Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/July 1890/Greenland and the Greenlanders

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TILL recently Hooker, Payer, and others supposed that the interior of Greenland presented vast spaces free of ice, grassy valleys where herds of reindeer grazed, and popular legends were appealed to in support of this view. Nordenskjöld also suggested that the phenomenon might be explained by the action of the winds, which after crossing the inland ranges descended in warm currents like the föhn of Switzerland, and thus melted the snows of the valleys. But the systematic researches made in recent years have failed to discover any of these inland oases. The whole land appears, on the contrary, to be covered with a continuous ice-cap fringed by glaciers which move down the outer valleys to the neighborhood of the sea, or to the fiords of the periphery. The valleys themselves have disappeared, and, despite local irregularities, the ice-cap slopes like a shield uniformly toward the interior. Thus, in certain places the explorer should expect to meet elevations of seven thousand or eight thousand feet; but, owing to an optical illusion, he scarcely knows whether he is climbing or descending. The horizon seems to rise on all sides, says Nordenskjöld, "as if he were at the bottom of a basin."

The aspect of these boundless wastes rolling away in scarcely perceptible undulations, and in the distance mingling the gray of their snows with the gray of the skies, at first gave the impression that Greenland was a uniform plateau, a sort of horizontal table. The belief now prevails that the rocky surface of the land is, on the contrary, carved into mountains and hills, valleys and gorges, but that the plastic snows and ice have gradually filled up all the cavities, which now show only in slight sinuosities on the surface. Allowing to the whole mass of the ice-cap an average thickness of five hundred feet, it would represent a total volume of about one hundred and fifty thousand cubic miles. This sermer suak, or "great ice" of the Greenlanders, flows like asphalt or tar with extreme slowness seaward, while the surface is gradually leveled by the snow falling during the course of ages and distributed by the winds. In the interior of the country the surface of the ice and snow is as smooth as if it were polished, looking like "the undisturbed surface of a frozen ocean, the long but not high billows of which rolling from east to west are not easily distinguishable to the eye."[2] Nevertheless, the exterior form of the ice-cap has been greatly diversified, at least on its outer edge, where in many places it is difficult to cross, or even quite impassable. The action of lateral pressure, of heat produced by the tremendous friction, of evaporation and filtration, has often broken the surface into innumerable cones a few yards high, in form and color resembling the tents of an encampment. The depressions of the snowy plateau are filled with meres, lagoons, and lakes; streams and rivulets excavate winding gorges with crystal walls in the snow and ice. Cascades, frozen at night, plunge during the day into profound crevasses; during the expedition of 1870 Nordenskjöld saw intermittent jets of water rising to a great height, which he was unable to study, but which he supposes must be geysers.

Most of the glaciers reaching the coast round the Greenland seaboard present a somewhat regular frontal line, from which blocks of varying size break off with every wave and drift away with the current. But the frozen streams which yield those huge masses large enough to be called icebergs, that is, "mountains of ice," are relatively few in number, their production requiring a combination of favorable circumstances, such as the thickness of the parent glacier, the form of its bed, and the depth of the water at its mouth. The larger fragments originate for the most part along that remarkable break which is presented in the normal formation of the coast-line between Egedesminde and the Svartenhuk Peninsula. Rink enumerates not more than thirty Greenland glaciers which discharge really large icebergs, and of this number only six or eight yield blocks of the first magnitude.

The average velocity of the congealed masses is about fifty feet in the twenty-four hours, but in some places a much greater speed has been recorded, though still varying considerably with the seasons. A branch of the Augpadlartok glacier, north of Upernavik, moves at the rate of one hundred feet a day, the highest yet measured. But how enormous must be the pressure of the inland ice-fields to discharge into the sea the vast quantities of icebergs which are yearly sent adrift along the Greenland seaboard! Estimated in a single block the annual discharge from each of the five best-known glaciers would represent a mass of about seventeen billion cubic feet in capacity, and fifty-six hundred feet in height, depth, and thickness. Reduced to a liquid state this mass would be equivalent to a stream discharging seaward five hundred cubic feet per second, or 15,500,000 a year.

