History and geography teachers often point out the silliness of Greenland’s name. The Arctic country is covered with a barren ice sheet spanning 660,000 square miles, or roughly 80% of the country’s surface. There’s not exactly much green to be found!

According to the Icelandic Sagas, Eric the Red, who had been exiled from Iceland for murder, came to Greenland’s glacial shores in the late 10th century and dubbed the place “Grœnland” in the hopes of attracting settlers to the remote outpost with the false promise of abundant forests and fields.

He may have been just a little ahead of his time. New research shows that in the not-too-distant future, climate change could melt the edges of Greenland’s ice sheet, opening up fertile soil for new seeds and plants to take hold. But would a greener Greenland be good for the country—or the planet?

Warming Ice, Rising Waters

The Greenland ice sheet is losing an average of around 250 billion metric tons of ice per year—and these losses have shown to be speeding up over time. The ice contains enough water to raise global sea levels by 24 feet if all of it melted. The year 2021 marked the 25th year in a row in which the ice sheet lost more mass during the melting season than it gained during the winter.

Warm air temperatures cause melting to occur on the surface of the ice sheet, a process that is responsible for around half the ice Greenland loses each year. The other half comes from glaciers at the ice sheet’s edge crumbling into the sea. When that happens, it churns up the waters—and that turbulence helps heat rise up from deeper parts of the ocean, warming the waters coming into contact with the ice and melting the glaciers even faster.

As a result, Greenland, researchers predict, could soon begin to look a little bit like Alaska or western Canada, though the exact composition of trees and bushes depends upon which species take advantage of the new ecological niches that form when ice uncovers soil.  

moss green waterfalls glacial water greenland arctic landscapes

© Colby Brokvist

Greenland’s Uniquely Unpopulated Ecosystem

Greenland is special in so many ways when it comes to ecological conservation. Although it is the 12th-largest country in the world (it’s approximately the size of Western Europe or the main part of the U.S.), Greenland has the lowest population density of any country on the planet. Only 56,000 people call Greenland home; if they were all to spread out, each Greenlander would have about 25 square miles to themselves.

The entire northeast of Greenland is one massive national park that was established in 1974. It’s the largest national park in the world and a sanctuary for Arctic wildlife such as the Arctic fox, collared lemming, Arctic hare and gray wolves.

With so few people and even fewer cars and industry (the longest road for vehicles in the country is only around 20 miles long), Greenland also has some of the purest air in the world. You can drink freely from any of the streams or rivers in the country—no filter required.

Greenland is already greener than most visitors on our East Greenland Arctic Adventure expect. Colorful flowers, lush meadows and hardy plants spring up when the snow starts to melt and the summer’s mild winds blow. Our Expedition Leaders even guide our guests into a place called the Valley of Flowers, where beautiful lakes are ringed with wildflowers.

> Read: What Climate Change Will Mean for Greenland’s Arctic Wildflowers

The vegetation is richest and most diverse in the southwest, which, compared to the rest of the country, has a relatively mild climate with wooded areas in the protected inner fjords. Elsewhere in Greenland, there are tundras with grasses and sedges, carpets of moss, mushrooms, flowering plants like bog rosemary and yellow poppy, and blueberry and crowberry bushes.

traveler photographs wildflowers arctic tundra greenland summer iphone

© Colby Brokvist

Non-native Plants Take Hold as the Planet Heats Up

In 1911, researchers reported that Greenland was home to 310 species of vascular plants, including 15 endemic species. Today that number has jumped up to nearly 500 species and rising. Practically all of Greenland’s native vegetation disappeared during the ice age; the existing plant life came mostly from North America.

How’s that? Well, a study conducted in Svalbard, an archipelago north of Norway with a similar ecosystem as Greenland, found 1,019 seeds of 53 species clinging to just 259 travelers’ shoes upon arrival. Twenty-six of those species germinated in Arctic conditions when given the opportunity. Migratory birds coming from North America have also been found to deposit seeds that had been stuck to their plumage and feet or passed through their bowels. 

