The guide to climate change
in Greenland

This guide to climate change in Greenland offers everything you need to know
about how Greenland is living with climate change today, and where it might lead the country in the future.

Most of us are familiar with the term ‘climate change’, and see it to some extent as a reality of the world today. For many of us it’s something that we simply see in the news, with environmental conditions setting new records in faraway nations: “the warmest”, “the wettest”, “the driest”. But in some places climate change is an undeniable fact of everyday life. One of these places is Greenland.

Chapter #1

Climate change:
the basics

Chapter #2

Where does
Greenland fit in?

Chapter #3

Climate change in action:
how glaciers work

Chapter #4

How is wildlife affected
by climate change?

Chapter #5

How is industry affected
by climate change?

Chapter #6

The politics of climate
change in Greenland

Chapter #7

How is society affected
by climate change?

Chapter #8

The future for
climate change

scroll down
to explore

Chapter #1

Climate Change: The basics

“Climate Change Explained” – Video by: The Daily Conversation

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average, and is experiencing some of the most intense effects of climate change, with southwest Greenland seeing the most rapid warming (about 3°C during the past 7 years). In July 2013, the temperature at Maniitsoq airport, just beneath the Arctic Circle in west Greenland, was recorded at 25.9°C. This is the highest temperature ever recorded in Greenland.

Climate Change Explained

→ “Six graphics that explain climate change” by BBC

5 things to know about the warming Arctic

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala answers five questions regarding the critical state of Earth’s sea ice, and what it means for us. Video by: National Geographic

Evidence of Climate Change in the Arctic

One of the most visible ways to monitor climate change in the Arctic is by looking at the extent of sea ice. Sea ice is frozen ocean water that forms, grows and melts in the ocean. Scientists study the amount of sea ice forming and melting every year as an indicator of the condition of the climate.

Take a look at these different glaciers around the world and how they’ve retreated here.

Interactive Arctic Sea Ice Graph

source: nsidc.org

  • View additional years by clicking the dates in the legend.
  • Roll your cursor over the line to see daily sea ice extent values.
  • Zoom in to any area on the chart by clicking and dragging your mouse.
  • To see a corresponding daily sea ice concentration image, click on a line in the chart. Sea ice extent is derived from sea ice concentration. Images are not available for the average or standard deviation.
  • When reusing Charctic images or data, please credit “National Snow and Ice Data Center.”
  • Currently, some functions do not work in Internet Explorer. We recommend using a different browser.
  • For more information about the data, see About Charctic data. If you have questions or problems, please contact NSIDC User Services at nsidc@nsidc.org.

NASA logo NASA logo NSIDC scientists provide Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis, with partial support from NASA.

“NASA: Arctic Sea Ice 1979-2012” – Video by: Extreme Ice Survey

Chapter #2

Where does Greenland fit in?

So where exactly does Greenland fit into the global process of climate change?

Greenland is an important cog in the global climate system. The central reason for this is the huge ice sheet which covers 80% of the island. This is the second largest of only two great ice sheets on the earth – the largest being on Antarctica. Greenland’s ice sheet is more than 100,000 years old and up to two miles thick, making up roughly 8% of all of Earth’s fresh water. It contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 24 feet (7.3 metres), if all of it melted.

“Greenland Ice Sheet Changing” – Video by: SpaceRip

The ice sheet helps to moderate Earth’s temperatures by reflecting the sun’s energy back into space – this is known as the “albedo effect”. And due to the ice sheet’s positioning in the North Atlantic, its meltwater tempers ocean circulation patterns.

However, with Arctic air temperatures currently rising at twice the global average rate, the ice sheet is critical to conversations of climate change. As the Greenland ice sheet melts, the global sea level rises. Sea level rise could be a global-scale catastrophe since nearly one-third of the world’s population lives in or near a coastal zone.

Generally speaking, the ‘melt seasons’ of the ice sheet are becoming more and more intense. In 2012, 97% of the ice sheet experienced surface melt at some point during the year. Between 2002 and 2016 the ice sheet lost mass at a rate of around 269 gigatonnes per year. That’s 269 billion tonnes per year.

Check out this video by the people at the IceWatch project, which visualises how ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet affects global sea levels.

