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Arctic & Northern History

    Copied from the massive volume "Crania Groenlandica: A Description of Greenland Eskimo Crania" by Carl M. Fürst, M.D. and Fr. C. C. Hansen, M.D., published in Copenhagen by Andr. Fred. Höst & Son, 1915.


    GREENLAND, the largest island in the world, lies to the north-east of the North American Continent. Its southern point is Cape Farewell at 59° 46' N. lat. The northernmost point lies at ca. 83° 37' N. lat. It is bounded on the south by the Atlantic Ocean, on the west by the Davis Straits, Baffin Bay, Kennedy Channel and Robeson Channel, on the north by the Arctic Ocean, where the small Peary Land at Independence Bay is incompletely separated from the main island. On the east it is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Denmark Straits (between Iceland and Greenland) and the Arctic Ocean.

    From north to south Greenland extends over about 24 degrees of latitude or 2700 kilometers (more than from Christiania to Tunis). Its breadth from east to west is almost half as great, over 1000 kilometers (equal to from Copenhagen to Paris). The meridian of 40° west of Greenwich passes almost through the centre of the land.

    Its area is 2,143,200 square kilometers or 39,000 geographical square miles, according to the calculations made by H. Prylz from the chart 1:2,000,000 published in 1906 by the Greenland Commission. Of this area the inland ice occupies 1,848,400 square kilometers, the coast-land along the west side 127,500 square kilometers, the coast-land on the east side 95,100 square kilometers; on the western side below 75° N. lat, where the colonies lie, there are 116,000 square kilometers of coast-land.

    It was discovered on the recent Danmark Expeditions, that the north-eastern point of the land extended much further east than supposed. Between 81° and 82° N. lat. the land reaches almost to the 12th degree of longitude west of Greenwich and from there continues almost due west to Cape Glacier at 81° 40' N. lat. and 33° W. long. (In 1670 land was seen by Lambert at 20° longitude west of Greenwich and 79°-80° N. latitude.) This increase in the area of Greenland has been calculated to amount to about 10,000 square kilometers. The whole area would thus be about 2,183,000 square kilometers.

    The total area is almost 4 times France or equal to France, Spain, Hungary and Germany in one. The interior of Greenland is covered by the enormous inland ice, which forms one large glacier and only leaves a narrow belt free of ice at the coast - the so-called outer-land. At some places the inland ice reaches right out to the coast, even at a few places into the sea (for example, at Frederikshaabs ice-blink:; at other places the outer-land may be 150 kilometers broad and cut through by deep fjords surrounded by high cliffs - like the Norwegian fjords.

    The approach to the outer land and navigation of the coast are affected to a very important extent by the ice conditions. For a great part of the year the seas round Greenland are filled with masses of ice of various origins. (The "flat ice" is formed on the sea and may be from 10-15 meters thick (32-49 feet) in contrast to the icebergs, which are formed as land-ice. The sea ice is divided into "large ice" and "west ice" and occurs as drift ice.) The ice formed in the Arctic Ocean north of America and Asia is carried southwards as "large ice" by the Polar Current, down between Spitsbergen and Greenland, and blocks the coast as far as 75° 26' N. lat.; from there the large ice is more scattered, the sea becoming broader, and between 76° and 70° it is possible for ships to reach into the coast: on this stretch the coast-land has a comparatively great breadth with deep fjords. When the Polar Current with the ice comes down into the Denmark Straits, it is again forced by the warm Atlantic Current, the "Irminger Current") over towards the east coast of Greenland, which is thus cut off from the open sea by a broad ice-belt from 70° N. lat. down to Cape Farewell. This ice-belt also receives ice from the fjords of East Greenland and prevents the navigation of the coast, except off Angmagsalik in the months of August and September, when ships can make their way through the ice. When the large ice has passed beyond Cape Farewell, it goes with the current up along the west coast of South Greenland into the Davis Straits. Here it lies off the coast up to 64° N. lat. or even higher in very ice-rich years and is finally carried over towards the west, where it melts. This lange ice is composed of large, uneven ice-floes from 10 to 15 meters in thickness; the figure shows the "large ice" at Godthaab.

The Colony Gothaab, Greenland, 1896

Large ice during ebb.
Th. N. Krabbe phot. (11 Aug. 1896)

    From the ice-filled straits and sounds west of Greenland and from Baffin Bay the west ice which is not so large, comes down in spring with the current along the west coast of Greenland as far as to 66°-69° N. lat. Lastly, there is the "winter ice", which is formed in the fjords and along the land's own coasts; this does not interfere so appreciably with the navigation of the coasts like the large ice and west ice. In South Greenland if is only formed in the inner waters, whereas in North Greenland if is an important highway of communications in winter (after New Year), extending far out to sea, so that the Eskimos with their dog-sledges are able to travel for imany miles over it. In July the winter ice has all melted away.

