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world wide wednesdays :: what is it about greenland?

i am a person of strange preoccupations. this blog wouldn't exist if it weren't for that fact. some of them are very broad, like "politics", which people accept. others, like the fact that, aside from my obvious cat lady-ness, i have a fascination with owls, are seen as quirks. and then there are those that cause people to furrow their brows and ask: why? and most of the time, i have to shrug and say that it's not like i chose to be interested in those things, it just sort of happened. like gil grissome on csi explaining how he chose death as a profession, i like to think that my interests chose me.

of all my weird interests, though. none raises as many eyebrows as greenland. perhaps it's because people rarely, if ever, think about greenland's existence. or maybe it's because, from a certain point of view, there's just nothing there to be interested in. or they could be puzzled at how a person who lives in a country with vast expanses of arctic terrain should be so completely taken with a country made up entirely of arctic terrain. [i get that one. even i can't figure out why i should be so taken with a place that is more or less an offshoot of the canadian north.] in other words: i can't explain my behaviour. [ok, one tiny little bit of pseudo-explanation: i'd been sort of interested in greenland when i was very young- a consequence of the same globe that fired my plan to be the queen of new guinea- but hadn't thought about it for a very long time. then, several years ago, i had an incredibly vivid dream about going to greenland that came out of nowhere. i hadn't discussed it, hadn't read anything about it, hadn't been in touch with anyone who'd been there. i just had this dream and then all of a sudden, i started remembering how interesting i'd found the place lo those many years ago. i've no idea why my brain decided to return to greenland, but my brain is an irascible bastard and i try not to talk to it very much.]

greenland, almost exactly as it looked in my dream
at this point, though, i can't imagine why people would argue why greenland isn't interesting. there's all sorts of stuff going on there that we should know about. for starters, while it may have been mapped, it's remains one of the few great wilderness areas of the world. despite being the globe's largest non-continental island [ok, even i admit that "non-continental" is kind of cheating], it is the least densely populated country on earth. there are fewer than 60,000 people on the entire island and most of them are concentrated heavily in the southwest. there is a giant national park of over a million square kilometres that has precisely zero year-round residents. it has jagged coastlines and mountains and icebergs you can run around on and beautiful, grassy, flowery fields in the summer and the entire inner portion is a gigantic slab of ice and the most revered deity is a sea goddess whose father threw her off a boat and chopped off her fingers when she tried to climb back in and her fingers turned into seals. how is any of that not amazing?

greenland is one of the last areas of the planet to be settled by humans [insofar as it has been]. people didn't arrive in greenland until approximately 2500bce, with only a smattering of settlements present for hundreds of years. the dorset culture of northern canada seemed to push out previous settlers in the west around 800bce, after which greenland remained more or less stable for some time. eric the red arrived around the year 1000 and established a few viking settlements, but there was so damn much room and so much wildlife to hunt that none of the groups was particularly bothered by the others. around the year 1300, the thule group, the ancestors of today's inuit, arrived and drove out the dorset. the norse didn't particularly care and the thule decided that if the norse didn't care and were happy to stick to their little area on the south coast, then they couldn't be bothered to drive them out.

sedna, patron goddess, bad manicure recipeient
that arrangement suited everyone just find until they realised that they had all arrived during a period of atypical warmth. after a few decades, greenland started to drift back to its old, cold ways, making farming difficult and making game scarce. this brought on conflicts between the thule inuit and the norse, conflicts which the norse lost badly. as a result, the europeans decided that they'd had enough and those who were left alive hauled anchor and went back to whence they came. so in theory, greenland was inuit owned and operated from that point on. but europe saw it quite differently, meaning that several different crowns laid claim to the island, including portugal, because it was so close by, and, after several different claims and shifts in continental power, where everyone said they owned greenland but no one actually wanted to live there, the island was "officially" claimed by the danish crown, who exercise control over it to this day.

that's right, greenland is still in the process of becoming a fully independent country. successive votes for greater autonomy have not yet disentangled it from its colonial clutches. despite a preponderance of natural resources, the island remains heavily dependent on a financial stipend from denmark and cutting that off too quickly would throw the country's fragile economy into chaos. however, successive referendums have called for greater and greater sovereignty, and so progress, while sometimes slow, is being made. greenland continues to elect two members to the danish house of parliament to speak for their interests, but has its own parliament as well, which handles the bulk of national administration. there is some concern in europe over the consequences of allowing greenland to slip away entirely. the united states has maintained the thule air base on the island and, considered from a purely geographical standpoint, greenland is part of north america. however, since it has been politically part of europe in the modern age, that wealth of natural resources i mentioned has remained under european control. it's also given europe [outside russia] a greater say in issues related to the arctic than they would otherwise have. at the moment, everyone is scrambling to establish their own rights to greenland's fishing grounds, shipping lanes, minerals and possible fossil fuels, before things take a turn for the worse- something we'll talk about shortly. the bottom line is that no one wants to wait and see what decisions greenland will make for itself. [side note :: an early test of greenland's continental allegiance may happen within the next few years. for some time, the country has had its own soccer league and a national team, but they have been unable to become a member of international associations because their climate and the resulting layer of permafrost could not maintain a natural grass pitch. not so easily deterred, greenland made a pitch out of field turf, which gained official sanction from fifa in 2010. assuming they are now in the fast lane to being admitted to fifa, greenland would then have to choose the league in which it would compete: concacaf in north america or uefa in europe.]