Chapter #3

Climate Change in Action:
How glaciers work

Following the movement of glaciers is one of the most tangible ways to see climate change in action – and Ilulissat Glacier, in West Greenland, is generally considered to be the fastest moving glacier in the world. It is Greenland’s single largest contributor to global sea level rise. The iceberg that sank the Titanic probably originated here.

“Glaciers lost in time” – Video by: Nature Video

Infographic:

From snowfall to sea
– The iceberg’s journey

Find out how and why glaciers move by downloading this infographic, which explains the significance of glaciers to climate change.

In May 2008, the Extreme Ice Survey filmed the largest glacier calving event ever captured on film at Ilulissat Glacier. The calving event lasted for 75 minutes and the glacier retreated a full mile across a calving face three miles wide.

“CHASING ICE” captures largest glacier calving ever filmed – Video by: Exposure Labs

However, it is not just through glaciers that the ice sheet loses mass. A study published in early 2019 found that the largest ice loss from 2003 – 2013 actually occurred in southwest Greenland, which is largely glacier-free. This suggests that surface ice is simply melting straight into the ocean as rivers, without forming glaciers first.

It is quite common in Greenland to see glaciers calving before your eyes. Follow the links below to discover the best ways to see this amazing process for yourself.

Experience for yourself

Ilulissat Icefjord is a UNESCO world heritage site that is easily accessible from the town centre of Ilulissat. It’s too far away from the glacier front to see it calve, but you can easily spend hours by the icefjord, transfixed by the many different shapes and sizes of icebergs floating into the ocean.

“ICEFJORD | Greenland” – Video by: Benjamin Hardman

“Ilulissat Icefjord: UNESCO Site” – Video by: Visit Greenland

“Ilulissat Icefjord – GREENLAND | 4K Drone Footage”
Video by: Rasmus Hagen-Pedersen

Chapter #4

How is wildlife affected
by climate change?

Climate change is a very complicated phenomenon, and increasingly affects every aspect of our society and our natural world. One of the key discussions relating to climate change in Greenland is the effect that it has on the wildlife that calls Greenland home.

Greenland may seem like a sparse land but its wildlife is rich and diverse. Find out which different species rely on Greenland’s climate to survive.

Polar bears are one of the most frequently discussed animals in relation to climate change. Unlike other bears, they spend most of their time at sea, using the sea ice to hunt their food. Sea ice gives polar bears a deep-water platform from which to hunt seals.

“Hungry Polar Bear Ambushes Seal” – Video by: BBC Earth

There is debate over the extent to which polar bears are threatened by climate change.

As the extent of sea ice decreases due to climate change, bears have had to adjust their habitat use. With less sea ice to use to hunt seals, polar bears have fewer opportunities to find food. This leads to worries about the starvation of polar bears and about bears venturing closer to towns in search of food. If they get close enough to a town that residents feel threatened, the bear will be shot in self-defence.

In Greenland in particular, it has been observed that polar bears are moving further north in search of more fruitful hunting grounds. Up here, it has been reported that polar bears on the whole continue to look healthy. Some even argue that far up north climate change has been advantageous for polar bears, as the breaking up of sea ice that was once solid allows them more food sources.

Further south in Greenland, there have been reports that polar bears are thinner and are seen more frequently near villages, scavenging for food. Some hunters are no longer able to store their meat in caches on the ice, as they once did, because hungry polar bears may steal it.

It is very difficult to track numbers of polar bears in Greenland and there are conflicting reports claiming both increases and decreases of polar bear numbers in Arctic areas. You can see the distribution data that is available on the WWF website. This report, by the government of Greenland, gives more detail about the distribution of polar bears in Greenland and their vulnerability and conservation.

The relationship between climate change and polar bears is complex and not easily analysed. Learn about other relationships between wildlife and climate change in Greenland below.

Chapter #5

How is industry affected
by climate change?

Climate change might in general be considered a global disaster, but there are some potential benefits in store for Greenland. Rising temperatures are favourable to many national industries, including mining, fishing, agriculture, tourism and shipping. Many Greenlanders actually see the warming planet as an opportunity.

