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Greenland’s Indigenous population favors extracting sand from melting ice sheet

An iceberg floats in Disko Bay, near Ilulissat, Greenland, on July 24, 2015. The massive Greenland ice sheet is shedding about 300 gigatons of ice a year into the ocean, making it the single largest source of sea level rise from melting ice. Image by NASA/Saskia Madlener via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

An iceberg floats in Disko Bay, near Ilulissat, Greenland, on July 24, 2015. The massive Greenland ice sheet is shedding about 300 gigatons of ice a year into the ocean, making it the single largest source of sea level rise from melting ice. Image by NASA/Saskia Madlener via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • In 2022, the Greenland ice sheet experienced net ice loss for the 26th year in a row. But that loss is producing a potentially valuable resource: sand, which the melting ice sheet is depositing on the coast.
  • Together, sand and gravel are one of the most traded commodities in the world, and a study by researchers at McGill University found that the majority of Greenlanders, including Indigenous people, supported extracting sand for export.
  • But Greenlanders—who have staunchly opposed some mining projects in the past—say this activity needs to be done with adequate environmental protection and consultation of Greenland’s predominantly Indigenous population.
  • The environmental consequences are uncertain but could include impacts from sucking sand off the substrate and increasing shipping traffic.

Discussions about the Greenland ice sheet often focus on what it’s losing. But from around the edges of the rapidly melting Greenland ice sheet, a global commodity is being created.

As the Greenland ice sheet melts—2022 is the 26th year in a row that Greenland lost more ice than it gainedit’s sloughing off enormous volumes of sediment. That sediment could in turn be extracted to meet the voracious global appetite for sand.

A recent study by researchers at McGill University and the University of Greenland, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, found that the vast majority of Greenlandic adults—eight out of ten surveyed—were in favor of extracting and exporting sand, if the projects doing so were under Greenlandic control.

Melted ice sheet pouring out sand in Greenland. Images by Nicola Krog Larsen.

The results surprised researchers, given Greenlanders’ at-times fierce opposition to mining projects. But it suggests that in sand mining, there’s a model for how Greenland can economically adapt to climate change, while moving closer to the economic independence from Denmark that many Greenlanders support.

However, the environmental consequences are uncertain and an environmental impact assessment has not yet been done. Impacts could include sucking sand off the substrate and increasing shipping traffic, as well as the introduction of non-native species via the ballast water of ships. As that information comes out, that may affect public support.

“What I liked about this work was that it gives Greenland a voice in the discussion of climate change,” said first author Mette Bendixen, a physical geographer and assistant professor in the department of geography at McGill University.

Bendixen first realized Greenland’s sediment-producing potential almost a decade ago, when researchers realized something unusual was happening along the coastline of Greenland; rather than eroding rapidly, as was the case with many Arctic coastlines, the Greenland coast was headed in the opposite direction. Sediment—ground out of the land the ice sheet touches and swept along by its meltwater—was pouring from the ice sheet and accumulating along the coast.

“You can think of the ice sheet as a tap that pours out not just water, but also sediment,” said Bendixen. “And it’s actually pouring out so much sediment that it contributes to almost 10% of the total river sediment in the world.”

Greenland glacier at Tasiusaq, Kujalleq. Image by Ron Reiring via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

That’s a significant proportion in a world where demand for sand is rising rapidly. In some cases, this has had devastating ecological consequences.

While sand, along with crushed rock and gravel, is the base material for everything from roads and buildings to solar panels—and is one of the most traded commodities in the world, by volume—the unregulated extraction of sand is fueling erosion, ecological degradation, and organized crime around the world, according to a 2019 U.N. Report.

In 2019, Bendixen and her colleagues published a paper outlining Greenland’s potential to export sand to fulfill some of the global demand. That prompted an immediate response, with five of Greenland’s seven political parties calling for the idea to be explored. But Bendixen says that the study had left a crucial question unanswered: what the people of Greenland thought.

That led to the survey of 1,000 adults—roughly 2.5% of Greenland’s population of 56,000, about 90% of whom are Indigenous—on the question of sand extraction, with 84% supporting the activity. Three out of four respondents said it should be led by Greenlanders.

Read more: Greenland’s sustainable halibut fishery may threaten newfound corals, sponges

‘Everyone saw dollar signs’

This support stands in sharp contrast to public attitudes towards other mining projects, which have also been pitched as a response—and a solution—to climate change. These include a rare earth and uranium mine in south Greenland; in 2021, opposition to the Kuannersuit mine helped propel the left-wing party Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), who campaigned on a promise to halt the mine, to power.