Currently, only five species of trees or large shrubs occur naturally in Greenland: Greenland mountain ash, mountain alder, downy birch, grayleaf willow, and common juniper. Even these currently grow only in scattered plots in the far south.

However, field experiments have confirmed that a range of other species, including Siberian larch, white spruce, lodgepole pine and Eastern balsam poplar, could establish in Greenland if given the chance. Those species, along with the five long-established native varieties, may begin to spread as temperatures warm with climate change.

Researchers built a computer model of Greenland’s predicted climate for the next 100 years, onto which they overlaid with known data for various North American and European tree species’ ideal habitat niches. Within a century, they found, all 56 species of trees and shrubs they tested would likely be ideally suited to take up residence (or expand their reach) in Greenland.

greenland arctic wildflowers glaciers icebergs summer climate change tundra

Without help, the researchers’ models indicate that some species of trees would take around 2,000 years to find their way to a newly hospitable patch of Greenland soil. But with tourism and regular flights between continents, the plants will most likely receive some significant accidental colonization assistance. Greenlanders will also most likely start to plant trees themselves, if they believe they could now grow there.

“People often plant utility and ornamental plants where they can grow,” Jens-Christian Svenning, a biologist at Aarhus University states. “I believe it lies in our human nature.” However, he warns, if Greenland’s greening is left up to the locals, they should proceed with caution.

“The Greenlandic countryside will be far more susceptible to introduced species in the future than it is today,” he said. “So if importing and planting species takes place without any control, this could lead to nature developing in a very chaotic way.”

Why Green Isn’t Always Great

While “more green” might seem like a win for the environment, the possible shift from mossy tundra to towering forest would almost certainly push out some of Greenland’s native plant and animal species.

On the flip side, new trees may help alleviate some of the erosion issues from quickly melting glaciers and could create recreational or economic possibilities, such as sustainable hunting and foraging for wood and wild edible food. Even just recently, the warming of the Arctic environment has allowed new crops like apples, strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and carrots to be grown and for the cultivated areas of the country to be extended. 

husky greenland dogs arctic

© Ralph Lee Hopkins

Local Greenlanders are already having to adapt to weather changes. Kaleeraq Mathaeussen, for example, has been fishing since he was 14 years old. Like other locals, he has observed massive changes around him that can’t be ignored. In the past, he used to travel on the ice each winter with a sled pulled by his beloved dogs. But the water no longer freezes like it used to.

“Ever since 2001, I noticed the winter seasons in Disko Bay didn’t have as much ice. I was very worried when I started to notice that the ice barrier was getting weaker. Today it is unpredictable and too dangerous to go fishing with my sled dogs,” he explains.

Mathaeussen stopped sledding two years ago, and now he only feels safe fishing by boat.

And Mathaeussen isn’t alone. Around two decades ago there were around 5,000 dogs in the larger coastal town of Ilulissat alone, but now there are only about 1,800, as many Greenlanders give up this traditional transportation method.

“There’s some negative things. There are also some positive things,” Mathaeussen states. He explains that in some ways, Arctic life has become easier. For instance, nutrients from glacial meltwater are enriching marine life, and with the warmer weather, it’s now possible to fish year-round by boat. Halibut fetch a high price, and fishermen like Mathaeussen are now financially better off because they can fish for a longer season. 

sail boat greenland community arctic summer

© Ralph Lee Hopkins

Experience Greenland Climate and Culture Up Close

With all of these changes happening relatively quickly, the time to visit Greenland is now. On Nat Hab’s East Greenland Arctic Adventure, travelers have the chance to speak to locals firsthand to get their perspective on how climate change is affecting—and will affect—them.

In addition to our time at our Base Camp, we spend time in the tiny village of Tinit, a 20-minute boat ride from camp. Most visitors never get to these remote communities, but our overnight stays allow us to meet the local Greenlandic Inuit, learn about their culture and traditions, and gain an appreciation for the challenges and rewards of life in a rapidly changing modern Greenland.

Consider an upcoming Nat Hab trip to Greenland as the perfect place to unplug, connect with nature, and see for yourself the impact of climate change in the Arctic.