Mining

Uranium was discovered in the 1950s in Kvanefjeld, just outside of Narsaq. This area has recently been found also to be full of rare minerals. Similarly, there is said to be a wealth of rare minerals buried in Greenland’s ice sheet, which will become more accessible as the ice cap melts. Zinc, iron, uranium, gold, and rare earth elements are set to be revealed, that some predict will be the largest deposits outside China.

“Rubies from Aappaluttoq, Greenland.” – Video by: Field Gemology

The number of mining licenses issued for Greenland has exploded in recent years, as countries including Australia, Canada, and China have all expressed interest in exploiting the country’s resources.

“Greenland Resources Inc. Mining for Company Without Jesper”
– Video by: Andre Skinner

The effects of this potential mining boom in Greenland can be both positive and negative. Mining projects provide jobs and economic growth, and attract migration and investment.

However, for some, the mining projects are controversial. Local residents worry about radiation and environmental pollution from the mine. Those living in close proximity to mines may have to give up their houses or land.

Fishing

The vast majority – more than 90% – of Greenland’s export income is from fish, and as seas warm, an increasing number of southern fish species find their way into Greenland’s oceans, creating new opportunities for fishing.

Fishermen report that cod stocks are getting bigger and bigger, and that while Greenland’s “pink gold”, cold-water shrimp, is moving further north, new fish species – such as mackerel, herring, cod and Atlantic bluefin tuna – are entering the country’s waters.

Warming temperatures also mean that fishermen can extend their seasons, allowing them to catch more fish.

Agriculture

Similarly, warming temperatures are proving beneficial for the agricultural industry. As a milder climate means that the growing season gets longer, there are more opportunities to produce crops for local consumption in Southern Greenland, without having to import them from Denmark.

However, there is still a long way to go on the agricultural front. The weather is still unreliable, and the industry is not big enough to sustain the whole country. Additionally, an increase in extreme weather behaviour, such as droughts, has caused farming and livestock rearing to become more challenging in some parts of the country.

Trade

As the Arctic sea ice melts and temperatures warm, Greenland is likely to become more accessible by ship and more attractive to investors, opening up more opportunities for international trade.

A major point of discussion is the Northwest Passage, which is a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Melting sea ice has in recent years begun to open this route up for commercial shipping. Greenland is located along the Northwest Passage and would therefore benefit from the route being established as a regular trading route.

“Shipping in the Arctic’s Northwest Passage” – Video by: asmithproduction

Tourism

Climate change has benefits for Greenland’s tourism industry for a number of reasons.

As melting sea ice opens up routes for trade, it also makes Greenland more accessible for cruise ships. As fjords that were previously frozen gradually become ice-free, more destinations in Greenland become available to cruise passengers, and more towns can benefit from the economic input of tourists.

Cruise ships have even begun to sail the Northwest Passage. In 2016, the the Crystal Serenity made history by passing through the Northwest Passage with more than 1,000 people on board.

“Crystal Serenity Northwest Passage 2016” – Video by: Crystal Cruises

Although this route has now been cancelled, it seems possible that formerly frozen areas such as this will become regular cruising routes in the future.

“Stunning cruises in Greenland!” – Video by: Visit Greenland

As temperatures warm in Greenland and summer temperatures are reported in the 20s, the country becomes a lot more enticing for tourists who are sometimes put off by the Arctic climate.

Additionally, as the effects of climate change increasingly become apparent across the world, travelers are beginning to see Greenland as a ‘last frontier’, and its landscape as somewhere that has an expiration date on it. Statistics show how tourism to Greenland has been increasing over recent years.

Chapter #6

The politics of climate change
in Greenland

Currently, Greenland is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. This means that it self-governs in most areas, but also receives an annual financial contribution from Denmark.

Since 2009, Greenland has had self-rule, which means that it is free to declare full independence from Denmark (as long as this is approved by a referendum). Generally speaking, there is a strong will for independence among the Greenlandic people, but progress is inhibited by the question of whether Greenland can sustain itself economically as an independent nation. While a fully independent government would allow Greenland total autonomy in its decision making and give the country a unique cultural identity, it would also bring on a host of challenges that Greenland has never faced before on the international stage.