    Huge icebergs are met wilh everywhere along the coasts. They are formed (technically "calved") from the enormous inland ice at the glaciers, where these reach out to the sea or to the fjords, the so-called "ice-fjords." They are very characteristic occurrences in the Denmark Straits and the Greenland Seas. The large, floating icebergs may atlain a height of 100 meters (325 feet) above the water and the part under water is more than 8 times as great, so that they may take the ground even at very greal depths. Thus, they are often found stranded on certain banks off the ice-fjord, where they gradually melt away and become reduced in size. Most of the largest icebergs come from the North Greenland glaciers; further, a large number of icebergs are found up in the Davis Straits, which come from the fjords and coasts of East Greenland, being carried round by the Polar Current.

    The outer-land is a rocky, mountainous region with deep, long fjords, often with many branches, where precipitous cliffs rise directly from the edge of the water. Between the fjords and sounds the land is drawn out into long peninsulas, which again are scored by valleys. Off the coast lie many islands large and small, at places a whole fringe of islands and rocks (Skaergaard: the skerries). Ice covers the highest parts of the land and the highest mountain tops are covered with snow. Small rivers take their origin from the glaciers and numerous inland lakes, small or large and long lakes, from which spring the so-called "salmon rivers," lie scattered among the mountains in the deep valleys.

    The cliffs towards the sea are as a rule naked and bare, often scored by the ice, but inside the fjords the land is frequently exceedingly beautiful and grand with a rich vegetation in the short summer and a rich animal life of sea-birds on the bird hills. At the head of the fjords we find either a glacier ending in the water as outrunner from the inland ice, or we may ascend the valley along a river up to the glacier, from whose melting-ice water with its huge masses river is formed.

    On the west coast the broadest stretch of "outer-land" (about 190 kilometers) with the deepest fjords lies between 66° and 72° N. lat.; the longest fjords are South Strömfjord (Kangerdlugsuak North Strömfjord (Nagsugtok) and the broad Umának Fjord (170 km.). About 69°—70° N. lat., separated from the Nugsuak Peninsula at Vaigat, lies the large island Disko in the large and deep Disko Bay.

    In the southern part the inland ice reaches right out to the sea at 6½° N. lat., at "Frederikshaabs ice-blink"; the same thing occurs in the north in Melville Bay and Smith Sound.

    On the east coast the "outer-land" is broadest with deep fjords between 70° and 75° N. lat. at Scoresby Sound and the large King Oskars Fjord and at Kejser Frantz Josephs Fjord, King Williams Land, and further south at Angmagsalik about 66° N. lat. Lastly, we must mention the large Danmarks Fjord 200 kilometers long between 80.5° and 82° N. lat. which was discovered by the Danmark Expedition (Mylius-Erichsen). Otherwise the "outer-land" of the east coast is narrow or the inland ice reaches out to the coast, especially in the district south of Angmagsalik and also north of this, as well as north of 77° N. lat, which was on the whole the part of Greenland most difficult of access and last investigated (by the Danmark Expedition).

    On the "outer-land" the mountains are seldom more than 2000 meters high, as a rule 500—1200 meters, and are often characterised by deep valleys and steep slopes. Only the peaks, which have not been covered by the inland ice, have sharp, jagged forms, otherwise the rounded and smoothed appearance of the mountains bears witness, that the inland ice has covered them formerly.

    The inner part of Greenland is covered by the enormous mass of snow and ice, the "inland ice", which is of quite a special interest, in that it gives us a picture of the condition of North Europe and North America long ago during the Glacial Periods. In earlier times the inland ice covered even more of the land and only retreated to its present boundaries at a late period. It is the largest glacier in the world.

    The extent or thickness of the snow and ice masses is estimated to be about 2000 meters. It is only at the edges that the whole mass consists of ice, farther in the upper layers are formed of snow. According as the inland ice is in movement out towards the edge or not, the surface becomes intersected by deep cracks or fissures, often covered only by thin snow, which makes travelling on such places very dangerous and difficult. Generally the surface is most level and easiest to travel on in the early summer. During the summer the sun's heat melts lakes in the ice out towards the edge and small rivers are formed in it. At places, especially towards the edge, naked peaks project above the surface of the ice, the so-called "nunatakker".

