Observations of an Expat – Consequences of Greenland

Greenland is not usually a world election hotspot. This is because most of the time the biggest issue for the 57,000 inhabitants is filling the pothole on Nuuk’s high street or the siting of a new streetlight to illuminate the long cold winter nights.

Not this time. The issue at stake—mining—will have consequences well beyond the shores of the misnamed Danish possession involving the environment, world shipping, defence, economic development and tectonic shifts in global power.

The election was won by the Inuit Ataqatigiit or Community of the People Party on the platform of stopping development of the uranium and rare earths mine at Kvanefjeld. The increasingly sought after rare earth minerals are essential for the running of computers and various medical treatments. Eighty percent of the world’s rare earths are found in China who are keen to keep their virtual monopoly. Greenland has the world’s second largest deposit, which is why a Chinese company is behind the Kvanefjeld mine.

Greenland actually has more than a few rare earths. It is in fact one of the richest untapped sources of minerals, oil, natural gas, precious and industrial metals anywhere on Earth. Fortunately for environmentalists, the Greenland ice cap has kept out development. But that ice cap is melting faster than in any other part of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. In fact, Greenland is expected to be ice free (and properly named) sometime between 2037 and 2067.

The Danish government had been preparing for Greenland mining operations which would completely transform their Arctic possession. They had not counted on the country’s strong environmental lobby. Eighty-eight percent of Greenland’s population are indigenous Inuits who are quite happy with their lives of hunting and fishing and keeping the modern world at bay.

But it is doubtful that Greenlanders will be able to enjoy their splendid isolation for much longer. The country is strategically located on transit routes through the Arctic Ocean and straddles Canada’s fabled Northwest Passage and Russia’s Arctic Sea. These are the shortest and thus most cost effective links between Europe and Asia. They can also take large deep ships which are unable to squeeze through the Suez and Panama Canals (or become stuck).

Until recently the Arctic ice cap kept out all but the most intrepid heavy duty ice breakers. Now the Arctic is open between July and September and climatologists reckon that it will be available to year-round shipping in the not too distant future.

The warming of the Arctic will also have economic benefits (if that is the correct word) for land-based operations. Permafrost has prevented development of oil exploration and mining in the environmentally fragile environments of Russia, Canada, Norway and Alaska as well Greenland. Russia is expected to be the biggest beneficiary as it controls 53% of the Arctic coastline. It is estimated that the region contains 412 billion barrels of extractable oil and natural gas. Gazprom has already started operations.

Perhaps more important will be the impact of climate change on Russia’s access to the sea. Throughout history its economic and political development has been hamstrung by lack of access to warm water ports. Well, now it has nearly 6,000 miles of soon-to-be ice-free territory on which to build as many ports as it wants and has allocated $2.8 billion between now and 2025 for infrastructure development.

Moscow is also beefing up its military presence to protect and expand its new-found opportunity. It now has four new Arctic brigades, four airfields, six deep water ports, 40 icebreakers and regularly stages Arctic war games. The Russians claim that the build-up is purely defensive. But Western governments are dubious, especially after the deployment of 30 nuclear-tipped Poseidon missiles capable of avoiding detection by crawling along the seabed to targets 6,200 miles away.

Greenland also has a military base, the American owned and operated Thule Air Base only 974 miles from the North Pole. It provides warning of missiles coming over the Arctic and key operations for the new and expanding Space Force. This, plus Greenland’s economic potential, explains Donald Trump’s cack-handed attempt to buy Greenland from the Danes. He was, by the way, quickly followed by bids from China and Australia.

An ice-free maritime Arctic also raises interesting legal questions. Under the 1982 International Law of the Sea, states bordering a sea coastline can claim an exclusive economic zone over all water 200 miles from an owned land mass. Not from the mainland but from the tiniest island to which it can claim ownership. As the ice retreats new islands will appear and so expect a flurry of flag plantings.

The Law of the Sea also allows for international transit within the 200 mile zones. But political reality means that ownership of contingent land provides de facto control of vital shipping lanes. Canada, for instance, is currently arguing with allies in the US and Europe over the nature of international transit rights through the Northwest Passage.

The ships, the miners, the soldiers, the oil wells… they are all coming to the Arctic. It is unlikely that the plucky Greenlanders can stop them. But good luck.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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8 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 10th Apr '21 - 10:13am

    Isn’t what you are describing here just globalisation in action? Indeed we’ve been continually told that ‘splendid isolation’ is a bad thing and foreign investment is good.

    Don’t get me wrong I think that some have been naive to say the least about globalism. But I doubt that genie is going back in the bottle.

