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Climate - Greenland

Temperature, rainfall, prevailing weather conditions, when to go, what to pack

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Flag - Greenland

Map - Greenland

In Greenland, a former Danish territory, the climate is arctic along the central and northern coasts (zone 1 on the map), where the temperatures of the warmer months are around freezing, and subarctic in the south-central coasts (zone 2 on the map), where the temperatures are above freezing in the summer months, even though the daily averages do not exceed 10 °C even in the warmest months. It goes without saying that the larger settlements are located in this area, having a relatively milder climate. In addition, there is the vast inland area (zone 3 on the map) where the temperature stays below freezing even in the summer months.
Greenland is a very large island and it's definitely extended in latitude, since the southern tip is located at the latitude of Oslo (Norway), while the northernmost tip is the closest land to the North Pole, which is about 700 km away.
Much of the island is covered by an ice sheet, called Inlandsis, formed over thousands of years, and even 3,000 metres thick in some parts; this ice sheet is not stationary, but it moves slowly, sliding towards the sea by gravity. The ice flows to the sea through the fjords, giving birth to icebergs which then drift away.
In the north-central, typically the coldest month is February and sometimes even March; March is usually as cold as January or even colder: this is because at these latitude during winter the sun never rises, and even when it rises above the horizon in March, it initially remains very low and fails to warm the soil, also because the latter is covered by snow and therefore it reflects most of the solar rays. It goes without saying that in April in the north-central we still have to expect very low temperatures, that is, several degrees below freezing.
Greenland is a windy island. The winds that descend from the perennial ice cap and go down on the fjords and the sea are called katabatic. Strong winds blowing when the air is very cold are dangerous for human beings and can lead to frostbite. In addition, there are the cold winds that come directly from the North Pole, but also the southern and westerly winds, which blow especially along the southern coast, and are caused by the clash between polar and mild air masses, the latter transported along the Atlantic by the Gulf Stream. There are, however, also sheltered bays and fjords where the wind blows more rarely.
Precipitation is scarce but quite frequent, therefore it occurs in the form of light snow in the central and northern areas, while it becomes more abundant along the coasts located south of the Arctic Circle, but also at high altitudes on the ice sheet, where it always occurs in the form of snow. Precipitation is most abundant in the coast of the far south-east, where it even exceeds 2,000 millimetres per year.
The amount of sunshine is never very good, but in spring and summer the sun can come out, also because of the long days, so sunscreen, lip balm and sunglasses can be useful for the snow-covered areas.
During the long winter, nights can be illuminated by the spectacular aurora borealis.

Aurora borealis

Along the coasts, the climate is cold, but at least in the south-central, the winter temperatures are not so low. However, the summer is very cool if not cold. The main towns are located on the west coast, because in the east there's a cold current that carries floating ice on the sea, at least in the winter, and up tp a quite low latitude. The cities are often located in sheltered bays, which have a relatively mild summers, but in the open sea a cold wind blows, with temperatures remaining a few degrees above freezing even in summer.
Now, let's take a look at the climate of some coastal towns and settlements.
In the remote research station of Nord, at a latitude of 81° north, in the north-eastern coast, the average temperature goes from -30 °C in March to 3.5 °C in July. During winter the temperature can plunge to -50 °C, while in summer it can reach at most 13/14 °C. The average daily temperature exceeds freezing only in July and August, while in June it's around 0 °C. We are in the arctic climate region, where it can snow even in summer.
In Qaanaaq (Thule), the second most northerly town in the world, located on the north-west coast, at a distance of just 1,300 km from the North Pole, the average temperature goes from -25 °C in February to 5 °C in July; the coldest record is -43 °C, the highest is 20 °C. On the other hand, the area in which this city is located is not very windy. Precipitation amounts to only 120 millimetres per year. Sometimes the temperature can drop below freezing even in summer. Here the polar night is long, and it runs from late October to mid-February, although for a few weeks in October and February there is a glimmer of light around noon, even though the sun doesn't go above the horizon; on the other hand, the sun never sets for a very long time, from late April to late August.
Further south, in Upernavik, a town of a thousand inhabitants, located on the west coast at a latitude of 72 ° N, the average temperature goes from -20 °C in March to 5 °C in July and August. Precipitation amounts to 230 mm per year.
Further south, in Ilulissat (or Jakobshavn in Danish), still on the west coast, just north of the Arctic Circle, the day lasts 24 hours in June, nearly 24 hours in May and July, and 20 hours in August. In December and January instead the dark dominates, and the sun rises above the horizon in mid-January. In April, by now the days are long, even though the temperature is still below freezing. Here the average temperature in February is -14 °C, and in July is 8.5 °C. The thaw occurs in the month of May, while the temperature returns below freezing in late September or early October.
Here are the average temperatures of Ilulissat.
Ilulissat average temperatures
Ilulissat J F M A M J J A S O N D
Min (°C) -17 -18 -17 -13 -3 3 5 4 -1 -6 -11 -14
Max (°C) -10 -10 -9 -4 4 9 12 10 5 0 -4 -8

