Greenland, the world’s largest island, is one big ice sheet surrounded by a narrow, mountainous, barren, rocky coast. Its 57,695 residents are a hardy bunch. They have to be; Greenland is a harsh place in which to live. But global warming is changing the world, and there may be a new sense of what is normal in Greenland. While warmer weather is threatening the traditional way of living, life for the Greenlanders is also improving – controversial though this may sound.
Greenland is a major player in the climate change debate. The gigantic ice sheet that covers it is melting at a rate of over 200 cubic kilometers (125 mi) per year and has retreated a total of 80 kilometers (50 mi) so far. While this raises the sea level for much of the world, it is also exposing once buried treasures. Mining companies are moving in, searching for gold, copper, iron and diamonds. The melting ice has also made it easier to go after the estimated 48 billion barrels of oil reserves that lie off the coast.
Warmer weather is bringing rapid — often positive — changes to Greenland. Until recently, its economy was heavily dependent on fishing and subsidies from Denmark. Unemployment and poverty were high, and life expectancy was lower than the average in many industrialized countries. But thanks to all the newly exposed resources, Greenland may be a winner in the current economic recession. Jobs are expected to increase to meet the demands of mining. Construction is also thriving, especially in the capital city of Nuuk.
Today, tourism is also booming. Tens of thousands of people now visit Greenland each year, either flying in or taking one of the new cruise ships that operate off its shores. Hiking and fishing are popular tourist activities during Greenland’s Midnight Sun. And hardier adventurers may take dog sled trips. Many come to see for themselves the melting glaciers and rugged beauty that make up Greenland. However, catering to tourists' expectations may result in the promotion of 'cultural dances' and consumer-friendly 'native crafts', while ignoring Greenlanders' excellent craftsmanship in making sealskin coats and fur trinkets.
Warmer weather may even make farming possible again. When Erik the Red arrived in Greenland over 1,000 years ago, a balmy climate allowed farming. But the weather cooled considerably sometime in the 14th century and life in Greenland became too harsh for farming. Until recently, Greenland was heavily dependent on imports for much of its food. But if the Greenlanders can once again farm, they may be able to become self-sufficient.
The global warming that is improving life in Greenland is having severe detrimental effects on our planet. Exposed glaciers absorb more of the sun's rays than snow-covered glaciers, increasing the albedo effect and leading to even more glacial melting. The permafrost is also melting and releasing methane (a gas more destructive than carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere. And tapping into Greenland's gas and oil reserves can only lead to more greenhouse gas emissions.
Greenland has experienced many climate shifts throughout the centuries. The hardy people who call Greenland home have survived its good and bad times. Now, they are taking advantage of a new sense of what is normal to grow and to thrive.