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a New Ecologically Promised Land?

Laurent Lefèvre

With 80% of its surface occupied by an ice sheet, the White Island of the Arctic remains to be explored. With the melting of its ice cap, its mineral-rich subsoil is becoming more accessible and is attracting interest. Which resources to exploit and at what environmental cost? The 56,661 inhabitants of this immense territory (about three times the area of Texas) will have to decide.

The melting of Greenland’s ice cap provides easier access to its subsoil rich in iron, lead, copper, cobalt, zinc, nickel, gold, platinum, and the highly sought-after rare-earth metals (between 12% and 25% of the world’s reserves, according to some estimates), 90% of whose world production comes from China.

Many exploration licenses have been granted to foreign companies by the Greenlandic government. Currently, only two mines are in operation: one of ruby, in Aappaluttoq, and the other of anorthosite, in Kangerlussuaq.

Copie d’écran de la vidéo Are Rare Earths Greenland's Chance For Independence?
Screenshot of the video Are Rare Earths Greenland's Chance For Independence?

Reconciling Environmental and Economic Interests

Sensitive in particular to the ecological consequences that could harm the fishing sector (93% of exports in 2019), the inhabitants of Greenland voted in the majority for the Inuit Ataqatigiit at the last elections of April 2021. This left-wing ecological party had campaigned for a halt to uranium exploration and mining, particularly at the Kvanefjeld site (Kuannersuit). 

Located near Narsaq (southern Greenland), this deposit (6th-largest in the world for uranium) is also rich in zinc and rare earths (2nd-largest in the world). In November 2021, a law was passed prohibiting the exploration of deposits with a uranium concentration greater than 100 ppm (parts per million); this effectively ends the operation of the Kvanefjeld site; the Greenland government’s decision to reject the license to operate the Kvanefjeld rare earths and uranium project has been legally challenged by the Australian company Greenland Minerals, which has so far not won the case. 

In June 2021, the government, which, in its own words, takes the climate crisis seriously”, had suspended all oil and gas exploration.

Sable noir, une ressource en demande croissante (district de Thulé, nord du Groenland).
Black sand, a resource in increasing demand (Thule district, northern Greenland).

Environmentally Responsible Resources

Requiring careful assessment of the environmental impact and collaboration with the Greenlandic society, the exploitation of sand, present in abundance on the island, could reconcile economic and environmental performance, according to this study, published in Nature.

Another resource made available by the retreating ice cap is glacial rock flour. Derived from rocks crushed by melting ice, this mud could become the ecological fertilizer of the 21st century. It’s a kind of miracle material,” says Minik Rosing. Professor at the University of Copenhagen, the native Greenlander has found that the nutrient-rich mud increases crop yields while absorbing carbon dioxide from the air.

Which resources should be exploited and at what environmental cost? The 56,661 inhabitants of this immense territory – who are not responsible for the current global warming – will have to decide. Living for thousands of years in harmony with their Arctic ecosystem, the majority* of Greenland’s residents say they are ready to protect the environment even if it costs them jobs.

* 4 in 10 (40%) Greenlandic residents would prefer to protect the environment even if it costs jobs while about 1 in 4 (26%) would prefer economic growth even if it leads to environmental problems.

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