 200m deep, that thought alone was intimidating. We continued along the icy wall, ever so often making a sudden bolt away from the icy edge when the sounds of the ice were especially concerning.

Overall we spent about 30 minutes underwater. Upon surfacing we high fived. What an adventure! What an experience!

I was already starting to shake. My hands were numb but we weren’t ready to get out just now. As part of our plans for this trip, we had a wild dream of filming Ice free diver and daredevil Kiki Bosch freedive these waters, in just her swimsuit she would be completely exposed to the sub zero water.

It was now or never. I called out “let’s do this!”. Kiki took off her Dryrobe and gently lowered herself into the water. Kiki had been training for this moment for months. She was prepared and I had the confidence in her abilities to make this happen. Even still, this is an incredibly dangerous stunt and there’s a lot that could go wrong.

I let the air back out of my BCD and waited, several meters deep next to the iceberg. Within a few moments, Kiki was down there. She glided past, and reached out touching the iceberg with one hand. In this moment Kiki was doing something most people would simply rule out as impossible. She is quite literally overcoming the impossible.

One of the reasons I love videography is being able to share experiences like this that most people would never have the opportunity to feel in their life. Once people see for themselves that something like this is possible, all of a sudden it becomes possible.

This philosophy also speaks true with climate change. It’s easy to discard something as fake and untrue if you haven’t seen it for yourself. As an underwater videographer I’ve been seen many climate impacts first hand. My mission is to share these with the world.

Sometimes I think we really need more people in the world like Kiki Bosch and Olivier who are able to defy the odds and change people’s perspectives into realising that a change in culture starts with you. The first step in changing the world is to change yourself, and if you truly believe that you can actually do something meaningful… then maybe, just maybe it is.

 

This expedition was made possible through the support of our Patros (www.patreon.com/oceanimaging) and Non profit organisation Ninth Wave Global. Ninth wave are independent, international organisation and think tank which works in unknown or forgotten territories over the horizon generating space for investigation and positive change in environmental, community and social settings.