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Despite its name, more than 80% of Greenland is covered in ice. And despite a size of more than 830,000 square miles, the immense island territory in the North Atlantic Ocean is home to just 56,000 people. The sparse population, unpredictable Arctic weather, and lack of roads can make this a challenging place to visit. However, Greenland’s impossibly photogenic fishing villages, its breathtaking glaciers and fjords, and the chance of sighting the northern lights make it worthy of a place on anyone’s bucket list. Here are seven interesting facts you probably didn’t know about Greenland.
Greenland Is the Largest Island in the World That’s Not a Continent
Sometimes geographical definitions can be a little tricky. On the face of it, identifying the world’s largest island seems like a simple process of comparing size. Greenland covers an area of 836,300 square miles, more than double that of the next largest island, New Guinea. Australia, however, is significantly larger, at almost 3 million square miles. Like Greenland and every other island on the planet, this Antipodean country is surrounded by water.
However, to qualify as an island, it can’t also be considered a continent. Australia, of course, is a continent, but geologically, Greenland sits on the North American tectonic plate and thus forms part of the continent of North America. That distinction makes Greenland the largest island in the world.
It's Home to the World's Largest National Park
With an area of 375,000 square miles, the Northeast Greenland National Park covers more than 40% of Greenland. Not only is it larger than any other national park on the planet, but it also exceeds the area of all but 29 of the world’s largest countries. In addition, no national park is located farther north. The park is almost completely uninhabited except for approximately 40 researchers, conservationists, and Ittoqqortoormiit hunters. Visitor numbers are limited, though expedition cruise ships are permitted to bring tourists to the most accessible parts of the park.
The wilderness of the national park forms part of the Greenland ice sheet and is home to populations of musk oxen, polar bears, and walruses, along with other Arctic fauna such as foxes, hares, and wolves. Along the park’s 11,000 mile coastline, you might also spot seals, narwhals, and beluga whales, as well as abundant birdlife.
It's Also Home to the World's Fastest-Moving Glacier
The UNESCO-listed Ilulissat Icefjord is located on Greenland’s west coast. It is one of the few places where the country’s enormous ice sheet — second only to Antarctica’s — meets the sea, via the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. And no other glacier in the world moves faster. Rising temperatures mean that the ice now travels toward the sea at a rate of around 130 feet every 24 hours, double the speed it could muster a decade ago.
The serenity of the landscape that surrounds the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier is occasionally disrupted by the enormous waves caused when its icebergs calve noisily into the sea. Just a single one of the largest chunks of ice, if melted, could provide all of Denmark’s population with water for seven years. It’s also possible that one of the icebergs that calved from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier might have sunk the Titanic in 1912. Given the natural wonder on its doorstep, it’s no surprise that nearby Ilulissat is Greenland’s largest town (home to 4,500 people) and an important regional hub for tourism.
Greenlanders Have Danish Citizenship
Greenland’s connection to Scandinavia can be traced back to a Norseman named Erik Thorvaldsson. Better known as Erik the Red, he founded a settlement on the island in the 10th century. He named the place Greenland in an attempt to convince others that the land was more hospitable than it actually was. In the 18th century, the Denmark-Norway union declared sovereignty over Greenland. When that alliance fell apart in 1814, Denmark retained the island as a colony.
In 1953, Greenland was formally integrated into Denmark, which gave Greenlanders Danish citizenship. In a 1979 referendum, 63% of Greenlanders voted for greater autonomy, known as home rule. The island introduced its own flag in 1985, with a red-and-white design that references a setting sun over an icy landscape and mirrors the colors used in the Danish flag. In 2008, Greenlanders passed the Self-Government Act with an even greater majority. Today, Greenland is a self-governing autonomous territory within the Danish realm, but with its own parliament, though Denmark continues to oversee monetary policy, justice, and foreign affairs.
There’s a Reason Why the Buildings Are Different Colors
One thing that visitors to Greenland can’t fail to notice is its distinctive architecture. When the Danish arrived, they introduced the tradition of building more permanent, wooden structures in place of the sealskin tents and peat huts that were common among the Indigenous Inuit people of Greenland. (Incidentally, igloos were and still are uncommon, seen only in the far north where there’s more snow.)
The Danes also instigated a system of color-coding. For instance, any building associated with health care was painted yellow, while churches and government offices were red. Blue was used for the many fish factories, black was used for police stations, and green indicated buildings related to communications. When the Danish government set up the Grønlands Tekniske Organisation (GTO) to regulate housing and infrastructure in 1950, they continued this policy. While there are no longer restrictions around paint color, the brightly colored architecture remains a fixture of the landscape in Greenland.
In Some Parts of the Country, All But One Dog Breed Is Banned
North of the Arctic Circle and in East Greenland, you’ll see only one kind of dog: the Greenlandic sled dog. That’s deliberate — it’s a protected species. This hardy member of the husky family has the strength and stamina to haul heavy loads across the icy landscape, as well as the ability to cope outdoors in the extreme cold. By keeping other dogs away, there’s no risk of diluting the breed’s characteristic traits and making it less effective at doing its job.
If you’re wondering why the restrictions aren’t nationwide, it's because the temperature is warmer in southern Greenland. You’re more likely to see a border collie working with sheep than a dog pulling a sled. Although the population of Greenlandic sled dogs is falling due to changing lifestyles, there are still around 15,000 Greenlandic sled dogs in the country today.
Since 2009, Greenlandic Has Been the Sole Official Language
In 2009, Greenlandic, an Inuit language, became Greeland’s sole official tongue. Before that, Greenlandic shared co-official status with Danish, but a 2008 referendum as part of the territory's continuous push for autonomy highlighted the importance of language and cultural identity. There are three principal dialects spoken across the country: The most prevalent, commonly heard across West Greenland, is Kalaallisut, while the other two are East Greenlandic (Tunumiit oraasiat) and the Thule Greenlandic (Inuktun).
The language is complex and difficult to learn, as some of its longest words convey the same meaning as a whole sentence. For example, “Qiteqatigerusuppingaa?” means, “Do you want to dance with me?” However, some of the words might be a little more familiar than you’d expect. Words like qajaq (kayak), idglo (igloo), and annoraaq (anorak) don’t take much figuring out. If you’re keen to learn some of the basics, this online tutorial is a good place to start.