  • Erm…..
    there is No prospect of Greenland becoming Ice-Free in the next 1,000 Years, thank God. I imagine there is some confusion with The Arctic Sea becoming Free of Summer Ice completely which is indeed inevitable.
    I am not sure about some of the other statements in this article either, I had the impression that the population was largely “Urban” & split fairly evenly between Inuit & Viking stock, both groups arrived in Greenland around the same time, about 1,000 Years ago.

    On the wider issues, one of the root causes of the scramble for Rare Earth metals is the completely failure to organise any large-scale Recycling of Batteries & Electronics, we can try that before we dig more mines.

  • Nonconformistradical 10th Apr '21 - 2:55pm

    @Paul Barker
    “there is No prospect of Greenland becoming Ice-Free in the next 1,000 Years…”

    Reference please

  • there is No prospect of Greenland becoming Ice-Free in the next 1,000 Years,
    Well if we’re being pedantic, Tanzania is not ice free.
    However, the experts are agreed, we can expect major land-based glaciers in Greenland to melt in the coming decades and add significantly to global ocean levels. What is uncertain is the impact this will actually have as plate tectonics indicates that some plates will rise and others will dip, so we can expect an increase in earthquake and volcanic activity.

    What the author fails to mention is that the UK has a direct interest in the exploitation of Greenlands mineral resources – with a UK-based company being awarded a 30-year contract back in 2013 to build and run an iron ore mine. Which in turn is linked to the UK’s desire to maintain some form of steel making capability…
    I expect once again the LibDems will have demonstrated their green credentials by backing this project…

  • @Little Jackie Paper. In my lifetime an army of genies has escaped from their bottles: nuclear weapons, computers, air travel, climate change, social media, the internet, globalization….No doubt there are many more to come. It is social evolution and we have to deal with it as we have done since forever.

    @Paul Barker. According to a report in “Science Advances” by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, if the temperature of the Earth continues to rise at its present levels than Greenland will be completely ice-free by the year 3,000. If we can bring down the temperature than it will still lose a significant portion of its ice cap. Exactly how much it is impossible to determine, but a number of scientists believe that Greenland has reached tipping point and that a significant melt is inevitable. If the entire Greenland ice cap were to disappear, global sea levels are estimated to rise 24 feet.
    You are right and wrong about Inuit settlement. When the Vikings arrived at the end of the 10th century Greenland was uninhabited. But archaeologists have found evidence of Inuit settlement dating back to 2,500 BCE. There were, in fact, several waves of settlement as successive Inuit tribes failed to survive the harsh winters and were replaced by more settlers from North America. In the 13th century the Viking community died off and was not replenished until the 18th century. The Danes did not discover that the European community had died off until they sent missionaries to Greenland in 1721. The churchmen set about converting the Inuits.
    The figure of 88 percent for the Inuit population was taken from a Danish government fact sheet. So I am standing by that, but I think it includes those of mixed Inuit-European ancestry. By the way, about 16,000 Inuits live in Denmark.

  • Tony Vickers 11th Apr '21 - 9:02am

    As a retired military geographer, I’ve long been interested in the geopolitics of the Arctic. As a founder member of “Green Salads” (when Lib Dems were “Social & Liberal Democrats” GLD was formed – I still have the membership card although I was then still an army officer), I really welcome this article. We need to prioritise this issue, although there aren’t many votes in it at present.

    If the Greenland ice-cap melts quickly, it will probably shut down the Gulf Stream. That will limit the impact of global warming on our climate but place London under water! I’m ever the optimist but we need to plan for the worst – on an international level – but hope for the best.

    An incredibly multi-faceted and complex set of issues here but I’m confident we are the Party best to address them. Study the data, work across disciplines, above nationalism. This Government is totally unfitted for such things.

  • Robin Grayson FGS 11th Apr '21 - 10:30am

    Time to sweep away some exciting but misleading statements.
    As it happens, a UK-backed company no longer holds a “30-year contract back in 2013 to build and run an iron ore mine. Which in turn is linked to the UK’s desire to maintain some form of steel making capability…”. The company went bankrupt, and the Greenland license is now held by a China company. There is no realistic possibility of the China company opening such a mine in the foreseeable future as it would not be profitable to do so. It is therefore nonsense to “expect once again the LibDems will have demonstrated their green credentials by backing this project…”

    Moving on, it is not simply correct to claim China and Greenland have most of the world’s rare earths. Numerous such instances are being discovered worldwide, and I have discovered more than several myself.

    Moving on again, there is an urban myth that glaciers only form from snow. That is true where the journalists and skiers go, but often not true in many vast areas where land-lubber glaciers grow very fast in the total absence of snow provided there is a good supply of water from springs, groundwater and suchlike during part of the colder months n winter. By this means, as much as ten metres of solid ice can form naturally, provided snow is absent..

  • Russia’s territorial ambitions must be viewing the changes in the Artic with glee. It gives them much more flexibility. NATO needs to move north.

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