The formation of this drift ice, or floating icebergs, is one of those phenomena which were discussed long before the seaboard had been studied, or before the breaking away of the frozen masses had actually been witnessed. Wherever the glaciers discharge through a broad valley preserving a uniform width and depth for a considerable space, and advancing seaward through a fiord of like dimensions, and with gently sloping bed, the ice may progress without any of those accidents caused by the inequalities of more rugged channels. Under such conditions the compact mass glides smoothly forward over its rocky bed without developing any rents or fissures. But as it moves down like a ship on its keel, it tends to rise, being at least one twentieth lighter than the displaced water. It is also left without support by the sudden fall of its bed beyond the normal coast-line. Nevertheless, it still continues its onward movement through the waters to a point where its weight prevails over its force of cohesion with the frozen stream thrusting it forward. At this point it snaps off suddenly with a tremendous crash, and the iceberg, enveloped in»a thousand fragments projected into space, plunges into the abyss and whirls round and round to find its center of gravity amid the troubled waters. On recovering from the bewilderment caused by all this tumult and chaos, the spectator finds that the glacier has apparently receded a long way toward the head of the bay, in the middle of which a crystal peak is seen slowly drifting away with the current. In this he recognizes the huge fragment detached
PSM V37 D319 View on the glacier of sermitsialik near ivigtut.jpg
Fig. 1.—View on the Glacier of Sermitsialik, nearIvigtut.
PSM V37 D320 Front of the glacier of sermitsialik.jpg
Fig. 2. — Front of the Glacier of Sermitsialik.

from the glacier, though seldom able to detect its primitive form, the greater part, say at least six sevenths of its volume, sinking below the surface.

If Greenland, like other regions, passed through a glacial epoch, the fossil remains preserved in its sedimentary rocks show that it had also its hot and temperate periods. The old formations

Scale 1: 300,000
PSM V37 D321 Movement of the kanderdlug suak glacier in umanak district 1.jpg
PSM V37 D321 Movement of the kanderdlug suak glacier in umanak district 2.jpg
————————————————————6 Miles.
The scale of heights is 50 times greater than that of lengths.
Fig. 3.—Movement of the Kanderdlug-Suak Glacier, Umanak District.

which have yielded Carboniferous, Triassic, and Jurassic fossils, present types of organisms comparable to those at present found in the torrid zone. The upper chalk beds, abounding in vegetable forms, analogous to those of the subtropical and temperate zones, had already been examined by Giesecke at the beginning of this century. They supplied to Nordenskjöld a very remarkable flora, especially rich in dicotyledonous plants represented by numerous families of Cycadea, a tree-fern, and even a bread-fruit tree. At that time the mean temperature must have been as high as 68° Fahr.

The Miocene flora, whose general physiognomy corresponds to a more temperate climate, averaging about 53° or 54° Fahr., is illustrated by splendid specimens discovered chiefly in Disco Island and the surrounding peninsulas. Quite a fossil forest is buried under the ferruginous mass of Mount Atanekerdluk, a peak which rises to a height of over a thousand feet over against Disco, and which is now surrounded by glaciers on all sides. From these deposits Whymper, Nordenskjöld, and others have extracted one hundred and sixty-nine species of plants, of which about three fourths were shrubs and trees, some with stems as thick as a man's body. Altogether there have been discovered in the Greenland strata as many as six hundred and thirteen species of fossil plants. The most prevalent tree is a Sequoia, closely resembling the Oregon and Calif ornian giants of the present epoch. Associated with this conifer were beeches, oaks, evergreen oaks, elms, hazel-nuts, walnuts, magnolias, and laurels; and these forest trees were festooned with the vine, ivy, and other creepers. A leaf of a Cycadea found among these fossil remains is the largest ever seen; and a true palm, the Flabellaria, has been discovered among the remains of these old arctic forests.

