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The Northeast Greenland National Park is the world’s largest National Park with unspoiled, pristine wilderness and unique Arctic wildlife.
The research, military and meteorological stations have a short, gravel landing strip – these are however not open to the public. With the difficult accessibility and lack of infrastructure in place for the public, you can imagine that visiting the National Park on your own itinerary is not cheap and requires planning, as you will have to charter your own airplane or boat from Iceland or Greenland.
Cruise ships usually depart from Iceland or Svalbard.
Permit to access the National Park must be applied for at least 12 weeks before departure at the Greenland Government: Ministry of Science and Environment – Department of Nature and Climate. The application must contain information in accordance with the Greenland Government’s detailed requirements, including e.g. information about the purpose of the visit, itinerary, safety equipment, planned activities and documentation of the participants’ suitability to complete the visit, etc.
Few places on Earth offer truly pristine wilderness untouched by humans! The Northeast Greenland National Park is one of the last remaining large, protected areas where wildlife, plants, and landscapes are left unspoiled. The National Park is uninhabited by humans apart from the personnel on a few meteorological, research and military stations, among them the headquarters of the elite naval unit Sirius Dog Sled Patrol. The scenery and vast landscapes of the National Park are unparalleled with enormous tundra areas, spectacular mountains and deep fjords filled with icebergs. Although the National Park may be difficult to reach, visitors are rewarded with the unique experience of almost one million square kilometres of the High-Arctic ecosystem.
The size of the Northeast Greenland National Park is 972,000 km2 where about 80% is permanently covered by the mighty Greenland Ice Sheet. It is hard to get a sense of just how big the Northeast Greenland National Park is! It is the world’s largest National Park and the largest protected land area in the world. It is almost the same area as Spain and France combined and it is more than 100 times larger than one of the most famous National Parks in the world: Yellowstone National Park in the USA.
There is no infrastructure in terms of roads, harbours or commercial airports and no hotels, guesthouses or other means of accommodation in the National Park. The stations placed within the borders of the National Park are maintained by short gravel runways for small airplanes, but these are not available for civilians. The nearest airport, open for the public, is Nerlerit Inaat (Constable Point) close to ittoqqortoormiit (Scoresbysund), approximately 80 km from the southern border of the National Park.
The best way to experience The National Park is to join one of the expedition cruises that visit the area every summer. There are multiple operators that offer this service – most depart from Iceland while a few come from Svalbard. The cruise ships mainly visit the southern parts of the National Park and go ashore at various sites of natural or cultural interest.
It is also possible, with permission, to enter the National Park from the closest and only neighbouring settlement, Ittoqqortoormiit. Nanu Travel is a high Arctic local travel operator who can help to organise permits, logistics and tours into the National Park via the Scoresbysund Fjord. Independent expeditions can occur both via boat in the summertime and by dogsled in the winter.
In order to visit the National Park, a permit from the Greenland Government is required. This must be applied in good time before departure. If you are travelling on a cruise ship this is taken care of by the travel agency and no further action is needed. Every year a low number of independent travellers visit the National Park – usually by boat.
The best time to visit are July and August. At this time, the fjords of the National Park are ice-free, and most sites are accessible. It is also the best time for encountering wildlife and the breeding birds are still present in the area, before they start their southbound migration. During mid- to late August, the tundra starts to take on its “autumn coat”, with magnificent orange and red colours.
There are no forms of commercial accommodation in the National Park. Tenting is allowed – however it is not permitted to camp near the natural breeding, foraging, moulting, or resting sites of mammals and birds. A permit to enter the National Park from the Greenland Government is furthermore needed.
The Northeast Greenland National Park is famous for its serenity and pristine natural beauty with unique geology, landscape, and wildlife. People who visit the National Park, seek to experience the silence and unspoiled scenery and to get a glimpse of what a true Arctic wilderness looks like when unaffected by humans. A visit to the National Park also gives the sense of exploration, as only very few people get the chance to visit these remote High-Arctic regions.
The area was established as a National Park in 1974 and as UNESCO Man and Biosphere site in 1977. The purpose of the National Park is to preserve the natural state of the landscape, the habitat of plants and animals and historical and archaeological sites – and allow research. It is prohibited to remove or bring out any objects from the park and no hunting or fishing is allowed within the National Park. An exception is the local community of Ittoqqortoormiit south of the borders of the National Park, where hunters can travel into the National Park to hunt for muskoxen or polar bears. However, this has not been practiced for many years. It is furthermore not allowed to use all-terrain motorcycles or any other kind of motorized vehicles on land.
Every year, cruise ships and sailing boats to Ittoqqortoormiit are growing with tourists. They can land in Ittoqqortoormiit and have the opportunity to visit the church and the museum. Also, people can see sled dog feeding by a local, musk ox wool spinning, East Greenlandic national costume display, and folk dance. Upon request, drum dancing is also possible to see and experience.
