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As Greenland's Glaciers Recede, A Rush On The Riches Buried Below

Climate change is wreaking havoc on Greenland’s sensitive ecosystems. But it is also giving miners and energy explorers easier access to the Arctic island’s valuable natural resources. Greenland is thought to be particularly rich in “rare earth” minerals.

Mining activity in Greenland (European Environment Agency)
Mining activity in Greenland (European Environment Agency)
Silvia von der Weiden

Global warming may be bad news for Greenland's polar bears, wolves, musk ox and whales, but it could mean new economic opportunities for the Arctic island's fishing and tourism-dependent human inhabitants.

Satellite images taken over the past several decades show the dramatic disappearance of ice, including on the island's inland areas, where the ice fields can in places be up to three and a half kilometers deep. A study just published by scientists with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research shows that this ice could lose a fifth of its mass in 500 years.

If the trend continues, Greenland would be entirely ice-less within 2,000 years. Environmentalists are sounding alarm bells. Others, however, see a silver lining in the situation: new mining opportunities. The weakening ice is making the island's rich stores of raw materials accessible. Along with uranium, zinc, iron ore, copper and gold, Greenland's ancient rocks also harbor large quantities of those minerals known as "rare earth," among them lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, praesodymium, terbium and yttrium.

Because of their special properties, rare earth minerals are used in the manufacture of mobile phones, laptop computers, flat screens, fuel cells, LED lights, motors for electric cars and in laser technology. They provide the basis for entire high tech industries.

Up until now, 97% of these strategically important metals have come from China, which has some of the planet's biggest deposits of rare earth. However, in the eyes of the world community, their monopoly has led to rationing and sharp price increases on commodity markets – so much so that the European Union, the United States and Japan plan to bring the issue before the World Trade Organization (WTO) court.

Monopolistic China could soon be getting some competition. In largely ice-free southern Greenland, in a hilly area where melting glaciers are creating a marshland of naked rock, scree, and rubble, is Kvanefjeld. Greenland Minerals and Energy Explorations, a firm based in western Australia, has obtained licenses to conduct test mining here. Already the company estimates that there are at least 6.5 million tons of rare earths in the rocks – plus large quantities of uranium.

The news has sent the small company's share prices soaring to sometimes dizzying heights, impacting the stock market as a whole. "This is one of the biggest deposits of rare earths anywhere on the planet," said a spokesperson for Germany's Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) in Hannover.

And that's not all. "There could be important by-products like zinc, zirconium, lithium, beryllium, and natrium fluoride," said BGR experts. They estimate that the lode of ores at Kvanefjeld could add up to 457 million tons. With present global demand at 190,000 tons per year this would be enough to cover the world's needs for the prized commodities for at least a quarter of a century.

But the costs are high. A good $2.3 billion would have to be invested in technology to get the treasure out of the earth and rock, the Australian company estimates. It says it's made "significant progress processing the minerals and improving efficiency." BGR experts say that they are assuming the project is in its infancy.

Many projects still in the planning stage

Still, the prospects of discovering huge deposits of resources are bringing more exploration companies to the island. Their geologists know that Greenland's rocks are some of the oldest in the world, and are known for being rich in valuable iron ore. One such company is London Mining. Greenland's government granted it the mining rights to the area around the Isua Peninsula, some 150 kilometers north of the capital Nuuk. The British firm has already conducted some test bores. Tests point to an iron content of over 70%.

London Mining expects to be able to mine 950 million tons of high-purity iron ore. Work should get underway this year, although the company has yet to buy all of the estimated $2.5 billions-worth of technical equipment it needs to effectively carry out operations. "The Chinese steel industry has already expressed serious interest," says London Mining CEO Graeme Hossie.

Not everyone, however, shares the same enthusiasm about Greenland's potential as an Arctic mining mecca. Environmentalists were quick to protest when a Canadian company, Quadra Mining, announced plans to mine for molybdenum in a national park area near Malmbjerg in the northeastern part of Greenland. For the time being, Greenland's government has stopped the project. Another highly controversial project under discussion is the construction of a large aluminum smelting plant, which would require a huge amount of electrical power – presumably from hydroelectric dams.

Thanks to exploding energy prices and an increasingly long ice-free season every year, which are making the costly extraction of oil and natural gas in Arctic waters worthwhile, companies are also exploring Greenland – and its offshore waters – for potential energy reserves.

"Since 2002 we've granted 36 exploration licenses to oil and gas mining companies, 20 of them just last year," says Hans Kristian Olsen, a manager who led state-owned Nunaoil, a company that earns its money from granting mining rights. Cairn Energy, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Dong E&P, Esso, GDF Suez, Husky Energy, Maersk Oil, P. A. Resources, Petronas, Shell, and Statoil are just some of the companies lining up at the door.

All of them want to prospect for oil and gas in Greenland. They will share four exploration areas on the west coast covering a total of 71,000 square kilometers which is about as big as the German State of Bavaria.

Most of the projects aren't yet past the seismic studies stage, although some test boring has provided additional information that is not always as satisfactory as hoped for. The Scottish company Cairn Energy, for example, did strike oil in the Melville Sub Basin in northwestern Greenland, but there's not enough of it to make drilling worthwhile.

But that doesn't dim Olsen's optimism. He's putting all his cards on climate change and Greenland's rich resources: "When melting ice makes transportation along the northeast and northwest passages possible year round, costs will fall," he says.

Read the original story in German.

Photo - European Environment Agency

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