Because of its location, this area was one of the first parts of Greenland settled by the Norse and one of the last settled by the Inuit. The town was founded in 1770 as Nennortalik. In 1797, a permanent trading depot was set up in Nanortalik by traders from Julianehåb. Due to poor harbour facilities, the town was moved three kilometers northward in 1830, where it remains today. Of the old town, only some scattered ruins remain.
Nanortalik is located on a small island (also named Nanortalik) on the shores of the Labrador Sea, roughly 100 km north of Cape Farewell, the southern tip of Greenland. The headland nearby is known as Cape Egede.
The surrounding district extends from the island of Qeqertarsuaq near Alluitsup Paa down to Cape Farewell and the 60 km long Lindenow Fjord on the east coast. The district covers a total of 15,000 sq. kilometers (5,800 sq. miles).
Nearby settlements are Narsarmijit, Alluitsup Paa (Sydprøven), Tasiusaq, Aappilattoq, Ammassivik as well as the following settlements with no more than 20 inhabitants each: Saputit, Nalasut, Nuugaarsuk, Akuliaruseq, Qallimiut, Qorlortorsuaq, Alluitsoq, and the weather station Ikerasassuaq.
Nanortalik Island is located near the mouth of the 70 km long Tasermiut Fjord. The island measures about 10 km across and features two minor mountains: Quaqqarsuasik ('Storfjeldet' in Danish) and Quassik ('Ravnefjeldet' in Danish or Raven Mountain in English). Quaqqarsuasik is 559 m and Quassik 308 m.
Nanortalik is most well known for its towering mountain peaks and vertical walls in nearby Tasermiut Fjord. Names like Ketil Mountain (1500 m) and Ulamertorsuaq are familiar to mountain climbers from around the world. Torssukatak Fjord, with the huge Thumbnail sea cliffs, and Pamiagdluk Island, are also within reach by chartered boat. The mountains in the region can easily be compared with the toughest routes in the Alps, and challenging ascents should only be attempted by experienced climbers.
Nanortalik has a tundra climate (Koppen climate classification ET) with heavy oceanic and polar influences, which creates moderately high precipitation rates, and low temperature differences between seasons respectively. Winters in Nanortalik are very mild compared to the rest of Greenland, with average January temperature being -4 °C. However, the summers are rather cold for this latitude (in contrast with Helsinki, which is also in a similar latitude, but experiences warmer summers), with an average July temperature 8 °C.
Crab fishing, hunting for hooded seals, and fishing from small boats are the main sources of income for the area's inhabitants. Between 2004 and 2013, the Nalunaq goldmine in Kirkespir Valley (Kirkespirdalen; 60°21′34″N 44°49′54″W / 60.35944°N 44.83167°W / 60.35944; -44.83167 ), 30 km north Nanortalik was active. There was a plan to build a road between Nanortalik and the mine, so workers could live in the town. But the decision and planning process took too long a time, so the company built simple apartment buildings for the workers at the mine. It was less attractive for Greenlanders to live at such a place, so most workers were from other countries.
During the spring, many Greenlanders hunt hooded seals among the outer islands, where the pack ice drifts up from the east coast on its way north. The age-old culture of the Inuit lives on in this annual hunting tradition.
Nanortalik has little productive trade. There are no factories and no large-scale fishing activities as sea ice prevents fishing for several months a year. Small-scale fishing, crab fishing, seal and seabird hunting and tourism provide most of the locally produced revenue. Decades ago, a graphite mine operated some 20 km from the town. The mine was abandoned in 1925.
While Greenland is almost completely without trees, the Qinngua Valley some 40 km from Nanortalik town has the only forest in Greenland (at 60°17′38″N 44°29′45″W / 60.29389°N 44.49583°W / 60.29389; -44.49583). Here, willow (Salix glauca) and birch (Betula pubescens) trees grow up to a height of several meters. Most other places, trees grow up to a maximum of about half a meter height. The valley also has some 300 species of other plants, in addition to many lichens.
The wildlife of the Nanortalik island is rather sparse due to native hunters. As a result, ravens, seagulls and snow buntings are some of the very few abundant larger bird species, and no mammal larger than a mouse is likely to be seen on the island. However, the surrounding areas count numerous species.
In addition to seals, the pack ice also brings polar bears from the east coast – hence the name Nanortalik. Every year a number of bears are sighted in the area, but they rarely present a threat to people. During the spring and late summer, there are many whales in the waters around the town, with minke whales being the most common visitors.
Birdlife includes raven, ptarmigan, glaucous gull, Iceland gull, snow bunting, guillemot, eider, king eider, gyrfalcon, white-tailed eagle, redpoll, red-necked phalarope, various sandpipers, red-breasted merganser, red-throated diver, great northern diver, cormorant, long-tailed duck, puffin, northern wheatear, little auk, various duck species, and more rarely, snowy owls.
Despite the allusion to polar bears in its name, they are rare sights in Nanortalik, but occasionally come drifting in on sea ice from East Greenland in the months of January to June.
Seals are common in surrounding fjords. The most common seal is ringed seal, followed by hooded seal and harp seal.
From August until October minke whales are common near the opening of the Tasermiut Fjord. Occasionally, humpback whales and orcas are spotted.
With 1,337 inhabitants as of 2013, Nanortalik is the third-largest town in the Kujalleq municipality. The population has been decreasing over the last several years. Most towns and settlements in southern Greenland exhibit negative growth patterns over the last two decades, with many settlements rapidly depopulating.
Nanortalik Heliport operates year-round as a helicopter hub of Air Greenland, linking Nanortalik with all settlements in the region, and with Narsarsuaq Airport, and hence indirectly with the rest of Greenland, and with Europe.