NUUK, GREENLAND, IS A POKY LITTLE PLACE. Its fanciest hotel shares a building with a grocery store. A town of brightly painted wooden houses against a dramatic mountain backdrop, Nuuk looks like a western ski resort with some European-style public housing thrown in. But in this sleepy setting, where a population of 15,000 lives a mere 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle, a revolution is brewing. Very slowly.
For decades, Greenlanders have gently agitated for greater freedom from Denmark, the nation that colonized them centuries ago. In 1979, they attained home rule--which produced, among other changes, a new, Inuit name for the capital, Nuuk (pronounced "nuke"), formerly known by the Danish name Godthab. On November 25, Greenlanders will go to the polls to take another major step out of Denmark's shadow: They are likely to approve a law that will formally give Greenland the right to declare independence and make Greenlandic--which is closely related to the Inuit languages spoken in Canada--rather than Danish, the official language.
In an age of violent independence movements such as those of Kosovo and East Timor, this is national liberation in slow motion. The impulse toward self-determination is the same as in liberation movements elsewhere across the globe: Greenland's 56,000 people are mainly Inuits who have little in common with Danes. But Greenland's independence aspirations are also getting a boost from an unlikely source: global warming.
Americans might joke about the visible effects of climate change during a spell of warm weather. But more than anywhere else in the world, Greenland is experiencing honest-to-God warming. The island's ice sheet which contains 10 percent of the world's fresh water, equivalent to the entire Gulf of Mexico--is melting at a rate of 57 cubic miles a year, and the loss is apparent everywhere. Midway up the back side of Nuuk's landmark mountain, Sermitsiaq, which looms over the city like Mt. Rainier does over Seattle, Greenlanders point out a gray band where the ice on the mountaintop has shrunk and the glacier below has receded. In 2007, the Northwest Passage, which runs south of Greenland and along Canada's northern coast, was free of ice for the first time since scientists began monitoring it. All of this melting is helping to unlock the mineral and petroleum resources under land and sea, offering the prospect of Kuwaitesque wealth to Greenland's citizens.
Greenland is an unusual place. It's the world's largest island, three times the size of Texas, but it has no intercity roads--people travel between Greenland's "cities" (a word Greenlanders use to describe even settlements of 2,000) by boat and helicopter. Jets arriving from abroad can't land in Nuuk because the airport runway is too short, so they must fly to one of two remote former U.S. air bases, hundreds of miles away, from which travelers continue on by helicopter or prop plane.
More than 80 percent of Greenland is covered by an ice cap so thick--l0,000 feet at the center--that no one knows whether the island is a single landmass or an archipelago. Settlements lie only on the coasts; the icy interior is uninhabitable year round. But in summertime the coastal regions of the south are verdant with grass and wildflowers, and it is not difficult to understand why Erik the Red named the place Greenland when he was exiled there from Iceland in AD 982. (The commonly told story about his attempt to trick invaders by switching the names of Iceland and Greenland is almost certainly false; it is more likely that Erik gave Greenland an attractive name to lure other settlers there.)
Denmark's colonization of Greenland began in 1721, when a missionary, Hans Egede, came there looking for the Norse settlers, who hadn't been heard from since the 14th century. Egede worried that the Protestant Reformation had passed Erik's descendants by, leaving them unredeemed Catholics. …