Greenland is located in Northern North America. It is an island between the Arctic Ocean and the North Atlantic Ocean, northeast of Canada. Its approximate total size is 2,166,086 sq km, comprised of 410,449 sq km of ice-free land, and 1,755,637 sq km of ice-covered land (2000 est.). Comparatively, it is slightly more than three times the size of Texas (CIA). The major ecosystem of Greenland is the tundra. Thus, the typical climatic characteristic of Greenland is dry and cold. Summer temperatures are always in the arctic regions are below 5 degrees Celsius, and about 5-10 degrees in the low arctic. In the stunted forest ecosystem, summer temperatures can rise to over 10 degrees. South Greenland is the warmest part of Greenland, but it is still too cold for all but a few trees to grow. Most of the southern half of coastal Greenland is a damp coastal zone. This region can be very sensitive to changes. As humans have adapted and colonized the area through the commercialization of fishing, hunting, and livestock, there have been significant changes to the ecosystem, affecting, vegetation, animals, and the land in general.
In southern Greenland, there is not a wide variegation of vegetation. There are a few hardy, and stunted birch trees, which are found on the sunny sides of a few valleys. Most of the vegetation is comprised of ferns, mosses, grasses and some flowering plants on mountain-slopes, marshes and meadows. Aside from this, the region also contains low arctic plants such as quick-flowering plants, herbs and grasses. The plants grow slowly because they do not receive that much sunlight. Thus, Greenland’s plants take a long time to recover from damage by natural or human disturbances and this makes the ecosystem quite fragile. Located at the southern tip of the island, some protected valleys may receive some benefits from the climate in that they are well watered in addition to being angled to receive sunlight. This results in a stunted forest ecosystem, with dwarf birch trees mixed with grasses, herbs and ephemeral flowers.
Over thousands of years, Greenland’s vegetation has evolved to its present state, because of the climate and environment. Greenland has about 500 species of natural plants. Only a slight few are found in all four ecosystems. Generally, most species are specific to one ecosystem. These plants have adapted to the harsh climate and thin rocky soils of that area. Plants from southern Greenland cannot survive in the North, and the opposite is true as well. Plants which are found in the high arctic ecosystem, where summer temperatures are always below 5 degrees Celsius, die from heat if they are moved to the low arctic (summers 5 -10 degrees) or stunted forest (summer temperatures over 10 degrees) areas. Greenland is near the North Pole, and so during the summer, Greenland has a midnight sun that, in theory, allows plants to grow 24 hours per day during summer. Species from the south, however, still cannot survive this northern environment because of low temperatures and a short summer. Thus, plant species either tend to grow quickly to make maximum use of the short summers, or are perennials that are able to survive in a dormant state during the long winters.
Most plant communities are lithoseres, which mean they form from bare rock surfaces. In most parts of South Greenland, areas of bare rock were exposed towards the end of the last ice age when the earth warmed up and the ice caps retreated. The process goes that mosses and lichens can tolerate extreme temperatures, while also not requiring soil to survive. First, they attach themselves to rocks, and when they die and decay, the decaying vegetation, humus, produces acids, which when in contact with the surface of the rock, reacts and forms a thin layer of soil. As this process continues, there will be enough soils for plants to begin growing. In southern Greenland, this process cannot produce tall trees as happens in most lithoseres because the temperatures are too low.
There have been many changes in the ecosystem of southern Greenland in the last few centuries. The Inuit people first came to Greenland in 2500 BC. They had subsided very plainly, with fishing and seal hunting as their main sources of food. Later, around 986, the Norse people, or commonly called Vikings, came and settled in this area. These people attempted to farm and establish a settlement in the area. These attempts failed, possibly because a drop in global temperatures, which led to more icebergs, proving to a hindrance in transporting supplies. Nevertheless, the Norse settlements disappeared in the mid-1400s. Eventually, the Danish government claimed Greenland as Danish territory, and currently, around 56,385 people live in Greenland.