To develop such a flora the climate of north Greenland must at that time have been analogous to that at present enjoyed on the shores of Lake Geneva, twenty-four degrees nearer to the equator. According to the same gradation of temperature, the dry lands about the north pole itself must at the same epoch have had their forests of aspens and conifers. According to Oswald Heer, the change that has taken place in the climate since then represents a fall of 30° or 40° Fahr. for north Greenland. The interval between these two ages was marked by the Glacial period, whose traces are visible on the west coast.

Although incomparably poorer than that of Miocene times, the present flora of Greenland is sufficient to clothe extensive tracts with a mantle of mosses, grasses, and brushwood. Wherever the snows melt under the influence of the sun or of the warm east winds, herbaceous and other lowly plants spring up even on the exposed nunatakker, and to a height of five thousand feet. Owing to the uniform intensity of the solar heat, the summer flora is almost identical on the low-lying coast-lands and highest mountain-tops. True trees occur in the southern districts, where Egede was said to have measured some nearly twenty feet high. But the largest met by Rink during all his long rambles was a white birch fourteen feet high growing amid the rocks near a Norse ruin. Few trees, in fact, exceed five or six feet, while most of the shrubs become trailing plants. Such are the service and alder, which on the coast reach 65° north latitude; the juniper, which advances to 67°; and the dwarf birch, which ranges beyond 72°.

In its general features the Greenland flora, comprising about four hundred flowering plants and several hundred species of lichens, greatly resembles that of Scandinavia. Hooker and Dr. Robert Brown regard it as essentially the same as that of the north European highlands and lacustrine regions. Even on the west coast, facing America, this-European physiognomy is said to prevail, although to a less degree than on the opposite side, which appears to be much poorer in vegetable forms. But, though limited, the American element is important, supplying to the natives numerous edible berries, algæ, and fuci, which have saved whole tribes from starvation during periods of scarcity. The Europeans have also their little garden-plots, where they grow lettuce, cabbage, turnips, and occasionally potatoes about the size of schoolboys' marbles.

The great bulk of the present population consists of Danes, Danish half-breeds, and the Eskimo proper, more or less modified by crossings with the early Norse settlers. Nearly all the inhabitants, already Christianized and civilized by the missionaries, are grouped in parishes, whose organization differs from corresponding European communities only in those conditions that are imposed by the climate and the struggle for existence. There still survive, however, a few tribes of pure Eskimo stock, such as those recently discovered by European explorers beyond the Danish territory north of Melville Bay and on the east coast. Others also may perhaps exist along the shores of unvisited or inaccessible fiords. But the most northern camping-ground hitherto discovered is that of Ita (Etah), situated in Port Foulke on Smith Sound, in 78° 18' north latitude. In 1875 and again in 1881 it was found abandoned; but it is known to have been previously inhabited, and the natives had returned to the place in 1882 and 1883.[3] When visited by Hall and his party, this little group of twenty persons, who had never seen any other human beings, fancied that the strangers were ghosts, the souls of their forefathers descending from the moon or rising from the depths of the abyss. In their eyes the ships of John Ross were great birds, with huge, flapping wings.

Among the Greenland Eskimo are most frequently found men of average and even high stature, especially on the east coast. Most of those on the west side are short, but thick-set and robust, with short legs, small hands, and a yellowish-white complexion. The face is broad and flat, the nose very small, the eyes brown and slightly oblique like the Chinese; the hair black, lank, and falling over the forehead; the expression mild, suggesting that of the seal, the animal which is ever in their thoughts, and whose death is their life. They have also the seal's gait and carriage, as well as a rounded figure well lined with fat to protect it from the cold. What essentially distinguishes the Eskimo from the Mongolian, with whom he was till recently affiliated, is the extremely " dolichocecephalous" form of his head, the skull, with its vertical sides and sharp crest, often affecting a "scaphocephalous" or boat-like shape. According to Dall, the cranial capacity is higher than that of the red-skins.

