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Greenland: Land and People

Greenland is 1,659 mi (2,670 km) long from Cape Farewell (lat. 59°46′N) to Cape Morris Jesup (lat. 82°39′N) and has a maximum width of about 800 mi (1,290 km). Geologically, the island is part of the Canadian Shield and, therefore, of North America; more than 50% of its ice-free area consists of rocks of the Precambrian, mostly granites and gneisses. Mountain chains parallel Greenland's east and west coasts; Mt. Gunnbjørn (12,139 ft/3,700 m) and Mt. Forel (11,024 ft/3,360 m), both in SE Greenland, are the highest peaks. The entire coastline of Greenland is deeply indented by fjords. There are many offshore islands, of which Disko, in W Greenland, is the largest.

Except for about 158,430 sq mi (410,450 sq km) of coastland and coastal islands, an ice sheet and numerous minor ice caps and glaciers cover the island. The extreme northern peninsula (Peary Land) has no ice sheet but does have local ice caps. The thickness of the ice sheet reaches c.14,000 ft (4,300 m) in some places. Two drilling operations on the highest part of the ice sheet (Summit in N Greenland) in 1992 and 1993 both reached bottom, with the deepest core measuring 10,016 ft (3,053 m) from surface to bottom. Studies of the compositiom of the ice cores have permitted new insights into the climatic history of the last 200,000–300,000 years. The ice moves outward from the center, entering the sea in walls or debouching in glaciers, of which Humboldt Glacier is the largest and Jakobshavn Glacier the most calf-ice productive. These rapidly moving glaciers calve tremendous icebergs, notably into the Davis Strait, through which they frequently reach Atlantic shipping lanes. A number of studies have shown that since the late 1990s the amount of ice lost each year in Greenland due to melting and iceberg calving has increased due primarily to increasing arctic temperatures, leading to concerns that sea levels could rise significantly during the 21st century due to the melting of Greenland's ice. The loss of ice has led also to a corresponding increase in elevation in Greenland's coastal areas. Studies of satellite and airborne radar images of the ice sheet have revealed hidden beneath it an enormous canyon, more than 50 possible lakes of liquid water, and two possible large impact craters. The canyon is some 500 mi (800 km) long and up to .5 mi (800 m) deep, that stretches from central Greenland to its northern coast; it was carved by a river more than 4 million years ago. The impact craters, both in NW Greenland, are roughly 19 mi (31 km) and 22 mi (35 km) across.

Cold winds rush out from Greenland's interior, making the weather uncertain and foggy. A polar ocean current flows south along the entire east coast and around Cape Farewell, carrying immense ice floes that make the sea approach to E Greenland hazardous. The North Atlantic Drift gives the southwest coast of Greenland a warmer climate and heavy rainfall.

There are no forests in Greenland; dwarf trees are found in the southern coastal areas. Natural vegetation also includes mosses, lichens, grasses, and sedges. The polar bear, musk ox, polar wolf, lemming, Arctic hare, and reindeer are the chief land animals.

In addition to the capital, other important settlements are Sisimiut (Holsteinsborg), Aasiaat (Egedesminde), Qaqortoq (Julianehåb), Maniitsoq (Sukkertoppen), and Ilulissat (Jakobshavn). More than 90% of the island's population live along the west coast. About 88% of the people are Inuits or Greenland-born Caucasians; the balance are mainly Danish. The major religion is Evangelical Lutheran. Inuit dialects (Greenlandic), Danish, and English are spoken; Greenlandic and Danish are the official languages.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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