Although the National Park is (largely) uninhabited by humans today, this has not always been the case. Both Palaeo-Inuit Cultures (Independence I and Dorset, 2,400 to 200 BC) and Neo-Inuit Cultures (Thule Culture, 1300 to 1850 AC) have lived in Northeast Greenland in the past. Due to the cold climate, remains of these past people are extremely well-preserved in the National Park. Tent rings and tools from the Palaeo-Inuit Cultures are openly exposed on top of the soil layer and many places remains, such as turf houses, from the Neo-Inuit Cultures can be found. The enormous size of the area and the logistic challenges of conducting fieldwork in the National Park, means that there are many important archaeological sites that are not discovered or excavated to this date. Visitors to the National Park may compromise these archaeological sites, as it is difficult to detect the remains from the past to the untrained eye. It is therefore crucial that objects from these sites are not relocated or removed.
Sirius Passet in Peary Land is one of the few Cambrian fossil localities with exceptional preservation of soft tissues. Early Cambrian fossils in the site are dated back to approximately 520 million years ago, providing crucial data on the earliest evolution of animals on Earth. Due to its severe remoteness, however, Sirius Passet fossils have remained significantly understudied, harbouring much to be discovered.
From the early 1900’s to 1960s, huntsmen primary originating from Denmark and Norway, inhabited the National Park. These professional hunters and trappers lived in small huts shattered in the large area with the purpose of providing the European market fur from the polar fox and occasionally the polar bear. The huntsmen were brought to specific sites in the National Park by boat with provisions to last several years. Here, they would attend their traps, catch fish, and hunt animals like muskoxen and seals for their meat. It was a challenging, isolated life in the harsh Arctic environment but usually the trappers were able to leave Northeast Greenland with considerate savings when they returned to Europe. There are more than 350 of these trapper huts left in the National Park. A private organisation, “Nanok”, maintains and restores these huts every summer.
There are no towns or settlements within The National Park. The nearest settlement is Ittoqqortoormiit (Scoresbysund) south of the National Park.
Very few humans live year-round in the National Park. The military and meteorological stations are manned all year, whereas the research stations mostly are used in late spring, summer, and early autumn.
Zackenberg Research Station is an ecosystem research and monitoring facility at Zackenberg (74º28’ N, 20º34’ W) in Northeast Greenland. The station facilitates High Arctic ecosystem research along with experimental studies enabling predictions of responses to global climate change. The station is located 25 km south-west of Daneborg.
Villum Research Station hosts individual scientific projects focusing on atmospheric, marine and terrestrial research. The station is used as a permanent base for an extensive long-term monitoring program mainly focusing on measuring atmospheric pollution, including the effects of climate change on Arctic marine and terrestrial ecosystems. The station is located close to Station Nord (74º28’ N, 20º34’ W).
The Summit Station is a year-around research station located on the Greenland Ice Sheet, more than 3200 meters above sea level, at 72°34′ N, 38°27 W. The station conducts studies aimed at identifying and understanding long‐range, intercontinental transport and its influences on the ice sheet surface, boundary layer, and overlying atmosphere.
Mestersvig is a military station in the southern part of the National Park at 72°14’N 23°54′ W. It is located at Kong Oscars Fjord and supports The Sirius Patrol and scientific activities. In 1956-1963 a lead-Zink mine was operated at Mestersvig.
Ella Ø is not a station but is situated in the northern part of Kong Oscars Fjord (72°51′ N, 25°00′ W.) and used as a logistic support site for the Sirius Patrol. Furthermore, “Nanok” – the volunteer group who maintain the old hunter cabins, use Ella Ø as “headquarters” during late summer.
Daneborg is located at the mouth of Young Sund at 74°18′ N, 20°13 W. The station is inhabited year around by 12-14 persons, which makes it the most densely populated place in the National Park. Daneborg serves as the headquarters for the Sirius Patrol, which claims Danish sovereignty by patrolling the National Park by dog sled. The members of this elite military unit serve for periods of 26 months. Each spring, six sled teams of two persons and 12 dogs will cover a large part of the coastline in the National Park. These trips occur in some of the most remote and harsh environments on the planet and have a duration of 2-4 months – a power performance by both men and dogs.
Station Nord is situated at the northern part of the National Park (81°36′ N, 16°40′ W.) Station Nord is the northernmost inhabited location in Greenland only 924 km. from the geographical North Pole. The station serves as an emergency landing site for airplanes and as logistic support for the Sirius Patrol.
Danmarkshavn (76°46′ N, 18°40′ W) is a small weather station located in the northern part of Dove Bay. The 6-man staff at the station collects meteorological data, which is used in international weather forecasting models.
Since hunting has been prohibited for many decades, the animal populations thrive in the National Park. Some people may associate the term “National Park” with the high abundance of wildlife and large herds of animals easily encountered. Although this may be the situation in some African National Parks, this is not the case in the Northeast Greenland National Park. Being situated in the High Arctic zone, means that there are both fewer individuals and lower diversity of animals, compared with more southern latitudes. In comparison to Svalbard, there are also lower levels of wildlife which can be seen in the park.