Precipitation is scarce, around 255 mm millimetres per year, which means that in the long winter the snowfalls are usually light, maybe prolonged but not abundant. Here is the average precipitation.
Ilulissat J F M A M J J A S O N D Year
Prec. (mm) 15 15 15 20 15 25 30 30 35 25 25 15 255
Days 4 4 4 5 4 5 5 5 7 5 6 5 59

The sea at Ilulissat is always very cold; in winter sometimes it freezes completely, at other times it can be partially clear of ice, as in summer. However, Ilulissat is famous for the constant presence of icebergs along the coast, coming from the nearby fjord, and making it a tourist attraction.
Sea temperature Ilulissat
Ilulissat J F M A M J J A S O N D
Sea (°C) -1 -1 -1 -1 0 1 2 3 2 1 1 0


The towns located not directly on the coast but in the fjords, are colder in winter, but also a little warmer in summer. For example, in Kangerlussuaq (Sondrestrom), located south of Ilulissat, about 130 km away from the coast, the average temperature goes from -20 °C in February to 10 °C in July. Here, the cold record of the last twenty years is a respectable -46 °C, while the warmest is 23 °C.
Nuuk (Godthåb), the capital, is located 500 km south of Ilulissat; here the average temperature goes from -8 °C in February to 7 °C in July. The lowest record is not so prohibitive, being -28 °C, while the highest is 22 °C.
Nuuk average temperatures
Nuuk J F M A M J J A S O N D
Min (°C) -10 -11 -11 -6 -2 1 4 4 1 -3 -6 -9
Max (°C) -5 -5 -5 -1 3 7 10 9 6 1 -1 -4

Precipitation becomes more abundant, around 750 mm per year, with a maximum in summer. Here is the average precipitation.
Average precipitation Nuuk
Nuuk J F M A M J J A S O N D Year
Prec. (mm) 40 45 50 45 55 60 85 85 90 65 75 55 755
Days 9 9 10 9 9 8 10 9 12 10 11 10 116

Even in Nuuk the sea is always very cold, but it freezes more rarely, although sometimes this can happen, in particular in February and March.
Sea temperature Nuuk
Nuuk J F M A M J J A S O N D
Sea (°C) 0 0 0 1 1 3 4 4 3 2 1 0

Continuing further south, in Paamiut (ex Frederikshab), the average temperature goes from -7 °C in January to 7 °C in July; precipitation reaches 880 mm per year, which means that during the long winter, a significant amounts of snow accumulates.
Further south, in Ivittuut the average goes from -7 °C in January to 9 °C in July; this south-western area is the warmest of Greenland, at least in the summer, as evidenced by the highest temperature that has been recorded here, even 30 °C. The average daily temperature is around freezing in April (then a month earlier than in Ilulissat), and it goes back down to that point in the second half of October.
Ivittuut average temperatures
Ivittuut J F M A M J J A S O N D
Min (°C) -11 -11 -8 -4 0 3 5 5 2 -1 -5 -8
Max (°C) -4 -3 0 3 8 12 13 12 8 4 0 -2

