Research Briefs, Science & Technology

As ice sheets melt, will Greenland mine?

While many are worried about large swaths of land disappearing under water as global sea levels rise due to melting ice sheets in the Arctic, Greenland finds itself with a different problem: Its coastline is growing. Scientists have observed that when Greenland’s ice melts, it runs down to the ocean, leaving sand and gravel behind that was previously trapped in  ice. This sediment builds up along the coastline—effectively expanding the coast—creating new and highly valuable sand deposits. Mining these deposits could be lucrative for Greenland’s economy, but also carries several environmental and economic risks.

Mette Bendixen, assistant professor in McGill’s Department of Geography, co-authored a recent study surveying Greenlanders’ opinions about potential sand mining operations. She found that more than 80 per cent of respondents were in favour of using Greenland’s sand deposits. 

The researchers surveyed roughly 1,000 Greenlanders, asking whether they would support a mining operation, what kinds of reviews should be conducted first—scientific, environmental, or economic—and how the project should be overseen. They found that while there was widespread support for sand mining, Greenlanders overwhelmingly prioritized conducting economic and environmental reviews so as to understand how these sectors would be impacted by mining activities. Additionally, when asked whether to involve foreign countries, 75 per cent said that the mining process needed to be kept at the national level. Despite these caveats, 76 per cent of Greenlanders were strongly in favour of exporting their sand deposits. 

Over the last several years, Greenland has conducted an economic review of the benefits and drawbacks of mining these sand deposits. Citizens and public officials are concerned about the environmental risks the activity would bring, including the disruption of northern marine ecosystems. But Bendixen found no evidence of large-scale consultation with the people of Greenland.

“No one asked the question—what do the people of Greenland think about this idea?” Bendixen said in an interview with  The McGill Tribune

Sand mining has the potential to be lucrative for Greenland because of the rising global demand for the resource. Sand is used as an ingredient in the construction and manufacturing industries, primarily to produce concrete, glass, and electronic components. 

“We use it in basically everything. It is the key ingredient for modern civilization,” Bendixen said. 

Mining and exporting these sand deposits could give Greenland a way to boost employment and move towards economic independence. Greenland has a population of roughly 56,000, nearly 88 per cent of which are Greenlandic Inuit. The primary industries are fishing and tourism, and although it is politically independent from Denmark, Greenland still relies heavily on the country’s financial support.

Mining sand in Greenland carries grave environmental risks. Many current sand mining operations cause severe environmental damage, including erosion of coastlines and wild habitats, harm to local fishing populations, and a decrease in plant biodiversity. Bendixen believes this is something Greenland’s government should seriously consider before deciding to mine.

“Extracting something from nature will automatically impact nature, no matter what,” Bendixen said. 

Although the amount of sand in Greenland is not enough to overcome the global sand scarcity problem, a carefully overseen mining process does have the potential to fill some of the global demand for sand in a more environmentally conscious manner. 

“It could relieve some of the pressure on where it’s currently being extracted in a fashion that’s not sustainable at all,” said Bendixen. In many coastal regions of India and lake regions in China, sand mining encroaches on human settlements and wildlife, making homes and habitats inhospitable.  

There’s also the risk that sand mining could negatively impact Greenland’s other economies.

“The fishing industry is the largest industry in Greenland. If you start having these huge barges and ships sailing around in these waters, will that affect the fishery? What about the tourism industry?” Bendixen said.

While these questions and more still need to be answered, Greenland’s sand deposits seem a likely target for new industrial development.

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