Click the button to see video by AFP news agency: “Independence – a top priority for Greenland voters”

Here you can read more about Greenland’s political status.

Diversification of Greenland’s economy is identified as a key factor in developing an economy which can stand on its own two feet. Interestingly, climate change might provide the opportunity for this.

The mining opportunities mentioned in Chapter 5 have triggered interest from outside investors, including oil exploration, precious metal and uranium mining companies. However, this is a slight paradox since, if Greenland engages heavily in these industries, it would mean a considerable increase in the country’s CO2 emissions. The country would, therefore, become a more and more significant contributor to global warming. Because of this, Greenland has been working to relax certain restrictions against practices that may further the effects of climate change. It has been able to fight international agreements such as the Paris Agreement because it is currently the victim of global warming, not the perpetrator. However, if the future of Greenland becomes mining, the country could face pressure from environmental activists, governments, and its own citizens to regulate the industry.

Read more about Greenlandic independence and its link to climate change:

Chapter #7

How is society affected
by climate change?

Although climate change is commonly considered a phenomenon that affects the natural world, Greenlanders consider nature and culture to be inseparable, and so there are many cultural impacts of climate change that need to be considered.

Hunting

Climate change has made it increasingly difficult for Greenlanders to perform traditional cultural practices, such as dogsledding. Dogsled teams use the sea ice to travel and hunt, but the reduced extent of sea ice and shorter freezing season means that hunters have less time and less area to hunt on.

“The traditional way of life is very challenged,” says Bjarne “Ababsi” Lyberth, a biologist and hunting expert for the Association of Fishers and Hunters. “People used to go hunting for weeks on the sea ice. They would go so far out they couldn’t see any land. Now they can travel only for one day by sea ice, there’s too much open water and it’s unstable.”

As a result of this reduced opportunity for hunting, some hunters are getting rid of their dog teams as they have become too expensive to feed and maintain. And with the loss of dog teams comes loss of the traditional Greenlandic culture and lifestyle.

“Inuit traditions – Seal hunting in Greenland on dog sleds”
– Video by: Coastal Killers

Learning

In a similar way, the sharing of traditional knowledge also becomes more difficult in the contemporary context of climate change.

Natuk Lund Olsen, a senior Greenlandic official, explains that “A father can’t share his traditional knowledge on hunting with his son anymore because so many things are changing. He can’t tell him anymore what it means, how the skies look on a given day… The weather has become so unpredictable; one goes out to hunt in nice weather in the morning, but in the afternoon there is a storm.”

Greenlanders have a strong tradition of oral learning – the sharing of stories and experiences through the spoken word. Here, Natuk describes a situation in which elders can no longer reliably share their wisdom and experience with younger members of the community, because the knowledge has been devalued due to erratic weather conditions caused by climate change.

Language Change

There has been some concern that changes in the climate could lead to changes in language. Greenlandic is a polysynthetic language that allows the creation of long words by stringing together roots and suffixes. This means that what we would express in English as an entire sentence is often expressed in Greenlandic using one word, and leads to incredibly long words, including what is claimed to be the longest word in the world:

Nalunaarasuartaateeranngualioqatigiiffissualioriataallaqqissupilorujussuanngor-tartuinnakasinngortinniamisaalinnguatsiaraluallaqqooqigaminngamiaasiinngooq

meaning:

“There were reports that they apparently – God knows how many times – once again had considered whether I, despite my poor condition, still could be considered to be quite adept and resourceful as an initiator to put a consortium together for the establishment of a range of small radio stations.”

The polysynthetic nature of Greenlandic means that single words are often used to describe tiny nuances in the weather. For example, isersarneq communicates something like: “This is a wind in the fjord that comes in from the sea, and it can be hard to get home, but once you get out of the fjord, it’s nice weather.” Recently, however, as the winds change and become unpredictable, these terms are disappearing.

There is also a worry that, if migration to Greenland increases, the Greenlandic language will be diluted and become even more endangered than it already is. Katti Frederikson, the head of Greenland’s language secretariat, explains that, “If we lose our language, lots of stories will be lost, and lots of the traditional knowledge about nature, climate, medicine, and landscape. And of course the way we think, the way we act, will be lost. So what I’m trying to say is that by the time people stop speaking Kalaallisut, we’ll have lost Greenlanders.”

