Observations from three satellites showed that between July 8 and July 12 of this year the proportion of the Greenland ice sheet with melting surface ice shot up from 40 percent to 97 percent. After making sure that these astonishing data were correct, scientists attributed the melt, which continued for about two weeks, to a ridge of warm air or “heat dome” that passed over Greenland for the seventh summer in a row.
Then on July 15 or 16 –no one noticed exactly when it happened –a chunk of ice 130 km2 (50 square miles) in area toppled off the Petermann glacier in Greenland’s far north-west into the Nares Strait. Less than two years had passed since August 2010, when the same glacier lost another chunk, twice as large in area.
For anyone concerned about conditions on our planet as a whole in the decades and centuries ahead, these events might be seen as yet more evidence of the worrying acceleration in the speed of global heating (atmospheric carbon dioxide has now, according to some measures, passed the 400 parts per million mark). In particular, they could herald a tens-of-metres’rise in sea level that would inundate the world’s lowlands if the Arctic and Antarctic ice melted away.
Yet it can hardly be denied that climatic warming is producing immediate benefits in Greenland itself, especially for farmers and fishermen. The country is turning once more into the “green land” that attracted Viking settlers during the Medieval Warm Period of the 9th to 13th century. The season for growing grass and grazing sheep is becoming longer. Dairy cattle have been reintroduced. Vegetables like broccoli, which never grew before at these latitudes, are now cultivated. Cod and halibut are migrating north into Greenland waters.
The big mining and hydrocarbon companies are moving into Greenland, buying up broad swathes of territory and preparing to exploit rich and newly accessible mineral resources. In the Kranefjeld area, for example, the Australian-based Greenland Minerals and Energy owns deposits estimated at 861 million tonnes of uranium, zinc and rare earth elements (REEs). Another Australian firm, Hudson Resources, is drilling for REEs at Sarfartoq. These developments seem likely to play a key role in breaking up China’s monopoly in the extraction of REEs, which are coveted for diverse high-tech applications (see Material World, May 2011).
Other companies have their greedy eyes on nickel, aluminium, precious stones –and, of course, oil and natural gas, which they have no intention of leaving in the ground for as trivial a purpose as averting environmental catastrophe.
On the basis of experience in many other parts of the world, there is ample reason to doubt whether on balance ordinary people in Greenland will derive much benefit from exploitation of the island’s mineral resources. Some of them will get jobs that will seem to them relatively well-paid, but they will pay a heavy price in pollution and ill health. Uranium mining poses special dangers. So does the toxic sludge generated by the extraction of REEs, as the people of Inner Mongolia have discovered to their cost.
At present Canadian, American and Australian mining companies appear to be in the lead, but the business press assures us that European and Asian firms are raring to get a piece of the action. European firms might derive some advantage from Greenland’s continuing status as a colony of Denmark with ties to the EU. (Greenland now enjoys “autonomy” or home rule and has withdrawn from the EU but still receives substantial aid from the EU through a partnership agreement that expires at the end of 2013.)
Independence for Greenland?
The issue of political independence for Greenland must be considered in this context. Commentators argue that the tax revenues generated by mining will enable the Greenlandic government to manage without the subsidies it now receives from Denmark and the EU, making independence possible. But whose interests would independence serve?
It is plausible to suppose that the North American and Australian companies already involved in Greenland are encouraging (bribing?) the country’s politicians and officials to go in this direction. They know full well that greater independence from Denmark and the EU means greater dependence on them.
Political independence would eliminate any competitive advantage that the link with the EU might give their European rivals. It would also free them of any constraints that Danish or EU regulations might place on mining in the name of protecting the environment or the way of life of indigenous groups. Observers note that home rule has made it easier for companies to obtain licenses. Presumably, independence would make it easier still.