Greenland: Maybe the Vikings Had the Right Idea…

Julian Starr is a research scientist and botanist with the Canadian Museum of Nature. He is a scientific advisor and expert on the 2011 Students on Ice Arctic expedition. The ship-based journey explores Iceland, southern Greenland, the north shore of Labrador and the northern reaches of Nunavik.

Rugged mountains of Greenland with two hikers standing near the water’s edge.

Hiking in Greenland. Image: Lee Narraway © Lee Narraway/Students on Ice

From the moment I saw Greenland from a plane at age 17, I had a yearning to visit it. The bergy bits in the sea, the thin green line that makes up the coast, and the merging of giant glaciers into an immense ice cap pierced only by craggy mountain tops really appealed to me.

Twenty-five years later, I am finally there, or at least I think I am there! The fog is so thick that the only things we saw for our first day in Greenland were a few icebergs and the occasional chunk of sea ice to indicate that we were close.

Let’s say that the sight was rather depressing as the crossing of the Denmark Strait, a notoriously stormy passage, left a good portion of the team hors du combat and eager to simply see the land. I think that for many of our students, romantic thoughts of a career on the high seas studying whales were suddenly looking less attractive than the delights of botany on terra firma—and all the better, say I!

At last, on the second day, we broke through the mist to a sight that was everything and more than my teenage memory could have hoped for: majestic, snow-capped mountains rising at the western entrance to Prins Christian Sund on the most southerly reaches of Greenland. Although massive glaciers pour down here from the ice cap to the sea, the climate is actually quite warm—at least that is what the plants say.

Hikers climb a path up a mountain on the island of Unatoq, Greenland. Clouds cover the high mountain peaks in the distance.

A hike to the hot springs on the island of Unatoq, Greenland. Image: Lee Narraway © Lee Narraway/Students on Ice

Typically boreal elements such as common juniper (Juniperus communis) and narrow-leaved fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) battle it out with Arctic classics such as moss campion (Silene acaulis) and mountain heather (Phyllodoce caerulea).

But the real clincher is the forests. Amazingly, at the end of the longest southern fiords you can find 3–4 metre trees of downy birch (Betula pubescens) and mountain ash (Sorbus groenlandica). So even though I might think twice about hauling my cows, sheep and goats from Iceland to set up shop, after seeing the real estate for myself, maybe the Vikings were not so daft after all!

The vividly coloured houses of Nanortalik are seen between the white crosses of a cemetery in the foreground and a mountain range in the distance.

The village of Nanortalik, Greenland. Image: Lee Narraway © Lee Narraway/Students on Ice

Our final day in Greenland featured a quick visit to the small, but delightful town of Nanortalik (paved roads and a deep water quay to which we docked our 100 m vessel—something unheard of in northern Canada). We are now steaming to Labrador for four days to explore one of Canada’s newest national parks, Torngat Mountains. It should be colder than Greenland or Iceland, so not only shall we see “real” tundra, but also—hopefully—a more brilliant and diverse Arctic flora.

Small pink flowering plant, Chamerion latifolium or Arctic riverbeauty taken at Prins Christian Sund, Greenland.

Chamerion latifolium or Arctic riverbeauty—the photo was taken at Prins Christian Sund, Greenland (ca. N 60°20', W 43°55'). This plant was merrily growing on soils where, according to the charts, a glacier had sat only 40 years before (the remnants of the glacier were approximately 100 m in distance and elevation from the point where I took the photo). This is an aArctic species that does very well in disturbed habitats, from the treeline to the most northerly reaches of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It was one of only six other vascular plant species that I was able to discover in this blitzed landscape. This species is very common up north and has large showy flowers for almost the entire growing season. In other words, if you travel north in the summer, you are almost certain to see it. A closely related boreal species, Chamerion angustifolium or fireweed, is a taller species with smaller flowers and thinner leaves that southerners will know well from their travels to cottage country. It often dominates roadsides, especially where there has been a recent fire. Image: Julian Starr © Canadian Museum of Nature

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