FROM THE FIELD
As Greenland’s Ice Melts, Glacial Sand Deposits May Offer a Welcome Economic Opportunity
Greenland’s ice sheet is losing 280 billion tons of mass per year, and some models suggest that its glaciers may be melting up to 100 times faster than expected. But flowing off those glaciers comes a potential economic boom: sand. Each season, millions of tons of sediment flow from melting glaciers into the ocean, adding landmass to the largest island in the world. According to a research paper published in Nature last fall, three out of four Greenlanders support extracting and exporting sand — so long as they’re the ones in charge of managing the resource.
For lead author Mette Bendixen, a geographer at McGill University, the study offers a message from Greenlanders to the rest of the world: Greenland plans to adapt to climate change on its own terms.
“When we think about climate change adaptation, it almost always has a negative connotation,” she said in an interview with GlacierHub. “And this is like the opposite. This is saying, climate change is happening — hey, this is something that could be beneficial to us.” In the paper, she and her coauthors refer to this as “opportunistic climate adaptation,” which they argue “remain[s] poorly understood relative to relative to predictors of defensive adaptation.”
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 tend to be viewed by westerners as pristine areas of the world that should be preserved with no change to traditions or landscapes at all. But such clear support from the communities themselves for the exploration of industrial sand mining runs counter to that notion.
“To me, it shows that Greenlanders are saying, ‘We don’t care what the rest of the world thinks — we want to try and look at this ourselves, and see if this is relevant.’”
At first glance, sand may seem like an exceptionally ordinary 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 same 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 first 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 so much,” Bendixen said. The second process occurs as glaciers melt into streams and rivers, whether as a result of seasonal variability or large-scale climate change. The flow of water slowly erodes the land underneath it — and it creates a specific kind of sand.
“In rivers, you have a variety of grain sizes and more angularity,” Bendixen explained. “You don’t have the scooping back and forth by the wind, you just have a unidirectional flow.” The unidirectional flow results in angular sand grains, which compress much better under heat and pressure. This makes glacial sand deposits ideal for industrial consumption, particularly for creating concrete.
Over the years, that type of angular sand has gotten harder and harder to find. After decades of rapid development, the world now faces a global shortage of sand due to a combination of overexploitation and degradation. That’s where Greenland’s sand mining operations may come in. On a warming planet with melting glaciers, the world’s largest island is poised to be full of 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 run out, and could be a potential long-term operation, especially with the global shortage.” Plesner, who works for mineral company Amaroq Minerals Ltd., added that, “sand extraction, if done responsibly, could 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 of the ways the government has tried to move 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 results, published last year, conclude that large-scale sand extraction would be economically unfavorable at present. Since sand is heavy and costly to transport, Greenland’s export partners would most likely be nearby countries like U.S., Canada, Denmark, and the UK; all of these nations have a sufficient sand supply at present. However, Greenland’s government still left open the possibility of pursuing sand extraction in the future, given the uncertainty of international markets and global sand supply.
Greenlanders are no stranger to extractive industries, with a more than 200-year history of exporting copper, zinc, and other precious metals like gold and platinum to international markets. However, not all kinds of mineral extraction have been universally welcomed by Greenlanders. One of the biggest recent flashpoints involved pushback against the completion of the Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit in Greenlandic) mine in the southern part of the country, which would have been owned by an Australian company. The mine contains some of the world’s largest deposits of rare earth minerals and uranium. While rare earth minerals are a critical component of electric 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, resulting in success for candidates opposed to uranium mining.
Mariane Paviasen was one of the leaders in 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 does not necessarily apply to sand extraction — so long as Greenlanders themselves are in charge. As she told Mongabay in September, “If mining companies could do it without polluting and contaminating the area […] that would be acceptable. But they also have to talk with nearby inhabitants.”
Currently, Paviasen is trying to find ways for Greenlanders to more directly benefit from extractive industries in general. The central legislation that governs mineral extraction in Greenland is the Mineral Resources Act, which Inatsisartut passed in 2010. The law gives Greenland the right to manage all natural resources and requires both a social and environmental impact assessment for any new extraction projects. However, so far most of those mining permits have gone to foreign companies, resulting in little economic benefit to locals. Although Paviasen was not available for an interview with GlacierHub, she shared a speech she gave to Inatsisartut last fall.
“Since the Mineral Resources Act came into force, many of us thought that we finally got the opportunity to get income from something other than fish,” Paviasen said in her speech. “The great expectations and great words have not been fulfilled to this day. You could say that is embarrassing, because you could say that most citizens have gained nothing but unfulfilled hope.”
The sentiment is not uncommon. In their survey, Bendixen and her co-authors found that three quarters of Greenlanders opposed an international partnership for future sand mining; those living near former mining projects were even less likely to support foreign involvement.
However sand extraction may look in the future, it is clear that the majority of Greenlanders want control over these development decisions. Bendixen recalls her work with Greenland high school students, who will inherit a landscape altered by climate change regardless of what decisions are made about sand mining. She recalled one high school 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 benefit from it, then who are the rest of the world to say that they should not?”
GlacierHub is a climate communication initiative led by Ben Orlove, an anthropologist at the Columbia Climate School. Many of GlacierHub's writers are Climate School students or alumni.