The Arctic is warming twice as fast as other parts of the globe, and the hot temperatures are leaving their mark: In Greenland, the ice sheet that covers 80% of the country is rapidly shrinking.
The melting ice brings more than just water to the coastline. Ice melt delivers tons of sand and gravel particles offshore, and a recent paper in Nature Sustainability suggests that Greenland could profit from this resource.
“Contrary to the general trend that the Arctic is facing a lot of problems because of climate change, we actually suggest that Greenland can benefit from it by exploiting [its] sand,” lead author Mette Bendixen of the University of Colorado Boulder told Eos. Sand harvesting could be one antidote to both the country’s stagnant economy and the growing global sand shortage.
But other scientists may not be convinced, citing environmental concerns.
“High-latitude marine ecosystems are among the last, most pristine places on Earth,” Whitman Miller, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md., told Eos. Greenland must engage in “comprehensive and forward looking planning” to avoid damage from mining, he warned.
Sand underlies nearly every aspect of urban life: Highways, skyscrapers, dams, bridges, and other infrastructure all contain sand and gravel. Booming cities in Asia are buying sand by the boatload, and China used more cement between 2011 and 2014 than the United States did in the past century.
But the world is running out of sand. Global demand is projected to increase by nearly a third by the end of the century, but resources are limited.
Only certain types of sand, like those found in rivers, beaches, and seafloors, are well suited as construction material. The economic value of these types of sand has had troubling environmental and social consequences, including the disappearance of 2 dozen islands in Indonesia and the emergence of “sand mafias” in India.
Meanwhile, Greenland’s economy faces a host of problems: An aging population and a 10% unemployment rate have the country looking for new sources of income.
“They’re really short of money, and they have sought for decades to diversify their economy,” Bendixen explained.
A Shore Thing
Climate change clears the way for sand mining in Greenland in several ways. Not only does increased melting bring more sand and gravel to the coastline of Greenland (where it can be mined by boat), but warmer temperatures are also clearing bays and outlets of sea ice, making them accessible nearly year-round.
The researchers recommend that Greenland focus on mining several regional hot spots. One such hot spot is the Sermeq Outlet, which sits just 100 kilometers away from the country’s capital city of Nuuk. The outlet collects one quarter of the sand coming off Greenland and is accessible by boat nearly all year. This single outlet could supply double the amount of sand needed for construction in San Diego County, Calif., every year, the paper notes.
The Sermeq Outlet is an “interesting and economically feasible site,” Bendixen said.
The Greenland workforce may also be well poised to kick off a sand mining industry, according to the paper.“Greenland’s industry is mostly focused on fishing. They have good skills in terms of maritime knowledge and [knowing] how to navigate these pretty difficult Arctic waters,” she explained.
If Greenland went forward with the idea, it wouldn’t need to worry about the sand running out anytime soon.
“As long as global warming is continuing, the ice sheet is going to melt, and with the melt come more sand and gravel,” Bendixen said. The steady stream of sand will continue “for centuries to come,” the authors write.
An “Unsustainable Option”
And yet environmental concerns loom large. Sand mining could “locally enhance or even amplify” the disruption to local ecosystems from climate change, according to the paper. Norpadzlihatun Manap, a visiting researcher at Imperial College London, calls sand mining an “unsustainable option” for Greenland.
“Sand acts as a sink to contaminants,” she explained. Manap noted that unleashing those contaminants may in turn have a negative impact on Greenland’s domestic revenue, which comes largely from the fish and shellfish industry.
The introduction of bulk carrier ships could bring contaminated ballast water to the sensitive Arctic region as well, added Whitman Miller. “The potential for high-impact invasions is a serious concern and requires the institution of robust biosecurity measures,” he added.
Bendixen agreed that a “thorough environmental impact assessment” must be completed before any sand extraction begins. She says that the next step will be establishing a team of Greenlandic and Danish researchers to investigate outstanding questions and engage with the Greenlandic population.
“They know their country the best,” Bendixen said. “We just want to offer the opportunity to Greenland so that they can decide for themselves.”