As ice melts, Greenland could turn into big sand exporter: Scientists

The Inuit communities on the western coast of Greenland. Mining of sand and gravel could boost the economy for Greenland's population of 56,000 who have wide powers of self-rule within Denmark but rely heavily on subsidies from Copenhagen.
The Inuit communities on the western coast of Greenland. Mining of sand and gravel could boost the economy for Greenland's population of 56,000 who have wide powers of self-rule within Denmark but rely heavily on subsidies from Copenhagen.PHOTO: EXODUS TRAVELS

OSLO • Greenland could start to export sand in a rare positive spin-off from global warming that is melting the island's vast ice sheet and washing large amounts of sediment into the sea, scientists have said.

Mining of sand and gravel, widely used in the construction industry, could boost the economy for Greenland's population of 56,000 who have wide powers of self-rule within Denmark but rely heavily on subsidies from Copenhagen.

By mining sand, "Greenland could benefit from the challenges brought by climate change", a team of scientists in Denmark and the United States wrote in the journal Nature Sustainability on Monday.

The study, headlined "Promises and perils of sand exploitation in Greenland", said the Arctic island would have to assess risks of coastal mining, especially to fisheries.

Rising temperatures are melting the Greenland ice sheet, which locks up enough water to raise global sea levels by about 7m if it ever all thawed. The result: more sand and gravel being washed into coastal fjords.

"You can think of it (the melting ice) as a tap that pours out sediment to the coast," said lead author Mette Bendixen, a researcher at the University of Colorado's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

Worldwide demand for sand totalled about 9.55 billion tonnes in 2017 with a market value of US$99.5 billion (S$135.4 billion) and is projected to reach almost US$481 billion in 2100, driven by rising demand and likely shortages, the study said. That means a rare opportunity for Greenland.

"Normally the Arctic peoples are among those who really feel climate change - the eroding coast, less permafrost," said Ms Bendixen. "This is a unique situation because of the melting ice sheet."

Mr David Boertmann of Aarhus University, who was not involved in the study, said there was already some local mining of sand for the domestic construction industry in Greenland.

The drawbacks for Greenland, common to other mining projects on the island ranging from uranium to rare earth minerals, include the distance to markets in Europe and North America, he said.

Still, Ms Bendixen said sand was already often transported over long distances, such as to Los Angeles from Vancouver or from Australia to Dubai.

"At the moment it is an inexpensive resource but it will become more expensive," she said.

The study said that sand and gravel might also be used in future to reinforce beaches and coastlines that are at risk of rising sea levels, caused in part by Greenland's thaw.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2019, with the headline 'As ice melts, Greenland could turn into big sand exporter: Scientists'. Print Edition | Subscribe