Since the world started waking up to the reality of climate change, the way we see Greenland has changed. It has gone from being one of those almost mythically faraway and mysterious places on the planet, like Timbuktu, and become a very real part of the calculus of what will happen to the Earth as it warms.
We watch the rapidly melting ice sheet atop this huge Arctic island nervously, wondering what the water that streams off it and into the ocean will mean for coastal cities. We wonder how it will affect the Gulf Stream and the overall temperature balance of the Atlantic Ocean. We measure the pieces of ice that break off in units the size of Manhattan.
But for all our new familiarity with the idea of Greenland as a global climatological force, we don’t often think about it as a place where people live. With only 56,000 souls living on 836,000 square miles, it is the least densely populated country in the world. Most residents are concentrated in a few cities and towns on the island’s western edge. Some 16,000 live in the capital city of Nuuk.
And Nuuk, like cities around the world, is an urban heat island, according to research conducted by Tony Reames, a doctoral student at the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration.
Reames, whose studies have focused on environmental justice in urban America, began his research as a class project, not sure what he would find. But the almost laboratory-like conditions of Greenland, he discovered, were a perfect place to measure the effect of human urban development on temperature, especially in the dark winter months.
“You don’t have solar influences at all,” says Reames. “It’s a unique situation to observe the human activity impact.”
He looked at data from 2005 to 2011, and found a strong urban heat island effect in the winter months. In 2011, for instance, the urban area of Nuuk registered temperatures on average 0.5 degrees Centigrade warmer than the surrounding area. February temperatures were 1.1 degrees Centigrade higher than in the surrounding areas, an effect that Reames says is attributable to the intense demands of the heating season and to energy-inefficient buildings that radiate much of that heat into the atmosphere. You can see his video about the project here.
Nuuk is growing rapidly, with a population increase of 25 percent since 1990. “Social, political, and climate issues are pushing people into cities,” says Reames. “People in coastal areas are dealing with climate change. They don’t have access to the same animals.”
People from outside Greenland come to Nuuk as well, to work in professional jobs that can’t be filled by Greenlanders. As a result, Reames says, Nuuk is becoming more cosmopolitan. A mall opened just a couple of years ago, selling the same fashions you would see in Denmark (Greenland is a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark, and receives an annual block grant from the European nation that provides most of the island’s budget).
Despite its size, Nuuk, the world’s smallest capital city, faces issuees typical of larger urban areas. Many of its people live in public housing and rely on government support. “There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of separation between the haves and have-nots,” Reames says.
The people of Greenland, Reames says, see climate change through a different lens than the rest of the world. Many in the small country view the island’s warming trend as a positive development that will open up economic opportunity, especially as fossil fuel resources become accessible. “They see it as key to their independence from Denmark.”
By 2050, projections show that nearly half of Greenland’s population will live in Nuuk. Reames says that makes sustainable urban development a key issue for the growing city. Because so much of the housing is government-subsidized and controlled, he says, there is the potential for instituting policies that will dramatically reduce the loss of energy from inefficient buildings, and he hopes his research will contribute to that change. “It could help the government in their planning,” he says, “and in their understanding of the environmental impact of urban development.”