All people in Greenland depend on local hunting, and trapping, mainly of seal meat. Thus, settlements with small populations are scattered along the coast to keep stocks of seals from depleting. The economy of Greenland has changed recently from seal hunting to fishing and sheep farming. Seal hunting has become more commercialized, and now people have begun to settle in areas with the best chances of catching seals. Currently, there are 63 sheep farms in South Greenland, with 21,000 ewes. The sheep in South Greenland are raised for meat rather than wool. During the summer months, the sheep roam free through the hills where the grass is growing. At the same time, sheep farmers grow grass that can be cut to make silage for use as feed during the winter.
Another industry that is important is the fishing industry. Because fishing is dependent on the natural environment, fish and shellfish populations are extremely sensitive to even minute changes in the natural conditions of the sea. Even small changes in temperature can cause huge variations in the migration paths of fish as well as their numbers. Currently, only six types of bird species are found in Greenland, and they are affected by changes in the environment. As commercial fishing is important, there is also a government-owned tannery, which purchase and process skins and furs from all parts of Greenland, as well as producing a range of fur goods.
Positive Human impacts
The fishing may pose to be a problem because of the fear of over fishing. By depleting the fish stocks, the people are not living a lifestyle of sustainable living. This may also relate to the Inuit people having problems fishing because commercial farming has taken over. Aside from that, land-based animals such as Polar Bears or seals also hunt for fish, and if the fish stocks are decreasing, then these animals may be forced to migrate to other areas, even though this may prove to be potentially harmful to them as they have to adapt to a new and foreign environment.
Now that more industries have become commercial, the same has affected the sheep industry. Potentially, there could be overgrazing of land, if farmers are not careful. The positive aspect of this is that the farmers are planting new grass every year, to keep in silages. They show a commitment to sustainability, although the possibility of overgrazing is still there. The fishing and livestock industry are the two largest, but there is also a large tannery processing plant in Greenland. This may be a problem because the chemicals that are used may be haphazardly discarded, which may result in possibly polluting the environment, affecting vegetation and wildlife.
There has been very little available land for management of Greenland. Most of the population lives in the southern area of Greenland. What is different is that the people have not tried to change the environment; it is the environment, which has demanded changes in living from the people who live in Greenland. The citizens usually have to import housing, because there is no logging industry in Greenland, as there are no trees in Greenland. The houses that citizens import are usually well insulated, and attempt to work within the environment.
In the end, the problems that South Greenland’s ecosystem faces do not come from natural forces, but actually human forces. Nevertheless, what makes this a problem is that the people of South Greenland have no influence over these human forces. It is actually from other areas around the world. Global warming is a much-discussed topic nowadays. With a rise in industrialization and pollution, and with the advent of globalization and the environmental damage that entails, global warming has become a huge problem. As the earth’s temperatures rise, the polar ice caps will melt, which raises the sea level. As global temperatures rise, there is no telling what could happen to the vegetation, wildlife, and marine life of South Greenland, because they are so sensitive.
In addition, Greenland’s interior is composed mainly of glaciers, which contain 10% of the world’s freshwater. If these melt, then there may be possible flash floods, which may damage people’s homes. There is continuous permafrost over the northern two-thirds of the island, but as the temperatures rise, there may be reduced continued permafrost. It is important to protect the arctic environment, to preservation of the Inuit traditional way of life, and to sensibly restrict whaling and seal hunting. But the major changes to the ecosystem may come from other places thousands of miles away in the world.
Southern Greenland’s ecosystem is at risk from human forces, mainly because Greenland’s ecosystem is so important as it is near the polar ice caps. A few years ago, scientists found a gaping hole in the ozone layer at the poles. Because of global warming and pollution, this hole has widened considerably. This creates adverse effects on the vegetation as well as wildlife. Around the 1200s, world temperatures dropped, and there was a mini-ice age throughout the world. These changes were particularly harmful, and some scientists surmise that the reason that the Norse settlements disappeared were that they could not adapt to these new conditions. Thus, it has been shown that southern Greenland’s ecosystem may be sensitive to natural and human forces, which leaves it at risk. In the future, it may be possible that if the opposite of a mini-ice age occurred, the ecosystem of southern Greenland would change drastically as well.