Both sexes are dressed very much alike. European fashions, however, have already penetrated among the Greenlanders, and in many districts men are now met wearing the garb of European laborers, while the women deck themselves with cotton stuffs and many-colored ribbons. But in winter no costume could advantageously replace their capacious boots, sealskin pantaloons, close-fitting jacket, and the amaut, or hood which "keeps baby warm." In Danish Greenland the women no longer tattoo their chin, cheeks, hands, or feet, nor do they now insert variegated threads under the skin, the missionaries having interdicted these "pagan" practices. PSM V37 D324 Greenland eskimo.jpgFig. 4.—Greenland Eskimo. Singing, dancing, the relation of the old legends, even athletic games among the young people, were also formerly sternly repressed. Indulgence in strong drinks is allowed only once a year, on the anniversary of the King of Denmark, and the royal monopoly of the trade with Greenland is justified on the ground that in this way the importation of spirits is prevented.

Possessing great natural intelligence combined with love of instruction, the Greenlanders may justly claim to be civilized. The great majority read and write their mother-tongue, and sing European melodies, while several speak English or Danish. Nearly all the families have their little library, and read their Eskimo newspaper, as well as the collections of national legends, illustrated with engravings by native artists. Greenland even
PSM V37 D325 View of upernavik.jpg
Fig. 5.—View of Upernavik.

possesses at least one original work, the account of the voyages of Hans Hendrik, companion of Kane, Hall, Hayes, and Nares.

Formerly, the right of property was restricted to objects of personal use, such as clothes and weapons; the hunting-grounds belonged to the whole community, and the produce of the chase or fisheries was equally distributed among all. The rights of communal property were also regulated and safeguarded by general assemblies followed by public banquets. But the Europeans have changed all that by introducing the principle of sale and purchase, by enlarging to their own profit the rights of personal ownership, and proclaiming the new gospel of "every man for himself." The result is a general impoverishment and moral degradation of the people. They are no longer like the Eskimo visited by Graah on the east coast—"the gentlest, the most upright and virtuous of men." Nevertheless, the language possesses not a single abusive term, and it is impossible to swear in Eskimo.

The part of Greenland where Eric the Red built his stronghold, and where the banished Norsemen flocked around him, is still one of the least deserted regions, as it also is the most fertile and temperate. Julianahaab, capital of this district, contains one fourth of the entire population of the country grouped on the banks of a small stream in a grassy valley near a deep fiord, which is unfortunately not easily accessible to shipping.

Upernivik (Upernavik) and Tasiusak, lying still farther north in 73° 24' north latitude, are the last European settlements in Greenland, gloomy abodes lost amid the snows at the foot of yellowish or brick-red rocks. In winter the sun sets for eighty days, yet by a sort of mockery this glacial district bears an Eskimo name meaning "spring." The horrors of war were extended to this extremity of the habitable world at the beginning of the present century, when Upernavik was burned by the English whalers, and all communication between Greenland and Denmark interrupted for the seven years from 1807 to 1814.


The Siamese Government is taking great pains to encourage the speedy development of the enormous potential resources of the country, and has sagaciously done much in that direction. Telegraphs have been established; schools, hospitals, and other public buildings have been erected, and are increasing every day. A tramway company, supported mainly by Siamese capital, is running street cars in the metropolis. A river flotilla company, wholly Siamese, carries the passenger traffic of the stream on which Bangkok is built; important gold-mining operations have been begun by a company, in which a majority of the subscribers are Siamese; and a trunk line of railway is under contract. A large and lucrative export trade in cattle has sprung up; and mills, docks, and fleets of German and English ships, all doing a flourishing business, attest the prevalence of a spirit of enterprise.
  1. From advance sheets of North America, by Elisée Reclus, soon to be published by D. Appleton & Co., being the fifteenth volume of The Earth and its Inhabitants.
  2. Nansen, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, August, 1889.
  3. Greely, Three Years of Arctic Service.