being as far north as it is, light and dark in greenland is a different experience than it is in most other places. during the winter months, it rarely gets brighter than a sort of twilight. during the summer months, it rarely gets darker. strangely, it is both warmer and colder than the canadian archipelago, of which it is basically an offshoot. the coastal regions tend to get a little warmer, however the inland ice sheet is the coldest place in the entire arctic. it is also said to be the best place to experience fata morgana, which is enough to recommend a visit on its own as far as i'm concerned. the fata morgana is a type of mirage, caused by the bending of light in response to temperature changes. but that description doesn't come close to doing it justice. fata morgana are incredibly vivid, lifelike visions that you can photograph. seriously- the objects don't exist and you can take pictures of them. go check wikipedia, they have the photos. it is a strange and contrasting land. [side note :: as peaceful as it is, greenland holds the unenviable title of being the suicide capital of the world. contrary to what you would think about sunlight deprivation making people depressed, suicides are most common during the summer months, leading some to believe that insomnia caused by the perpetual daylight drives people over the edge. wouldn't that make an interesting plot for a movie? moving on... there are a lot of social causes for suicide in greenland as well. long-term poverty and substance abuse are huge issues and the main driver behind the huge number of suicides. however, greenland is only the worst place for suicides because it is counted separately. if the canadian north were considered as a separate country, its suicide rate would be considerably worse.]

all those are things that i find interesting about greenland and why i hope one day to visit. but there is one really important reason we should all be looking to greenland: it's telling us a lot about where our planet is headed.

greenland is positioned at the "tipping point" of the gulf stream, where it makes a turn southward. here's an informative and hypnotic nasa video to show you the basics of how it works:



the problem is that greenland is melting. now, there is always some melting of the greenland ice sheet- the movement of the gulf stream actually depends on it- but in the last fifteen years, as global temperatures have continued to rise, there is a lot more of the greenland ice sheet dissolving into the ocean. how much more? well, there was a steady loss between the turn of the century and 1970, after which it became stable for the next three decades, until the turn of the next century. between 2001 and 2011, melting increased by over 500%. then 2012 saw the largest annual melt in recorded history.

city life, greenland style
under normal circumstances, the fresh water from the greenland ice sheet mixes with the heavier salt water from the gulf stream and helps zip it along its merry way around the rest of the globe. unfortunately, when there's so much fresh water being added, the difference in density is too great and the two types of water can't mix, which means that everyone just sort of sits there wondering what the hell to do next. [now is the moment when i wish i'd paid closer attention in science classes, so i could come up with a better, smarter way of explaining that.] the fresh water essentially forms a semi-permeable barrier. the salt water can continue to flow, but its momentum is impaired and not as much of it gets past the blockage. i'm sure everyone has had this problem with at least one sink or tub in their home. unfortunately, this clog will not be moved by dumping a bottle of drano on the problem and poking at it with a wire coat hanger. [i know i'm not the only person who does that.]

indeed, there is credible evidence that the gulf stream has slowed by about 7% in recent years and as that has happened, the distribution of nutrients carried by the gulf stream has shifted. also, because of the clog in the global tub, there has been a tendency for the warmer water to back up in the south atlantic, which makes for even hotter temperatures and stronger storms in those areas. further up, along the coast of the united states, the back-up is felt in the most literal way- as a substantial increase in the sea level. although there is always significant fluctuation from one year to the next, the average change along the northeast coast of the u.s. is around 2.5mm per year higher. from 2009-10, there was a rise of 100mm. that represents the kind of change that should happen once in a millennium.

because the slowdown of the water current we all depend on to keep our climate steady, our soil hardy and our sea levels under control isn't worrying enough, our friends at science discovered something new about the greenland ice sheet last year that bodes even worse: it seems that they were a little bit off on their guess of what's under the greenland ice sheet. until last year's breakthrough research, it had always been assumed that the ice sheet was anchored to a very large slab of bedrock. and there were good reasons to think that, because most giant ice sheets are anchored to a very large slab of bedrock. but as it turns out, the bottom of the greenland ice sheet is less bedrock and more... muck. as much as that sounds problematic, it generally hasn't been. greenland has been around a very long time and it's always been sitting on this underground bog, but it's really heavy and there's a lot of water pressure keeping it in place and the muck is pretty thick. the problem now is that, as more and more water comes pouring out of greenland, the muck is becoming slippery and unable to absorb the excess moisture. that means that the entire ice sheet is considerably less stable than we'd assumed. ice sheets move and crack naturally, because the earth is more elastic than we'd like to think, but in this case, we're talking about a giant island that could apparently just sail off into the sunset while we're not looking.

ok, that's not going to happen. none of us will wake up and see greenland floating by our window. but with the ground underneath it shifting more than it should, the ice sheet will start moving and cracking more than it should. as a little experiment, take two ice cubes out of the fridge and put them on small plates. crack one of the ice cubes into two or three pieces and observe the plates to see which of the original cubes melts faster. the greenland ice sheet is an ice cube with enough water to raise the sea level over the entire world by about seven metres. it's already melting faster than it should, and if it starts to split, well, that's where the ice cubes are instructive.

our friends at science say that it's still unlikely that we could see a disastrous melt-off before the year 2100, which is not that comforting to me at all, since i didn't even know that melting greenland some time this century was even on the table. and they're saying it's unlikely with the assumption that there won't be any more spikes in the melting trend, not like the last decade and a half. this is the sort of thing that makes my dreamy vision of greenland turn nightmarish.

i don't expect that everyone will feel as excited by greenland as i do. i don't expect that most will want to travel there. its stoic beauty, magical light shows and remoteness stir something up in me, but that's a personal quirk and everyone's are different. my point [yes, there is one], is that we all need to be a little more interested in greenland. we need to know what it has to tell us and we need to figure out how to heal it. because it turns out that this strange country is holding our future, very precariously, in its fingerless hands.

p.s. :: here's a little greenland-inspired music for contemplation.

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