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Greenland Dispatch: Europe's Last Colony And The Big Melt

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He visited Greenland in August as part of an official press delegation sponsored by the island's home-rule government.

It's become a cliché of Arctic reportage to begin stories by describing the calving of glaciers—that process by which enormous vertical slabs of ice, some as tall as skyscrapers, slice off the glacial shelf and collapse into the waiting sea. During a recent reporting trip to Greenland, I quickly understood the impulse to chronicle this phenomenon. Even more than a Cat-5 hurricane making landfall, watching the muffled collapse of the ice shelves is like staring into the cold black eyes of climate change itself. It's the world literally breaking up, falling apart—albeit with surprising grace.

As everyone from Roland Emmerich to Al Gore has now publicized, Greenland's glaciers are crumbling in the north, and retreating farther and farther up the fjords in the south. The winter freeze every year becomes less reliable, making snowmobile and dog-sled traffic between remote villages impossible. Most shocking for Greenland's 57,000 residents, the growing season is elongating, allowing for the cultivation of once-exotic crops like broccoli and cabbage. "We may have our own wine industry one day," a restaurant owner in the southwestern town of Qaqortoq told me with pride and wonder.

But it's not just the wine industry that depends on Greenland's Great Melt. So, too, does the island's dream of independence from Denmark, which has governed Greenland as a colony more or less continuously since the eighteenth-century. Greenland has pinned its hopes for a future as a self-sustaining state on the vast mineral and oil reserves that are now becoming accessible as the ice thaws—reserves that could one day make Kuwait look like Botswana. And, so, on November 25, Greenlanders will vote on an autonomy referendum that will move the country further along the path to independence: A "yes" vote would grant Greenland's home-rule government the rights to most of the future royalties from these mineral and oil reserves.

This bounty may become exposed sooner than many thought possible. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently reported that this year's autumn temperatures in the Arctic were 5 degree Celsius higher than normal, a new record. The news caused climate scientists to revise their predictions in favor of faster warming and glacial retreat—an alarming fact for most of the world, but welcome news in Greenland. "Keep running your air-conditioning machines. Keep driving your cars," grinned Mininnguaq Kleist, an official in the Office of Self-Governance in Nuuk. "The melting is opening up access to natural resources and creating possibilities for new ports and trade routes. This is a good thing for us and we shouldn't pretend it isn't."

I encountered more official optimism about global warming in the inner sanctum of Nuuk's city hall, which looks like an Inuit Security Council chamber, with a circular seminar table centered by a polar-bear-skin rug and flanked by walrus tusks and knitted seal-hunting pastorals. It was there that I met with Asii Chemnitz Narup, the incoming mayor of Nuuk, the largest and least-populated municipality in the world. "We must be open to the positive effects of climate change in helping develop our small economy," said Narup. "There will be gold, rubies, and diamond mines in the south. Zinc deposits in the north. And oil. The potential is enormous."

So it is. In the biggest project of the unfolding first wave of multinational ventures in Greenland, Alcoa is set to open a mine and aluminum plant near Qaqortoq (population 3,100), to be plumbed by 2,000 Chinese migrant workers. Meanwhile, dozens of oil and excavation firms are busy prospecting along every coast, waiting for world prices to make exploration and direct investment in Greenland profitable. The biggest prize, as any Greenlandic official will tell you with gleaming eyes, is oil. A U.S. Geological Survey suggests that the waters around the northeast of the island could contain up to 110 billion barrels—around half the reserves of Saudi Arabia. Oil companies are feverishly collecting fresh seismic data from different parts of Greenland, ready to pounce on the latest concession offered by the Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum. Burning the oil will, of course, only accelerate the warming trends that made its discovery possible, bringing humanity's climate tragicomedy full-circle.

But the irony is deeper than most realize. As the melting ice cap threatens to inundate coastal lands around the planet, Greenland itself will actually rise, as the weight of the ice cap lightens. "The ice is so heavy that it's keeping us at an artificially low sea-level," explained Alfred Jakobsen, a scientist with the Ministry of Environment. "As the ice melts, Greenland is lifting up, up, out of the sea." It's possible that at some point in the next century or two, Greenland will emerge from flyover obscurity to become one of the most desirable plots of real estate on Earth: a vast, temperate, uninhabited, and clean-aired island haven—at least for those who can afford it. According to Greenland's tourist office, Bill Gates and the Google twins have been enjoying the island's remote and expensive pleasures for years. It's easy to think that the American billionaires are as far ahead of the global curve as the Greenlanders, with their dog sleds, seal hunts, and oil dreams, are behind it.