Here, however, precipitation is abundant, since it reaches 1,260 mm per year, with a maximum in autumn, but with frequent snowfall for many months a year, and rainfall in summer. Here is the average precipitation.
Average precipitation Ivittuut
Ivittuut J F M A M J J A S O N D Year
Prec. (mm) 90 115 80 70 90 90 80 100 165 165 140 75 1260
Days 8 9 7 6 7 6 7 8 9 9 9 7 92

In the southern tip, near Cape Farewell (see Prins Christian Sund), the climate becomes almost oceanic: the average temperature goes from -4 °C in January and February to 6 °C in July and August. In return, precipitation is abundant, since it exceeds 2,200 mm per year. Snow is abundant, but also the summer rains, which may fall non only in summer: the temperature may exceed freezing and it can rain even in winter. The wind is frequent and often stormy. However, this area is occupied by mountainous islands and fjords, and it's virtually uninhabited.
The east coast has fewer settlements, because as we said a cold current flows on the sea, pushing the ice on the sea, but also because the coastline is more irregular. However, here at the 65th parallel, we find Tasiilaq (Ammassalik), where the average temperature goes from -7 °C in the January-March period, to 6 °C in July and August. Here the average temperature exceeds freezing from June to September. The lowest recorded temperature is -26 °C, the highest is 20 °C. Precipitation, quite abundant, amounts to 850 mm, so here there may be heavy snow accumulations. In summer, there's no shortage of rain.

In the interior, covered by the ice cap, the summer temperature remains around freezing or below, and it decreases with altitude. In summer, it usually snows above 300 metres in elevation. The coldest areas are the central ones, where the ice cap is thicker: for instance in the point called Eismitte, at the centre of the island, about 3,000 metres above sea level, an expedition in 1930 installed a weather station, which recorded an average temperature of -47 °C in February and of -12 °C in July. The lowest recorded temperature was -65 °C, the highest was -3 °C.

Summit Camp
In the more recent scientific station of Summit Camp, located near the highest point of the ice plateau, where the altitude reaches 3,200 metres, the average temperature goes from -42 °C in January to -13 °C in July; the coldest record so far is -67 °C, while the highest has been 3.6 °C.
Summit Camp average temperatures
Summit Camp J F M A M J J A S O N D
Min (°C) -48 -46 -45 -40 -30 -19 -15 -21 -29 -39 -42 -48
Max (°C) -36 -38 -32 -29 -19 -11 -11 -14 -22 -28 -28 -36

In the eastern part of Greenland there is also a mountain range, the Watkins Mountains, which exceed the altitude of the plateau, and reach their highest point in Gunnbjörn Fjeld, 3,694 metres high. This and the other peaks are climbed preferably in July and August, when usually better weather conditions are found.

When to go

The best time to visit Greenland is the summer, from June to August. In June, the temperatures are a bit lower, and this is penalizing for the colder areas, but it's possible to see the midnight sun in a wider area, and rain and snow are a bit rarer. July is the warmest month, but the rain starts to become a bit more frequent, at least on the south-west coast, and even more in August. In the regions having an arctic climate, and in particular along the northern coast, where the most important thing is the temperature, you may prefer July and August, and in particular July, because it's the least cold.
Even in midsummer you must be equipped for the freezing cold if you plan to visit the inland plateau and the mountains; in the northern coast the temperature is around freezing, then it will take winter clothes; otherwise for the south-central coastal towns, some heavy clothes are also recommended, a sweater and a jacket for the evening and for excursions (eg boat trips where you will be exposed to cold winds), and a raincoat for rainy days. Hiking boots with non-slip soles are also recommended, because the roads are a rarity, and you can easily end up in snow-covered areas. During the day sometimes it can almost get hot, and therefore you must be ready to lighten up.

What to pack

In winter: cold weather clothing, synthetic thermal long underwear, fleece, down filled parka with insulated hood, wind jacket in Goretex, warm boots, liner socks, fleece socks.

In summer: in the major cities: warm clothes, jacket, sweater, light shirts and t-shirts for mild days; boots or hiking shoes, raincoat or umbrella. For the interior plateau, mountains and offshore excursions: down jacket, wind jacket, hat, gloves.

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