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Ice MeltingAs Greenland’s Ice Melts, Glacial Sand Deposits May Offer a Welcome Economic...

As Greenland’s Ice Melts, Glacial Sand Deposits May Offer a Welcome Economic Opportunity

As Greenland’s Ice Melts, Glacial Sand Deposits May Offer a Welcome Economic Opportunity

A glacial meltwater stream emptying each water and sand into the ocean. (Credit: Nicolaj Krog Larsen, used with permission)

Greenland’s ice sheet is losing 280 billion tons of mass per 12 months, and a few models suggest that its glaciers could also be melting as much as 100 times faster than expected. But flowing off those glaciers comes a possible economic boom: sand. Each season, tens of millions of tons of sediment flow from melting glaciers into the ocean, adding landmass to the most important island on this planet. Based on a research paper published in Nature last fall, three out of 4 Greenlanders support extracting and exporting sand — as long as they’re those accountable for managing the resource.

For lead creator Mette Bendixen, a geographer at McGill University, the study offers a message from Greenlanders to the remaining of the world: Greenland plans to adapt to climate change by itself terms.

“Once we take into consideration climate change adaptation, it almost at all times has a negative connotation,” she said in an interview with GlacierHub. “And that is like the other. That is saying, climate change is going on — hey, that is something that may very well be helpful to us.” Within the paper, she and her coauthors confer with this as “opportunistic climate adaptation,” which they argue “remain[s] poorly understood relative to relative to predictors of defensive adaptation.”

A woman wearing a blue hat, jacket and gloves stands in front of a snow-topped mountainous landscape.

Bendixen on a research trip to review sand deposits in Greenland. (Credit: Asger Meldgaard, used with permission)

Bendixen recalled how her previous research on the potential of sand mining often received some pushback from environmental conservationists, governments, and media. She noted that Arctic communities are inclined to be viewed by westerners as pristine areas of the world that needs to be preserved with no change to traditions or landscapes in any respect. But such clear support from the communities themselves for the exploration of commercial sand mining runs counter to that notion.

“To me, it shows that Greenlanders are saying, ‘We don’t care what the remaining of the world thinks — we would like to try to take a look at this ourselves, and see if that is relevant.’”

At first glance, sand may appear to be an exceptionally odd material; our beaches and deserts are covered in it. Our modern lives revolve around sand, from concrete to computer screens to glass containers. But not all sand is created in the identical way. Sand from deserts has been weathered primarily by wind, which grinds down the sand in multiple directions. Bendixen compares desert sand to marbles — smooth, rounded grains that don’t compress well for industrial use.

But sand created by glacial deposits is different. Unlike the desert sand, glacial sand primarily arises from two different physical processes. The primary process is the slow movement of glaciers atop a landmass, eroding the rock underneath it. “Just imagine a kilometers thick body of ice that grinds through the landscape — it disrupts the surface a lot,” Bendixen said. The second process occurs as glaciers melt into streams and rivers, whether because of this of seasonal variability or large-scale climate change. The flow of water slowly erodes the land underneath it — and it creates a particular sort of sand.

“In rivers, you might have quite a lot of grain sizes and more angularity,” Bendixen explained. “You don’t have the scooping backwards and forwards by the wind, you only have a unidirectional flow.” The unidirectional flow leads to angular sand grains, which compress significantly better under heat and pressure. This makes glacial sand deposits ideal for industrial consumption, particularly for creating concrete.

On the left, grains of rounded, yellow sand. On the right, grains of clear crystal sand with sharper edges.

Left: Sand from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia (Credit: Siim Sepp, Creative Commons). Right: More angular sand grains from the Vistula River in Poland (Credit: Krzem Anonim, Creative Commons)

Through the years, that kind of angular sand has gotten harder and harder to seek out. After many years of rapid development, the world now faces a global shortage of sand resulting from a mixture of overexploitation and degradation. That’s where Greenland’s sand mining operations may are available in. On a warming planet with melting glaciers, the world’s largest island is poised to be stuffed with that angular, high-quality sand.

