Climate change has finally melted enough of Greenland to allow mining companies to exploit its natural resources. And it's got a lot. The remote, increasingly well-named island nation has a payload of uranium and rare earth elements buried beneath its quickly-thinning ice sheets.
Last year, nearly 97 percent of Greenland's ice cover melted during the summer. That hadn't happened for 123 years. And while big melts like that are thought to happen from time to time, scientists think Greenland is melting six times faster than it would have if humans didn't load the atmosphere up with coal and oil pollution. Clearly, not everyone is disappointed with the result.
As with the other major industries circling the warming Arctic like a vulture—oil and shipping companies being the biggest—mining corporations have long licked their chops at the prospect of digging into Greenland's untapped mineral reserves. Now they're finally going to get their shot. Germany's Die Welt describes what it's like on the ground: "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.'" Iron companies have already begun to move in. But it's the rare earth metals that make for the biggest jackpot.
Until now, those were considered too hazardous to get at, and there was a "zero tolerance uranium policy" in place to prevent corporations from honing in on the volatile and lucrative mineral. But Greenland's parliament just voted to allow Australia and China to start mining away. The vote was as close as they come: 15 for, 14 against, with the common call for jobs and economic growth winning out over immense environmental concerns.
Greenland, then and now. Image: EESI
"We cannot live with unemployment and cost-of-living increases while our economy is at a standstill. It is therefore necessary that we eliminate zero tolerance towards uranium now," Greenland's prime minister, Aleqa Hammond told a local paper. Hammond's pro-growth plan won out over a plea from 48 NGOs that signed a statement calling for the no-uranium rule to be upheld.
“Uranium mining at Kuannersuit (Kvanefjeldet) will leave behind millions of tonnes of tailings containing some of the most toxic radioactive substances," wrote Mikkel Myrup, the chairman of Avataq, an environmental watchdog group. "The waste will remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years and in the long term, the mining could cause comprehensive radioactive contamination, which—because of the health risks—would make it dangerous to live in and make it necessary to ban fishing, hunting, agriculture and animal husbandry in significant parts of Southern Greenland."
Alas, the mining is going forward, radioactive byproducts in the pristine sea or no. Chinese and Australian companies will be first through the gates, as the former has a stranglehold on the rare earth mining industry. So now, as more and more of Greenland's ice sheet drains away every year, so will the possibilities to halt the resource extraction rush.
It won't be years until these operations get off the ground—and by the time they do, who knows what treasures Greenland's receding ice-line may have revealed? Whatever it is, we'll be sure to harvest it for profit, dumping our hazardous byproduct into the once-icy waters we've since turned to slush.