    The inland ice does not alter appreciably in extent, so that the yearly downfall (of rain and snow) over it must for the most part be carried away again through the ice currents or glaciers; of these there is a great number, several of them large, as the Humboldt Glacier, Upernivik Glacier, Jakobshavns Glacier. The ice in them is in constant movement: a displacement as much as 38 meters in the 24 hours has been measured. Where the ice stream meets the sea we have the so-called "ice-fjords" (e. g. Jakobshavns ice-fjord) with colossal icebergs. These are formed by the ice breaking away from the glacier and falling into the water, or the glacier projects out along the bottom of the water, until the buovant masses separate from the main body of the ice. The so-called calvings, which precedes the formation of icebergs, sets the water into violent movement. From the moraines, the marks of scoring and scratching, and the "erratic" or "indicator" boulders we know that the inland ice has covered the "outer-land" at an earlier period.

    From a geological standpoint Greenland is an old land. The ground rock consists of granite, gneiss and crystalline schists, for the ice when it covered the land has swept or scoured away the over-lying formations to a great extent and even large parts of the ground rock, which had become disintegrated inn the warm, moist, subtropical climate Greenland must have had earlier. The old red sandstone is found in the Julianehaab district, in Tunugliarfik and Igaliko (South Greenland) and is covered over by thick layers of trap, diabase; it is cut through by a nepheline-syenite, famous for its many rare minerals (for example, eudialyte was obtained from it in large quantities under the guidance of Steenstrup). The old sandstone which the northeners ("Nordboer" = Norsemen and Icelanders) called marble was used by them in building the dwellings of their colonies.

    On the east coast the argillaceous slate of the Jura formation is found at Scoresby Sound at 70½%deg; N. lat, containing large quantities of plant fossils (ferns); above the clay-slate lies a limestone (Jura), whieh contains many fossils of animals, especially bivalves.

    On the west coast at Vaigat the chalk formation is exceedingly rich in fossil plants. Its investigation (by Oswald Heer) has led to the conclusion, that the climate of Greenland at that time, the Chalk Period, was subtropical with an average temperature of 22° to 18° C. at the end of the period. These formations contain coal layers. The Tertiary formation (lignite period) occurs at Vaigat above the chalk layers with many fossil plants; higher up there is a thick layer of basalt, due to volcanic eruption in the Tertiary Period. Native iron is often found in this basalt and Steenstrup has shown, that the large masses of iron found by Rink and Nordenskjöld are not meteoric iron, but belong to this formation. The basalt layers are directly covered by ice and snow. Lastly, we must mention the warm springs (geysers), especially that on the island Unartok about 60½° N. lat., which can be identified with the warm springs referred to in Icelandic reports ("Sagas") as occurring in "Hrafus Fjord", which must have been Unartok Fjord.

    Greenland possesses many rare minerals, but only one of them has so far attained to any considerable importance, namely cryolite, which is mined in fairly large quantitics at Ivigtut; further, some quantities of copper-ore and coal are also obtained.

    The climate of Greenland, naturally, is distinctly arctic in character, even in the southernmost parts of the land (Cape Farewell is almost at the latitude of Christiania), partly because the greater part of the land is covered with ice, partly because the surrounding seas are almost always filled with drift-ice. As the north to south extension of the land is so great, there is naturally a considerable difference between the climates of North and South Greenland; the climate of South Greenland is moister and more uncertain, that of North Greenland colder. But in North Greenland the severe cold is accompanied as a rule by a clear, calm atmosphere. The further we ascend the fjords from the coast, the more settled becomes the weather, that is more often calm, and the climate is milder, especially at the head of the fjords

    The average temperature in South Greenland (Ivigtut) is ca. 0°; at Godthaab (64¼° N. lat.) it is -2.1°, at Jakobshavn (69¼° N. lat.) -5.7°, at Upernivik (72¾° N. lat.) -8.9° C. January, February and March are the coldest months.

    For 6 months of the year the average temperature is below 0° C. at Ivigtut, for 7 months at Godthaab, 8 months at Jakobshavn and 9 months at Upernivik; the temperature may go down to -40°.

    The lowest temperature was -42° at Jakobshavn in January. In Inglefield Bay a temperature of -47.5° C. was measured in 1891-92.

    On the east coast the average temperature for the year, measured in 1869-70 at Sabine Island (74½° N. lat.) was -11.7° C. (lowest lemperature -40.2°). On the east coast again, a temperature of -25° C. was measured by Holm, -33° by Amdrup and -47° C. by Ryder.

Colony Holstenborg, Greenland, 1897

seen from "Tømmermands" Isl.
Th. N. Krabbe phot. (16 Aug. 1897)