The climate change issues facing the world's largest island

Greenland is the world’s largest island with the majority of the island existing above the arctic circle. It is Denmark’s largest autonomous territory with a population of 56,000. They receive $650 million U.S. dollars’ worth in subsidies from Denmark each year.

Roughly 80% of its surface is ice so the majority of the population lives along the fjord laden coast. Greenland’s ice sheet translates to roughly 10% of the world’s fresh water. 

The Major Climate Change Risks to Greenland

  • melting of the ice sheet
  • ocean circulation
  • global heat transfer
  • regional atmospheric circulation

The implications of the Greenland ice sheet melting are global and dramatic in their effect

  • Lead to a sea level rise of up to 3m
  • Effect ocean circulation
  • Produce a wobble in the jet stream

Ocean Circulation: the ice sheet contains 10% of the world’s fresh water so as it melts, a layer of fresh water is deposited on top of the heavier salt water of the North Atlantic. The change in salinity could depress the Gulf Stream and alter North Atlantic circulation patterns that control weather in Europe. This means the relatively moderate temperatures experienced in most European countries would become much more extreme. 

Annika Witt. March 2018.

Heat transfer: driven by a temperature differential. As the polar regions get warmer, the temperature difference between the equator and the poles decreases, which would alter global atmospheric circulation patterns by reducing the force that drives equatorial heat energy North towards the poles. 

Climate change's poster child may feel the worst of it's effects in Greenland

There are many large mammal species who rely on the ice sheet for hunting, shelter, and a place to raise their young. The polar bear could see a sharp decline in population as the ice sheet and the sea ice surrounding Greenland continues to melt. This decline could cause a ‘trophic cascade’, or a complete breakdown of the Arctic food chain. 

Not only are large mammal communities effected but human ones as well

Annika Witt. March 2018. 

As the ice sheet continues to melt, it becomes increasingly difficult for dogsled teams to use the sea ice to travel and hunt. Additionally, a shorter freezing season means that hunters have less time and area to hunt as well as more difficulty in finding their prey. 

"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." Bjarne Lyberth

The loss of language would greatly weaken Greenlanders ability to remain resilient against the influence of modern cultures

Greenlandic is a polysynthetic language meaning that a single word can be used to describe an entire sentence. These single words are often used to describe tiny nuances in the weather, but as weather patterns shift and certain phenomena do not occur as often, these words will disappear. 

Annika Witt. March 2018.

As Greenland becomes more conducive to human habitation and with the opening of the Northwest Passage, immigration to Greenland could increase.

Despite the challenges ahead, there is a sense of understanding that an adaptation plan is necessary as they move forward.

Currently, Greenland is not included in Denmark's climate change adaptation plan. However, it has become clearer how important Greenland is to mitigating the effects of climate change globally. If/when the Danish government incorporates Greenland into their adaptation plan, it is important they consider the indigenous knowledge Greenlanders can contribute as well as what residents of Greenland and other vulnerable communities identify as climate change related concerns.

About the Author

Annika Witt graduated from St. Lawrence University in 2019 with a combined major in Environmental Studies and Sociology, and a minor in Outdoor Studies. Her interest in Greenland began after she visited Kangerlussuaq, Greenland in March 2018 while studying abroad in Denmark. While in Greenland, Annika got the opportunity to walk across sections of the ice sheet, see the Russell Glacier, taste traditional Greenlandic foods, and join a dog sled team for an afternoon. Annika spends her summers as a guide in Idaho while she pursues a career in outdoor education in the fall and winter months. This web page was produced for Dr. Jon Rosales' Adaptation to Climate Change course in the spring of 2019. 

Annika Witt. Russel Glacier. March 2018. 


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