Disko Island

Disko Island (Qeqertarsuaq, in Greenlandic meaning "big island") (70° N, 54° W) is a large irregularly triangular island (about 100 km or 60 miles maximum length) lying off the central west coast of Greenland. The high flat-topped area of the island, rising to over 1500 m, is dominated by permanent glaciers, the largest of which, Sermersuaq (Storbraen, in Swedish meaning "great glacier"), occupies the central area, but with several glacial tongues or smaller glaciers radiating outward toward the lower unglaciated coastal regions. Nowadays there are only two permanent settlements on Disko Island: Qeqertarsuaq (formerly Godhavn, meaning "good harbor" in Danish), a town of just under 1200 inhabitants surrounding a sheltered natural harbor on the south of the island, and Kangerluk (Diskofjord in Danish), a small coastal settlement of about 70 persons lying 35 km north of Qeqertarsuaq. In earlier days, coal mining played a significant role in the economy of the island, but the last mining settlement, Qullissat on the north east coast, was finally abandoned as uneconomic in 1972.

The earliest traces of Inuit settlement at Qeqertarsuaq (Independence Culture 1) date back over 4500 years. However, this culture was superseded by successive waves of immigration (Saqqaq and Dorset cultures), culminating in the present-day Thule culture from about AD 1000 onward. In later times, the safe harbor at Qeqertarsuaq provided a sheltered anchorage for European whaling vessels, and the present-day permanent settlement was founded as Godhavn in 1773 by Svend Sandgren as a whaling station. Commercial whaling catches, however, went rapidly into decline, with only six whales taken by Godhavn ships in 1776 and the decline continuing into the early 19th century. From 1908 to 1972, Qeqertarsuaq served as the major administrative center for North Greenland, one of the two major administrative divisions of the country.

Subsistence hunting for minke whale and seals, fishing, and shrimp harvesting have remained the primary local activities, although Disko Island is now widely recognized as a major center of scientific interest and endeavor. Qeqertarsuaq is home to the Danish Arctic Station, founded by the botanist Morten Porsild in 1906, and now run by the University of Copenhagen, and to the observatory of the Danish Meterological Institute.

Disko Island has many unique features that attract the attention of scientists. The predominant rocks are the youngest in Greenland and these volcanic extrusions, together with the eroding effects of glacial movement, lend the island its characteristic elevated but rounded land forms. The young rocks date from the Tertiary period about 63 million years ago and comprise predominantly iron-rich basalts, which in some places take on the characteristic columnar form. These rocks are superimposed on strata of much older Precambrian rocks such as gneiss.

Disko is botanically species-rich, supporting about half the 500 plant species known to occur in Greenland, and with a diversity exceeded only at a few sites in the very south. Homothermal springs, some of them radioactive, generate favorable microclimates for plants and animals through the winter, and this is reflected in a lush growth of vegetation such as wild angelica and dwarf willow scrub. The springs and wet flushes are also fertile hunting grounds for zoologists, with many undescribed species of unusual animals still being discovered. The history, geology, land-forms, and ecology of Disko Island are well represented in the Qeqertarsuaq Museum, which also houses paintings of Disko life and landscapes by Jacob Danielsen, a celebrated Inuit artist born in Kangerluk.

Ian D. Hodkinson

See also Greenland; Qeqertarsuaq Further Reading

Anonymous, Greenland, The Disko Bay, Copenhagen,

Greenland Tourism a/s (undated) Berthelson, Christian, Inger Holbech Mortensen & Ebbe Mortensen. In Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) Atlas, (2nd edition), Atuakkiorfik: Greenland Home Rule Government, 1993

Caulfield, Richard A., "Aboriginal subsistence whaling in Greenland: the case of Qeqertarsuaq Municipality in West Greenland." Arctic, 46 (1992): 144-155 Cornwallis, Graeme & Deanna Swaney, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. (4th edition) London: Lonely Planet Guides, 2001

Fisker, J0rgen, Godhavn, Umanak: Nordiske Landes Bogforlag, 1984

Haagen, Birt, "The coal mine at Qullissat in Greenland."

Etudes/Inuit/Studies, 6 (1982): 75-97 University of Copenhagen, Dansk Arktisk Station, Disko,

Greenland, Copenhagen, 1968 University of Copenhagen, Publications List from the Danish Arctic Station, 1910 -, Arctic Station, Copenhagen

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