How Did Greenland and Iceland Get Such Mismatched Names?
The origin of a name for any location encapsulates the history, culture, and even geography of the place. The names may also convey the intentions of the founders or settlers. Some names, such as the United Arab Emirates or the Grand Canyon, have very straightforward meanings. Others might not be so easy to understand or could even be downright confusing! Such is the case with Iceland and Greenland, two countries that seem to have mixed their names up. But was that really the case? Let’s explore the history behind their names to find the truth of the matter.
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The History Behind the Names Goes Back a Long Way
Iceland and Greenland, while having names that seem straightforward, have very interesting narratives that extend deep into the history of both regions. According to the oldest available source, the Íslendingabók (The Book of the Icelanders) written in 1103, Iceland was first settled by the Norse people between 870 to 930 CE. On the other hand, the Inuit people reportedly settled in Greenland first, migrating from North America during the period of 2500 BCE to the 2nd millennium CE.
The other main source of early Icelandic settlement, the Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements), speaks of Flóki Vilgerðarson, the first Nordic man to spend a winter in Iceland. The legend goes that winter was harsh, causing the death of their livestock. Dejected, Flóki hiked up onto a mountain once spring broke and witnessed a fjord full of pack ice. This is what prompted him to name the region “Iceland,” almost as a warning for other explorers.
However, the name “Greenland” was recorded when Norse explorer Erik the Red arrived on the southern part of the island in 982 CE. The name may seem completely ill-suited given Greenland’s current climate, but Erik wasn’t trying to pull a prank. Ice core and mollusk shell data suggest that southern Greenland was much warmer from the period of 800 CE to 1300 CE. Witnessing a much more verdant landscape, Erik the Red dubbed the region “Greenland” to attract even more settlers.
What Makes Iceland and Greenland so Different from Each Other?
Ice currently covers over 80% of Greenland, but that wasn’t always the case. Scientists performing a study on the Greenland Ice Sheet found a hidden landscape under the ice. The team discovered organic soil frozen below the ice sheet for 2.7 million years! Even today, sheep and potato farms flourish towards the southwestern end of the island. However, due to natural climate change, the region became colder over time. Now, Eismitte, Greenland, holds the distinction of being the second coldest place on Earth, with the lowest recorded temperature of -85 °F (-65 °C).
Iceland, while it may have been packed with ice when Flóki first saw it, gradually became warmer. The warming can be attributed to the Gulf Stream, which enables the seas around Iceland to be around 10°F (6°C) warmer than Greenland. Even with 11% of the country covered in a permanent ice cap, Iceland enjoys green summers.
So Why Don’t Iceland and Greenland Switch Names?
The solution may seem simple enough, but it’s not as straightforward as just exchanging names. For one, the changing of the names would be a lengthy process for both countries. Leaders and politicians would need to hold meetings to reach a majority approval. Climate change also plays a role in whether the name change would even be necessary.
The melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet has cooled the water of the North Atlantic Ocean, greatly slowing down the Gulf Stream. If this continues, Iceland will witness colder temperatures while Greenland will become warmer and shed icebergs at an alarming rate. The names of Iceland and Greenland may not fit in the present day, but climate change could ensure the names fit in the future.
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