Inuits, Vikings, no Covid dead: Five things to know about Greenland

Nuuk (AFP) –


The exploitation of mineral resources has taken centre stage in the lead-up to Tuesday's parliamentary elections in Greenland, a Danish autonomous territory.

The world's largest island is facing numerous challenges, from a changing landscape due to global warming to disagreements over natural resources, and superpowers vying for influence due to its strategic location. Here are five things to know about the Arctic island.

- 'Green land' -

Inhabited by Inuits on-and-off for almost 4,500 years, the island was originally dubbed 'Green land' by Erik the Red, a Viking explorer who landed on the far southern edge of the island in the 10th century.

That was however perhaps a less-than-fitting name, since 85 percent of the island's two million-square-kilometre (772,204 square-mile) surface is covered by ice.

Rediscovered by Danes 300 years ago, the island was a Danish colony until 1953 when it was established as a province of the Danish realm.

In 1979, Greenland became a "self-governing territory" but its economy still heavily depends on subsidies from Copenhagen, which amount to about 526 million euros per year ($620 million), making up a third of Greenland's budget.

Denmark also decides on matters covering Greenland's foreign policy and military. But unlike Denmark, Greenland is not a member of the EU, from which it withdrew in 1985.

More than 90 percent of the 56,000 inhabitants -- 18,000 of whom live in the capital Nuuk -- are Inuit.

- Minerals in spades -

Greenland's soil is rich in several precious minerals -- including gold, uranium and rubies -- but only two mining sites are currently active.

There are hopes too that the territory sits atop lucrative oil and gas reserves, but no discoveries have so far been made.

There has long been an appetite for the island's resources. European fishermen have cruised its waters for nearly 500 years and the rare mineral cryolite -- used in the production of aluminium among other things -- has been mined from a deposit at Ivittuut on the west coast until it was depleted in 1987.

Melting glaciers are also releasing a mineral-rich rock flour that can be used as a fertiliser in depleted or arid soil in Africa and South America.

- Frontline of global warming -

The massive territory is experiencing first hand the effects of global warming, with the Arctic heating up twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

Numerous studies have also shown that the melting of Greenland's ice sheet has picked up speed.

If the ice mass, the second largest in the world after Antarctica, were to melt completely it could cause sea levels to rise by seven metres (23 feet), according to simulations.

- Northern routes -

Greenland lacks a road or rail network, so people rely on helicopters, planes and boats to get around.

Rising temperatures and melting ice are meanwhile opening up new and shorter shipping routes, reinforcing the territory's strategic position in a region increasingly coveted by world powers.

While interest in the Arctic was tepid after the end of the Cold War, the US is now reinvesting in the region to counter ambitions by Russia and China. That renewed interest was demonstrated by former US president Donald Trump's swiftly rebuffed offer to buy Greenland.

The US already has a military base in Thule in the far northwest of Greenland, and it reopened a consulate in Nuuk in June 2020. Denmark also announced an investment plan in February to reinforce its military surveillance.

- Spared Covid -

With only 31 cases reported since the beginning of the pandemic, Greenland has managed to keep Covid-19 at bay. But this success has come at the cost of virtual isolation from the rest of the world.

As soon as the first case was confirmed over a year ago, Nuuk took drastic measures, including the suspension of nearly all international and domestic air travel.

Restrictions have been eased since, but entry to the country is still subject to prior approval by a commission evaluating the necessity of the trip, dealing a heavy blow to the country's fledgeling tourism industry.