Greenland endangered by climate change

The melting of Greenland's massive ice sheet is one of the largest contributors to rising sea levels globally

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Greenland’s ice sheet - HANNES GROBE/WIKIPEDIA

The name Greenland may be regarded as a misnomer, as it gives the impression that the place is a vast expanse of greenery.

Instead, massive tundra and vast glaciers blanket the world’s largest island, which spans 836,330 sq miles (2,166,086 sq km).

So how did it become known as Greenland when ice sheets and glaciers cover 80% of the island? Legend has it the name orginated from Erik the Red, an Icelandic assassin who was banished to the island and called it Greenland, hoping the name would entice immigrants.

Ironically, scientists of the past also believed that Greenland was actually quite green over 2.5 million years ago.

Greenland is sparsely populated with just 57,000 inhabitants, of whom 88% are Greenlandic Inuit, while the rest are of European descent, mainly Danish. Almost a quarter of the inhabitants live in the capital, Nuuk.

Native Greenlanders feel slighted when referred to as ‘eskimos’. They prefer being called Innuit or Kalaallit, which means Greenlander in the Innuit language, Inuktitut. The Greenlanders identify themselves with Innuits in other parts of the world like Canada and Alaska and share cultural and linguistic similarities.

The island has been part of Denmark since 1814, with its own parliament responsible for domestic matters. In 1953, it was redefined as an autonomous territory of Denmark, and currently has two representatives in the Danish parliament, the Folketing.

Greenland is unique as the island has no railways and inland waterways and hardly any roads between towns. Transport is by boat around the coast in summer and by sled dogs in winter, particularly in the north and east. Nowadays, air travel by helicopters or other aircraft is the major mode of transport.

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The island’s economy relies mainly on fishing, which accounts for 95% of its exports. The Danish government provides an annual grant of 4bn Danish kroner, which covers over half of Greenland’s annual budget.

These days, climate change is the most serious threat to Greenland’s existence, with many scientists viewing the island as the epicentre of global warming. The damaging effects of rising temperatures, warming oceans and melting ice have worried many.

A vast mass of ice – 660,000 sq miles (1,710,000 sq km) – covers much of Greenland. The ice in the interior can be as thick as two miles (3.2km). As the planet warms, sea levels will rise as glaciers and ice sheets on land melt, pouring more water into the ocean. With thermal expansion, seawater also expands in warmer temperatures.

The melting of Greenland’s massive ice sheet is one of the largest contributors to rising sea levels globally. From 2002 to 2019, Greenland is estimated to have lost 4,550 billion tons of ice – an average of 268 billion tons annually.

Melting ice during July 2012: Images created by Nasa show the process in the summer – WIKIPEDIA

In many parts of Greenland, ice cliffs forms when glaciers move into the fjords and icebergs break up and disintegrate. Some glaciers tear apart on land, creating vast streams that drain the outflowing meltwater across valleys. In recent years, drastic changes have been observed when glaciers flow into the ocean.

Global warming has resulted in Greenland losing more ice than it receives every year. Many environmentalists believe that if Greenland and Antarctica were to melt today, the sea level would rise globally by 215 feet (65 metres).

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Besides the damage done to Greenland’s physical landscape, global warming has also hurt the island’s flora and fauna. Climate change has damaged plants, mangroves, seagrass and corals. Animals in the Arctic, including reindeer and golden eagles, have also been migrating to different places.

Global warming has also endangered sled dogs. These canines, which are an integral part of the Innuit culture, both as companions and for transport, are commonly found in Greenland and Alaska. As winter seasons grow more unpredictable, fewer Innuits are keeping these dogs and their numbers are dwindling swiftly in many towns across the island.

Tragic stories have surfaced about the cruelty to sled dogs in some parts of the world. These canines are occasionally chained when not running or ill-treated by their owners. Some have even been killed when they can no longer ‘pay their way’.

Greenlandic dogs are a breed of their own, although they bear some resemblance to malamutes and huskies. These vigorous whelps were brought to the island some 1,500 years ago by migrants from Alaska, who trekked eastwards across the Canadian High Arctic region before finally settling in Greenland.

Towns like Tasiilaq had more dogs than people, but their numbers have dwindled over the years. In Ilulissat, in west Greenland, about 5,000 dogs were kept by locals over 25 years ago, a number that has dropped to around 1,800 now.

Global warming cannot be halted overnight. All nations must show sincerity in slashing their carbon footprint. They should also raise their use of renewable energy – solar, wind, biomass energy, hydropower and geothermal power – at a scale that would boost their resilience to climate change.

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The world must strive to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. To do this, nations must conscientiously cut their emissions of greenhouse gases by 45% by 2030 from their 2010 levels. Regrettably, most countries are way off track from this target.

We owe it to future generations to do our part in tackling this threat with drive and resilience. That is the only way we can bequeath them a non-toxic planet Earth.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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Benedict Morais
23 Oct 2021 7.56am

Thanks for this interesting article. Very little is known about Greenland. Everyone and everywhere in this world is affected by climate change but politicians have been slow respond intelligently to this matter.