7 common misunderstandings about Greenland

1. Greenland? Iceland?

Whenever I told people that I was going to Greenland, 99% of them asked me if that’s the one that recently had a volcanic eruption. Well, the confusion is quite understandable, as Greenland has more ice than Iceland, and Iceland is greener than Greenland. Ironically, Greenland was named so by an Icelander who visited southern Greenland, where it gets green—and hot—in summer. After he went back to his country, he told people about this “green” land, keeping referring it as the “green” land.

2. Greenland is an independent country. 

Greenland has been colonized by the Kingdom of Denmark since 1721 when Hans Egede arrived in the land to find the Norse, in vain. He instead converted the Inuit to Christianity. Although Greenland has won its self-rule governance in 2009, Denmark still has the final say on Greenland’s defense and foreign affairs as well as judiciary. So, in the international sports games, athletes from Greenland represent Denmark. Also, Greenlanders carry the Danish passport, but on top of it reads Greenland in Greenlandic (KALAALLIT NUNAAT), while that of the Danes reads European Union in Danish (DEN EUROPÆISKE UNION). Denmark is part of EU; Greenland is not.

3. Greenland is in Europe.

Although Greenland is still a part of Denmark, geographically it belongs to North America. If there’re a direct flight between Kangerlussuaq and New York, it would take only four hours. It’s actually only about 25 kilometers away from Canada, at the closest. As there’s no direct flight from North America though, people have to fly to Europe first—either Reykjavik or Copenhagen—to visit Greenland.

4. Greenlanders are originally whites.

Due to the long Danish colonization, there have been a lot of inter-racial marriage. So, many may look like northern Europeans. But in fact, the original Greenlanders are the Inuit, who look much like Asians. Surprisingly to many, they have their own language as well, Greenlandic, which is far far different from any Roman language. They also have dialects: West Greenlandic and East Greenlandic are very different.

5. You will get to see polar bears when visiting Greenland.

Thanks to the climate change, Greenland is getting a lot of attention from the world. And people assume that the symbol of global warming—polar bear—can be observed anywhere in Greenland. It is true that polar bears are inhabiting in Greenland, but they are in very remote areas either very up North or the East, thus it’s rare for a traveler to see one. Soon after I settled in Nuuk, I asked one of my colleagues where I can go to see polar bears. “YouTube,” she replied.

+ My boss said he has seen polar bears only three times in his life during his 16 year of living in East Greenland, where it is relatively easy to spot polar bears. Of course, none in Nuuk.

6. All the glaciers melt down in the summer and freeze back in winter.

Oh boy, if it does, island countries like Tuvalu and the Maldives would have gone under the sea hundred years ago. (I was told, this was what a reporter from one of the world’s biggest media that won’t be named here asked during his visit to Nuuk in May to cover the Arctic Circle Conference that Hilary Clinton joined.)

7. Greenland is a mosquito-free country.

Mosquitoes in Greenland? You must be joking. Unfortunately not. Greenland is in fact a mosquito-heaven country. In summer, you definitely don’t want to hike a mountain, particularly near glaciers, without a mosquito headnet. Otherwise, you will find yourself being under attack of mosquitos along with other insects. One place you can be free from mosquitos is South Greenland near the sheep farms.


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