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Both Iceland and Greenland are large islands located in the northern reaches of the Atlantic Ocean, roughly halfway between Europe and North America. While Iceland is below the Arctic Circle, a huge part of Greenland stretches north into the Arctic. Another main difference is that Iceland is a sovereign state — there’s an Icelandic parliament and president, local currency, and an Icelandic language (though nearly everyone also speaks English). Greenland, however, is an autonomous territory within the kingdom of Denmark and uses Danish currency. Greenlanders speak Danish and Greenlandic, with only a handful of folks — mainly those working in tourism — speaking English.
Despite their geographical and cultural differences, Iceland and Greenland get confusing when you consider their names. Anyone who's ever glanced at a world map or a globe may have noticed something strange — Greenland is white, or ice-covered, while Iceland is green and lush. While both islands experience chilly temperatures, you might be wondering — is Greenland really icier than, well, Iceland? Here are some key differences between the two northern islands.
What’s in a Name?
While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why and how Iceland was named, historians do know that the country has had several names over the centuries, such as “Snowland.” The name “Iceland,” however, is believed to have originated after a Norwegian Viking named Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarso attempted to settle on the western side of the island with his family and livestock in the ninth century. His settlement attempt failed, as he was unable to grow hay for his animals in the often-frozen, volcanic soil. Legend has it he climbed a mountain in the spring after his failed harvest, saw the icy ocean water in the distance, and renamed the island “Iceland.” Though Vilgerðarso left the island after that first winter, he later returned to live there for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, Greenland was named by Scandinavian settlers who arrived in the temperate southern region of the island in the 10th century. Erik the Red — a Norse explorer who had previously been exiled from Iceland — landed there in 985 CE. Upon his return to Iceland, he described the lush, green land to locals, and encouraged them to return with him and build a community. They established settlements near present-day Qaqortoq (the largest town in southern Greenland) and Nuuk (the capital). It’s certainly a misnomer, though: Only the southern tip of Greenland is actually green, while 80% of the island is covered in ice year-round. That said, only 11% of Iceland is covered in ice year-round.
Iceland, located just south of the Arctic Circle and just north of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge — at the junction of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates — is a volcanic island with over 30 still-active volcanoes along with geysers, natural hot springs, glaciers, and fjords. In 2010, the ash from the eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajokul caused travel disruptions around the world.
Much of Iceland’s center is covered by glaciers; and those shifting masses of ice — the largest in Europe — have added even more drama to the nation’s craggy landscape. Iceland is also well-known for its scenic summits (the tallest being Hvannadalshnúkur, at 6,900 feet), sea cliffs, and waterfalls. The coastal areas, on the other end, are more densely populated and are the greenest, most fertile parts of the country. The island is easy to reach by plane and is a popular destination for tourists, with direct flights from major European and North American cities. It’s also served by cruise ships and a Danish ferry service.
Greenland, an island 20 times larger than Iceland, is located about 752 miles east of Iceland. Greenland is actually farther east, west, north, and south than Iceland. Direct flights to the island are rare — originating from only Denmark and Iceland. Visitors can also get there via cruise ships. Another fun fact about Greenland is that there are no roads between settlements, and you must take a snowmobile, plane, or boat from town to town. Topographically, Greenland is mostly flat with a narrow section of mountains along the coast (the island's tallest mountain, Bunnbjørn Fjeld, is over 12,000 feet tall), with two-thirds of the country subject to permafrost.
Eismitte, the interior region of Greenland, is the second-coldest place on Earth with a record low temperature of -85 degrees Fahrenheit — comparable to famously freezing spots like Siberia and Antarctica. The average low is around -33 degrees Fahrenheit and the average overall temperature is a frigid -22 degrees Fahrenheit.
Neither island could be considered a balmy summer destination. Both Iceland and South Greenland have similar summer climates — pleasant and temperate with temperatures reaching 60 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Iceland gets considerably more rain, though. Either way, you need to visit both islands during the winter to witness the incredible northern lights or aurora borealis, which are visible in clear weather thanks to the northern latitude. Speaking of high latitude, Iceland experiences relatively mild temperatures overall, thanks to the Gulf Stream. The consistent temperatures support farming in coastal regions.
Iceland’s population is quite small — it’s among one of the least populous countries in the world. About 320,000 people call the island home — that’s around the same population as the city of Lexington in Kentucky. Ironically, Iceland is also roughly the size of Kentucky. Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, is a popular tourist destination and home to just over 120,000 people. Fun fact: Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world, and the only capital city in the world that is a major puffin breeding ground.
Greenland’s population, however, is even smaller — six times smaller than Iceland to be exact. It’s the least densely populated place in the world — despite being the world’s largest island, at over 836,000 square miles. But only about 60,000 residents call frosty Greenland home, with less than 18,000 people living in the capital city of Nuuk and the rest settled along 27,394 miles of rocky coastline (most of the interior is frozen tundra). This means the overall population density of Greenland is only .03 people per square mile.
Wildlife lovers will have plenty to see on both islands — especially marine animals. Greenland is home to multiple species of whales (which you can often see from shore), along with seals, reindeer, arctic foxes, and polar bears. Of course, hunting (including seals) is how many locals procure food, so you won’t see too many animals near settlements. In addition to hunting, Greenlanders forage, grow greenhouse vegetables, fish, and rely on imports for sustenance.
Whales are also common to spot in Iceland — but you’ll likely have to take a whale-watching tour to see one. Puffins are also a common sight during summer, but you won’t see any polar bears — Iceland is too far south for them.