Mariane Paviasen, an IA member of Greenland’s parliament, helped catalyze much of the opposition to the mine in Narsaq, a predominantly Indigenous community where many residents depend on farming and fishing. While the rest of the world saw the rare earth minerals found in Greenland as the key to climate salvation, that solution risked coming at Greenland’s expense, Paviasen said.

Kuannersuit minet’s opponents argue that the project has been rejected by the voters of Greenland due to the risk the mine would pose. Image by jtstewart via Flickr

“We have to maintain clean water, we have to maintain clean air, because we hunt and eat from our sea and our land. That’s why it’s so important that we keep it as clean as possible.

“If we keep on destroying every corner of the world, what would be left for the next generation?”

Piitannguaq Tittussen, who founded the NGO Friends of the Nuuk Fjord, said past mining projects have already left a legacy of environmental damage; pollution from the Black Angel lead-zinc mine, which operated in west Greenland from 1973 to 1990, left some nearby areas closed to fishing. Waste rock from Greenland’s oldest mine, which produced cryolite in south Greenland until 1987, continues to cause unsafe levels of lead in the neighboring fjord (a narrow inlet of the sea between cliffs).

In the 21st century, the melting of the ice sheet that covers 80% of Greenland’s surface began to reveal more minerals, including those used in the production of electric cars and wind turbines.

“Everyone saw dollar signs,” said Tittusen, but Tittusen was watching out for the potential environmental impact.

This picture was further complicated by the fact that in 2009, the government passed an act on self-government, establishing the people of Greenland’s right to self-determination. That fueled an increased interest in resource development.

Kvanefjeld orebody – Image from an early Greenland Minerals presentation to shareholders on their project. (Greenland Minerals).

As it stands, more than half of Greenland’s revenue comes from a block grant from the Danish government, and mining projects have been pitched as a way of ensuring greater economic independence.

Conditions apply

But critiques of mining projects have pointed out that Greenlanders have not benefited from resource development in their territory. Historically, much of the income from mining went to the Danish state, or the international operators of the mines. Rasmus Leander Nielsen, a co-author on the Nature Sustainability study and political scientist at the University of Greenland, said even projects proposed in the last decade have not produced hoped-for results.

“Basically, no income has come to Greenland,” he said. “Some of the heydey of expectations, if you go back to 2010, have not panned out as the optimists or even the realists thought.”

Piitannguaq Tittussen, who is Inuit, said mining projects have also failed to respect the need to consult Greenlanders; in the case of an iron ore mine proposed by London Mining Greenland A/S, public meetings were held in English, but not Danish or Greenlandic.

“[A manager] told us ‘you must learn English if you want to be informed,” Tittussen said (the project eventually collapsed due to lack of financing).

Left: Greenlandic landscape. Image by Anders Anker Bjørk. Right: Melted ice sheet pours out sediment. Image by Nicola Krog Larsen.

With the Kuannersuit rare-earth project, Greenland’s ministry of nature and government reprimanded Greenland Minerals Limited for undermining the Department’s authority, including by misinforming the government and contacting civil servants who had no authority in the environmental assessment process. Mariane Paviasen said meanwhile, Narsaq residents were not contacted enough.

“We were not included enough, and we were never asked what kind of development we would accept in Narsaq,” she said. “That is something we have to do something about.”

When it comes to activities like sand extraction, some Greenlanders’ support is qualified; while Piitannguaq Tittussen said it could be a way for Greenlanders to benefit from their natural resources, “it must be [with] better conditions and better environmental protection.”

Mariane Paviasen said she’s not opposed to mining as such, including sand mining—so long as projects comply with Greenlanders’ demands.

“If mining companies could do it without polluting and contaminating the area […] that would be acceptable. But they also have to talk with nearby inhabitants,” she told Mongabay.

Either way, at present, the environmental impact and economics of extracting and exporting sand from Greenland are unclear. Greenland’s government recently completed an assessment of the potential for export to Europe, which concluded there is not yet a business case (shipping sand is expensive), though that could change as global demand for sand rises. Environmental impacts may also include sucking sand off the substrate and increasing shipping traffic, which may affect public support.

For now, Mette Bendixen said the opposition she’s heard to the idea has come from conservation organizations and universities in Europe who view Greenland as an untouched landscape.

Iceberg at Pitorqeq, Avannaata, Greenland. Image by Steve Weston via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).


Banner image: An iceberg floats in Disko Bay, near Ilulissat, Greenland, on July 24, 2015. The massive Greenland ice sheet is shedding about 300 gigatons of ice a year into the ocean, making it the single largest source of sea level rise from melting ice. Image by NASA/Saskia Madlener via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We speak with Tero Mustonen about Snowchange Cooperative’s program that is rewilding Arctic and Boreal habitats using Indigenous knowledge. Listen here:

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