From the air, the largest island on the planet not to be its own continent, or even a nation, is so white and featureless that it resembles a soft cloud. On the ground, hard snow is driven into black rock, and the cold slaps you in the face. When people stomp indoors, icy air clings to them like a shroud.
In the past, the chill has killed off entire civilizations in Greenland. Even today, wrapped in fat rolls of designer polar wear or cosseted in climate-controlled SUVs, life is tough. Late last month, however, the 57,000 people who inhabit this harsh land took a firm step further into the cold when a decisive majority voted “aap” — yes — to seeking complete independence from Denmark, their colonial master for nearly 300 years.
Reverberations from Greenland’s desire to go it alone will be felt far beyond this icy coastline. What happens here could have a bearing on the fate of the globe. As new seaways open, and melting ice exposes new farmland and valuable minerals, this emerging nation will be shaped, in the literal sense, by climate change. Its newly independent citizens will find themselves the custodians of a pristine Arctic land beneath which may lie oil and diamonds and rubies of stupendous value — not just to Greenland but to the rest of the world.
When it does shake off the last of its colonial shackles, Greenland will become the newest and the most extraordinary country in the world, as well as one of the most isolated. Although its remote northwest coast is little more than 150km from Canada’s Ellesmere Island, it is some 3,000km from Europe. Four times the size of France, Greenland contains the longest fjord and largest national park in the world; 85 percent of its territory is covered with ice. Ten percent of the world’s fresh water is frozen on Greenland’s ice sheet; if it melts, sea levels will rise by 7m, sweeping away capital cities and countries around the world.
There are no roads to anywhere in Greenland but in the capital, Nuuk (population 14,719), all streets seem to lead to Aleqa Hammond. From old people buying hunks of porpoise at the market to teenage sports fans at the indoor handball game, everyone mentions the former finance and foreign minister. Like every Greenlander, her family is in the (slim) phone book so I call up and am invited round.
Some predict that Hammond, 43, will be the first prime minister of an independent Greenland. She lives in a fairy-tale wooden house overlooking the gloomy waters of Nuuk’s old harbor. Inside her door, a wolfskin hangs from its head. On her living room shelves are delicate Greenlandic artworks set between two walrus jaws and a pair of polar bear skulls. Above her sofa is a pale spike that looks as if it was plucked from a unicorn’s head: it is the tusk of a narwhal.
“My mother just called to say my brother is coming to town with a narwhal. So it’s a happy time — whale is Christmas food in Greenland,” she beams. Almost nine out of 10 Greenlanders are Inuit or Inuit/Danish. Hammond eloquently embodies the traditional and the modern: her husband is Danish, but the other members of her family are traditional hunters from Uummannaq, in the remote north, where thousands still live from hunting seals, whales and polar bears. Hammond’s father died when she was 7. He fell through the ice on a hunt with his dog team. “I feel pride in being a Greenlander,” she says. “I see possibilities in everything. This is a gift I think I can give to others — making impossible things possible.”