Jane Lund Plesner, an exploration geologist who co-authored the paper, offered her perspective as a native Greenlander in an email to GlacierHub: “[S]and is a source which is unlikely to expire, and may very well be a possible long-term operation, especially with the worldwide shortage.” Plesner, who works for mineral company Amaroq Minerals Ltd., added that, “sand extraction, if done responsibly, may benefit the people of Greenland, providing jobs for locals, and help diversify the Greenlandic economy.”

Economic diversification has long been a goal of Greenland’s government. The country relies heavily on fishing, and half of Greenland’s national budget is funded by Danish block grants. One among the ways the federal government has tried to maneuver away from this financial reliance is by investing in mining projects. In 2019, it pursued an economic assessment on mining and exporting glacial sand. The outcomes, published last 12 months, conclude that large-scale sand extraction can be economically unfavorable at present. Since sand is heavy and dear to move, Greenland’s export partners would almost definitely be nearby countries like U.S., Canada, Denmark, and the UK; all of those nations have a sufficient sand supply at present. Nonetheless, Greenland’s government still left open the potential of pursuing sand extraction in the long run, given the uncertainty of international markets and global sand supply.

Greenlanders aren’t any stranger to extractive industries, with a greater than 200-year history of exporting copper, zinc, and other precious metals like gold and platinum to international markets. Nonetheless, not all types of mineral extraction have been universally welcomed by Greenlanders. One among the most important recent flashpoints involved pushback against the completion of the Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit in Greenlandic) mine within the southern a part of the country, which might have been owned by an Australian company. The mine accommodates a few of the world’s largest deposits of rare earth minerals and uranium. While rare earth minerals are a critical component of electrical vehicle batteries and solar photovoltaics, their extraction can create negative environmental and health impacts in surrounding areas. Persistent local opposition to the project from the nearby Indigenous communities played a significant role in Greenland’s parliamentary elections in 2021, leading to success for candidates against uranium mining.

Mariane Paviasen was one in every of the leaders within the opposition to the uranium mine in southern Greenland, and was elected to Greenland’s parliament — called Inatsisartut in Greenlandic — during that 2021 election. Importantly, Paviasen’s strong opposition to uranium mining doesn’t necessarily apply to sand extraction — as long as Greenlanders themselves are in charge. As she told Mongabay in September, “If mining corporations could do it without polluting and contaminating the realm […] that will be acceptable. But additionally they must talk with nearby inhabitants.”

An aerial shot of a mountainous coastline where sand deposits have expanded into dark blue water.

Glacial sand deposits off the coast of Greenland have added to the country’s total landmass. (Credit: Nikolaj Krog Larsen, used with permission)

Currently, Paviasen is trying to seek out ways for Greenlanders to more directly profit from extractive industries typically. The central laws that governs mineral extraction in Greenland is the Mineral Resources Act, which Inatsisartut passed in 2010. The law gives Greenland the proper to administer all natural resources and requires each a social and environmental impact assessment for any recent extraction projects. Nonetheless, to date most of those mining permits have gone to foreign corporations, leading to little economic profit to locals. Although Paviasen was not available for an interview with GlacierHub, she shared a speech she gave to Inatsisartut last fall.

“For the reason that Mineral Resources Act got here into force, a lot of us thought that we finally got the chance to get income from something aside from fish,” Paviasen said in her speech. “The nice expectations and great words haven’t been fulfilled to this present day. You may say that’s embarrassing, because you might say that the majority residents have gained nothing but unfulfilled hope.”

The sentiment will not be unusual. Of their survey, Bendixen and her co-authors found that three quarters of Greenlanders opposed a world partnership for future sand mining; those living near former mining projects were even less more likely to support foreign involvement.

Nonetheless sand extraction may look in the long run, it is obvious that the vast majority of Greenlanders want control over these development decisions. Bendixen recalls her work with Greenland highschool students, who will inherit a landscape altered by climate change no matter what decisions are made about sand mining. She recalled one highschool student she met who summarized the situation particularly well.

“He said, ‘Greenland has not contributed to climate change, but we sure are experiencing it,’’ she recalled. “If [Greenlanders] can profit from it, then who’re the remaining of the world to say that they shouldn’t?”


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