“Languages on Ice” – Video by: Christopher Booker

Job Creation

Chapter 5 has already outlined the opportunities for industry that climate change presents. If activities such as mining really take off, there will be a need for a vast workforce in the country. This would create job opportunities for Greenland’s youth, many of whom struggle with unemployment and lack of education.

However, Søren Hald Møller, permanent secretary for Greenland’s prime minister, explains that it is not that simple for a society to take up new occupations. “We know that climate change also creates new opportunities, for example in new pelagic [cod, herring, mackerel] fisheries. But still, no one can just jump from one occupation to another that is completely different.”

Immigration

In the near future, it is possible that Greenland will see significant immigration in the form of an influx of foreign labour to work in the mines. In the more distant future, there is speculation that those displaced from low-lying cities by sea level rise will flock to Greenland.

As well as potentially influencing language, as mentioned above, it is inevitable that this will have some kind of effect more generally on Greenlandic culture and lifestyle. Aqqaluk Lynge, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, urges people to “imagine the consequences of what the influx of foreign labour will be. Being a minority in your own country, is that what you want?”. Since Greenland as a country has the lowest population density in the world, with a population of only just over 56,000 on the world’s largest island, it is a possibility that if migration occurs on a large scale, the local population could become marginalised.

Chapter #8

The future for climate change

There is a lot of debate surrounding the timescale of climate change and at what point we can expect to see certain events occur. Some climate scientists, like Guy McPherson, predict that climate changes will happen so dramatically in the coming years that humans will be extinct within our lifetime. This is based on predictions of exponential warming leading to severe and sudden lack of food sources, the restriction of trade, economic collapse, mass displacement of peoples and eventually war. Other timeline projections are less dramatic, and place most significant events at the end of this century, or suggest that it is too early to discuss possible global crises.

What Happens If The World Warms Up By 2°C?

→ “What Happens If The World Warms Up By 2°C?” by Sky News

Click on the right arrow to see
“What Happens If The World Warms Up By 3°C?”

What happens If The World Warms Up By 3°C?

→ “What Happens If The World Warms Up By 3°C?” by Sky News

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“What Happens If The World Warms Up By 4°C?”

What happens If The World Warms Up By 4°C?

→ “What Happens If The World Warms Up By 4°C?” by Sky News

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“What Happens If The World Warms Up By 5°C?”

What happens If The World Warms Up By 5°C?

→ “What Happens If The World Warms Up By 5°C?” by Sky News

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“What Happens If The World Warms Up By 2°C?”

Many scientists now accept that these global events are inevitable, but that the question is when they will happen, and to what extent. These events are largely contingent on how quickly the poles melt, and so the work done by scientists in the Arctic and Antarctic regions is incredibly useful.

In Greenland, projects such as Dark Snow are working to advance our understanding of how the Arctic is melting and to project the effects of this.

“Dark Snow Project Field Season 2018” – Video by: greenman3610

The East Greenland Ice Core Project (EastGrip) is an international science camp at which resident scientists use samples from the ice sheet that are up to 40,000 years old to predict future changes to the planet.

And the Inuit Windsled Project uses the natural power of the wind to travel across the ice sheet and conduct scientific research.

As well as scientific work in the Arctic, global political efforts are key to minimising the effects of climate change. It is generally accepted that one of the biggest contributors to climate change today is the use of fossil fuels. This is particularly a problem in rapidly developing countries, such as China and India, who are reluctant to limit their use of fossil fuels as they feel entitled to use them to achieve the level of development that the western world already has.

“GoPro: Climate Change and the Optimistic Future” – Video by: GoPro

Greenlanders in general look less gloomily on change than perhaps other parts of the world. They often refer to themselves as a people that throughout history have continually been forced to adapt to societal and climatic changes. This inevitable future, therefore, is simply the next development to adapt to. Bjarne “Ababsi” Lyberth, a biologist and hunting expert for the Association of Fishers and Hunters, says that “the changes that Europe and the rest of the world are becoming aware of have been going on in Greenland for 10 or 20 years. It’s not something that scares people. It’s more a question of adapting.”