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The History of Greenland: From Inuit Migration, World War II, to Kvanefjeld

The History of Greenland

Between 4000 B.C. and A.D. 1000, Greenland's Inuit migrated there from North America. Between 980 and 985, Norse settlers led by Eric the Red established a colony. The settlement ceased to exist in about 1400 because of increasingly severe winters and trade problems.

European explorers charted Greenland's coast during the 16th century, and the island was settled in 1721 by the Norwegian missionary Hans Egede under the aegis of the Danish crown. The Danish crown assumed control of the colony in 1729 and, from 1774, established a state monopoly on all trade with Greenland, which remained in effect until 1951.

During World War II, when Denmark was under German occupation, the U.S. government took over Greenland as a protectorate. In 1946 the United States offered to buy Greenland, but the Danish government refused. The United States was given permission to retain and develop its main radar and weather patrol base at Thule. It became a major U.S. airbase during the cold war.

In 1975 a commission was appointed to work out terms for home rule. These were approved by Danish voters in 1978, and home rule was instituted in 1979. The popularly elected legislature (Landsting) determines the internal affairs of Greenland.

Greenland holds two seats in the Danish national assembly, and the Danish government handles some of Greenland's external affairs. In 1985, Greenland withdrew from full membership in the European Community.

Jonathan Motzfeldt, of Siumut (Forward), a social-democratic party, was prime minister for all but six years (1991–97) of the period from 1979 to Dec. 14, 2002, when he was succeeded as Siumut leader by Hans Enoksen.

In September 2003, Enoksen's ruling coalition collapsed when the liberal Atassut (Solidarity) withdrew. He then persuaded the left-wing, proindependence Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA; Community of the People) to rejoin his coalition.

In August 2004, Greenland, Denmark, and the United States signed agreements to upgrade the Thule airbase to make it part of the planned U.S. antimissile defense system.

The expectation of new mineral wealth paved the way for a referendum in which a new plan for self-rule won approval in November 2008. Under the plan, worked out with the Danish government, the first $16 million of oil and mineral income would go to the local government.

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Further revenues would be split equally between the two governments until Copenhagen’s share reached roughly $680 million a year, the amount of the subsidy that Greenlanders were receiving from Denmark late in the first decade of the 21st century. At that point the island could become independent.

Three decades of Social Democratic rule ended with the victory of the IA in the June 2009 elections. Under terms of the expanded home-rule agreement, the new local government took control of judicial and police matters and, to some extent, of foreign affairs.

Greenlanders were recognized as a separate people under international law, and their language was recognized as the sole official language. Siumut returned to power after the elections of April 2013. Aleqa Hammond became Greenland's first female prime minister.

Hammond had campaigned on a platform of ending the Danish-imposed ban on exporting uranium. Parliament voted to lift the ban in October 2013. This action annoyed Denmark but not as much as did the appointment in May 2014 of a commission to investigate claims of colonial abuses by the Danes. \

Hammond resigned at the end of September 2014 as the result of a scandal over misused public funds. Kim Kielsen replaced her as head of Siumut and as acting prime minister. Siumut narrowly won a snap general election on November 28 with 34.3% of the vote; Inuit Ataqatigiit came in a close second with 33.2%. On December 10, Kielsen formed a new government in coalition with two small parties.

The melting of Greenland's ice cap accelerated much faster than early estimates had projected. In a report released in early 2019 scientists found that ice loss in 2012, more than 400 billion tons per year, was nearly four times the rate in 2003. A lull occurred in 2013–14, but thereafter the pace of ice loss picked up again. A heat wave in the summer of 2019 caused record losses.

Many believed that Greenland was close to a tipping point after which the melt would be irreversible, with a corresponding effect on sea levels worldwide. Others focused on the short-term economic benefits of the melting ice, which had given Greenland a new geopolitical importance.

In August 2019, U.S. president Donald Trump suggested that the United States buy Greenland from Denmark. The proposal was dismissed as "absurd" by the Danish prime minister, which caused a minor diplomatic spat. Leaving aside the issue of actual acquisition of Greenland by another country, however, the United States was not alone in voicing interest in Greenland's newly accessible natural resources and the opening of new shipping lanes in the Arctic.

In 2021 Greenland was bitterly divided over a proposal to mine a site called Kvanefjeld, said to contain the world's second-largest deposits of rare-earth metals. Greenland Minerals, an Australian company with Chinese shareholders, was pursuing the project.

Prime Minister Kielsen favored the project, but in February a coalition partner quit the government because of it. This forced snap elections on April 6, which were won by the Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) party, staunch opponents of the mine, with 37% of the vote

With only 12 out of 31 seats in the legislature, the IA, led by Múte Egede, formed a coalition with the more right-wing but anti-mine Naleraq, which held four seats. The new government, which took office on April 23, barely controlled a majority of the 31 legislative seats but had the support of the proindependence Atassut.

In July the government released its draft of a bill banning uranium mining. It would reinstate and strengthen an earlier ban on exporting uranium that had been overturned in 2013.

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