The “King of the Arctic” has one of its strongholds in the National Park and chances of encountering a polar bear are considerable higher here, compared with other places in Greenland. The polar bear roams over enormous distances, with research revealing that it may cover more than 5000 km. per year. The most important time of the season for the polar bear is March to May, where its main prey, the ringed seal, gives birth to its young and the bear can use the sea ice to hunt. The number of polar bears that live within the boundaries of the National Park is largely unaccounted for, as the massive area combined with logistic obstacles in conducting surveys, makes it both expensive and difficult to obtain estimates of the population size. In principle, the polar bear can be seen anywhere in the National Park. However, the Dove Bay area and Kong Oscar Fjord area are known as polar bear hot-spots.
The walrus is a colossal seal species with a body mass well over 1000 kilos. The characteristic tusks, with a length of up to 50 cm, are developed in both males and females. Walruses are easiest encountered in the summertime, where they feed on shallow waters for clams, to build up energy reserves. During the endless days of the Arctic summer, the walrus forages in the water for up to 7 days without breaks, but then it requires 1-3 days of rest to digest its food. Here, it utilises terrestrial haul-out sites like sandy beaches, where groups of walruses lie closely together, before they head out to find food again. These haul-outs used to be found in several places in Greenland but are today only found within the protected borders of the National Park. The best sites to find walruses are the Dove Bay area and in Young Sound. Furthermore, females and young utilize the Northeast Water Polynya found at the northeast corner of the National Park.
The narwhal is one of the most mythical Arctic animals and only few have had the privilege of seeing one. Narwhals are sometimes referred to as “The mountain gorillas of the Arctic”, due to their low numbers and extremely limited distribution, similar to the big apes in Africa. The up to 3-meter-long tusk carried by the males, makes the narwhal look like something from a fairytale. In the past, narwhal tusks were traded in Europe as horns of the fantasy creature, the unicorn. Narwhals almost always travel in groups but are extremely illusive and react strongly to underwater noise – they will usually take off at the sound of a boat engine. Narwhals may in theory be found anywhere in the marine areas of the National Park, but chances are highest in summer, where they will travel to the interior parts of the fjords to look for food. The largest concentration of narwhals are found in the Dove Bay area.
The Arctic wolf – also known as Polar wolf or White wolf – is an extremely rare subspecies of the wolf, only found in the High-Arctic zone of Canada and Greenland. It has an all-white fur and survives in some of the most barren and hostile environments found on Earth, where it preys on mammals ranging from lemmings to muskoxen. The wolf population in northeast Greenland has migrated into the National Park from Arctic Canada and although it has become more abundant over the last decades, the total number probably does not exceed 100 individuals. The Arctic wolf wanders over exceptionally large distances and wolves have been spotted throughout the National Park; from the most northern parts to Jameson Land just south of the National Park boundaries. Although chances of encountering an Arctic wolf are exceptionally low, the mere thought of catching sight of this spectacular animal adds excitement to a visit at the National Park.
There is something prehistoric about the look of the muskox. With a long-haired coat and deadly, pointed horns, the animal resembles something belonging to a bygone era. The muskox is the world’s most hardy ungulate (hoofed animal), inhabiting some of the world’s most inhospitable habitats. In an extreme climate, Greenland’s largest land mammal manages to survive on an extremely sparse diet, on the edge of what is physically possible for an herbivore. In order to save energy, muskoxen don’t move around much, but tend to stay within the same area and only perform short-distance migrations during the year. The muskox is found throughout the National Park – even at the most northerly parts. However, the best places for muskoxen are found in the central parts of the National Park, like Hold With Hope, Hochstetter Forland and interior parts of Young Sound and Kejser Franz Joseph Fjord.
The Northern Collared Lemming is a small rodent that resembles a large, chubby mouse and is exclusively found in High-Arctic areas. In Greenland, it is only found in the National Park and just south off in the Scoresbysund area. Although the lemming may not be a spectacular and iconic animal species like the polar bear or the narwhal, is nevertheless an important species. The lemming constitutes the foundation in the terrestrial food chain, and several mammal predators, like the Polar Wolf and Stoat can likely only exist here because of the lemming. The same applies for avian species like the Snowy owl and the Long-tailed skua that only breed in the National Park due to the Lemming.
Only the most well-adapted bird species can cope with the harsh conditions in Northeast Greenland and just two bird species, Raven and Ptarmigan, stay here year-around. The other bird species utilise the short and hectic summer and then migrate south outside the breeding period. Unlike West Greenland, there are no large significant seabird colonies within the National Park, but mid-sized colonies of Arctic Tern can be found along the coast. The National Park is also breeding ground for rare gull species like Sabine’s gull and Ivory Gull, and the extremely rare Ross’s Gull are occasionally seen. The shorebirds are represented with species like Red Phalarope, Ringed Plover, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Sanderling and Red Knot. In small ponds and lakes King Eider, Red-throated Diver and Long-tailed duck breed. In an international context, the National Park is important as molting-grounds for geese. Pink-footed geese and Barnacle geese both breed in the National Park, but the area is also visited by large numbers of no-breeding birds that come to Northeast Greenland to molt their flight feathers. For a few weeks every year, the geese are not able to fly and become vulnerable to predators and migrate to the National Park to perform this molt, because predator numbers are low here.