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Why are Iceland Green and Greenland Ice?


If you’ve ever wondered why Iceland is green, and Greenland holds a ton of ice, there’s a reason for that. The weather patterns of each country can differ dramatically. While there are several similarities between Iceland and Greenland, there are no two countries that exist that are more different environmentally. 

Iceland is a green country because so much of it is covered in moss. Greenland is an iceberg country because so much is covered by ice. The moss and the icebergs are both invaluable, but for different reasons.

Moss is green because it absorbs the sun’s energy. But it also spends its time absorbing mineral salts from the soil. 

When moss finds an excellent place to grow, it often just keeps on growing. Eventually, it curls up its own roots into an underground nest, which protects the moss from the wind, sleet, rain, and animals and people. The moss grows so thick that you can see right through it. It becomes an unbroken carpet of plants, sometimes covering over half the surface of the land.

Moss is not very useful as a building material. People burn it, and it keeps burning. But in Iceland, moss is the best kind of fuel there is. Instead of digging up peat, which takes a long time to decompose, people just burn the moss, which is already decomposing. They collect the ashes and repeat the process. It’s great for the atmosphere; Icelanders burn more moss than they get from peat.

Moss is green because it absorbs sunlight. In Iceland, moss grows where the ground gets dark and cold. Where there is moss, the ground gets dark and cold. 

In Iceland, moss grows on dark, cold rocks. In Greenland, moss grows on dark, cold ice. Moss grows where the ground gets dark.

Moss and ice are both valuable. In Iceland, moss makes the ground dark, and ice makes the ground cold. 

Iceland is green because it gets lots of rain. Greenland is green because it gets lots of snow.

Rain and snow are the same things, but they act very differently. The rain falls to the ground as water vapor. Rain can be warm or cold, but if it warms the ground, that’s called “greenhouse warming,” and it’s terrible. Snow falls as ice crystals. If snow melts, that’s also bad. Snow doesn’t warm the ground, so if the snow melts, no greenhouse warming.

Iceland’s warm, wet climate comes from its proximity to the Gulf Stream. Iceland gets a lot of rain, mainly in winter. The Gulf Stream brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico, which warms the air above Iceland. That warms the ground and makes it rain.

Greenland’s climate is very different. Greenland gets a lot of snow, mainly in summer. In winter, the cold Arctic Ocean keeps the snow on the ground. But in the summer, the heat from the Gulf Stream melts the snow. When the Gulf Stream gets very cold, it stops—that’s called “Arctic amplification.” When that happens, Greenland gets a lot of snow in the summer but little snow in winter.

Rain and snow have different effects on water. Rain makes water wet. Snow makes the water dry. So rain makes Iceland wet, and snow makes Greenland dry.

Greenland’s climate has cooled down in the last 50 years. Maybe that’s because of global warming. Maybe it’s because of Arctic amplification. Or maybe it’s because of all of those combined.

Iceland is a green island with grass-covered lava fields and fertile pastures. It’s 100 percent dependent on hydropower and has one of the highest standards of living in the world. Its people are healthy and wealthy.

Greenland is an icy island with blocks of ice floating around in huge, chaotic seas. It’s 100 percent dependent on diesel, and its people are unhealthy and impoverished.

Of course, the “green” Iceland is green only relative to icy Greenland. Iceland has 1,000 times as much land to cover, and Icelanders use 10 times as much energy per capita. Greenland’s ice covers only 20 percent of its land, and gas fields cover 80 percent.


Greenland’s ice is melting fast. Already, about 80 percent of its ice is gone. If current trends continue, all of Greenland’s ice will be gone in 100 years.

Iceland’s ice is melting more slowly, and Icelanders aren’t as dependent on it. In fact, Icelanders are about 12 times as dependent on hydropower as Greenlanders are on diesel.

Greenland is losing its ice because Greenland’s climate is changing. But Greenland’s climate is changing primarily because of changes in Greenland’s land. Its land is warming and melting. Iceland’s climate is changing primarily because of changes in Iceland’s land. Its land is cooling and freezing.