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The blue marble

Postcard from the Arctic Goldrush

Qugssuk fjord, where the harbour to load Isuas’ iron ore would be built. Photo: Núria Marbà.
Map showing the mineral and hydrocarbon licences in Greenland in 2012. Source: Greenland Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum.

Google News contains more than 51,000 English-language news items about the melting Arctic. Five hundred of them were generated in the 60 minutes before we decided to write this article.

This avalanche of news follows confirmation last week of a catastrophic melting in the Arctic Ocean in the summer of 2012. That this summer would be particularly devastating to the stability of the ice was already evident. In July U.S. scientists had found that the portion of Greenland’s surface affected by melting ice rose from 40%, which is usual, to more than 90%, a record extent, in just four days. The trajectory of the extent of Arctic sea ice already anticipated a new minimum this year, confirmed a few days ago, with an area of 700.000 kilometres squared of sea ice below the previous minimum registered in the summer of 2007.

Once again we are forced to revise our forecasts for the future. In 2007 the IPCC predicted that in 2100 there would still be a third of the extent of the ice in summer of 1980. In 2007 these predictions were revised to anticipate an ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer 2030. Today researchers, such as my colleague Peter Wadhams, from Cambridge Univ., speculate that this can happen in just four years.

In an article published in the journal Nature Climate Change in January of this year, which Peter and I co-authored along with colleagues in the UK and Norway, we warned that the trajectory of ice dynamics pointed at an imminent abrupt change (Duarte et al. 2012), anticipating the changes that have been recorded this summer.

For us, Arctic ice dynamics is not just a line on a time series graph. For the past six years we have been developing an intense research activity in the Arctic, with three to four expeditions a year, to complete seven expeditions to Greenland and fourteen to the Arctic Ocean since 2006 with the support of Danish and Norwegian colleagues and funding from Spain and the European Framework R&D Programme. This research effort is justified by the speed and significance, for the planet and for all of us, of what is happening there.

Our recurring presence in the Arctic, Longyearbyen (Svalbard, 78 ° N) and Nuuk (capital of Greenland, 64.2 º N) as logistics bases also allowed us to observe how these changes are affected Arctic communities. In both locations we have seen a steep growth in the numbers of houses and tourists. But this year was different. This year Chinese and Australian companies arrived.

This summer the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong (Snow Dragon) crossed the North route along the Russian coast. Rapid ice loss allowed her to reach the North Pole. China has commissioned a second icebreaker that will be equipped with sophisticated instruments for geological and geophysical prospecting. China had also in 2008 opened an Arctic base named Arctic Yellow River in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard.

Meanwhile the Chinese have also arrived in Nuuk, but this time not just to do research. When travelling in Nuuk this summer we found a flurry of mining exploration companies and environmental impact studies, parallel to the development of large resource development plans and infrastructure construction. Air Greenland’s magazine anticipated what we would find, because logistics companies prospecting for oil and gas offered their services from its pages.

In October this year the government of Greenland has to make a decision on the opening of an iron ore mine called “Isua”, adjacent to the ice sheet. This mining project is promoted by a company based in London, but with Chinese capital. In fact, the project envisages the deployment of 3,000 Chinese workers to construct, over three years, the mine infrastructure and pipelines to transport iron transport to the coast. This includes the construction of a harbour capable of accommodating large freighters that would transport the iron back to China.

The repertoire of minerals to be exploited is vast, including iron, gold, aluminium and rare earths (whose market is dominated (90%) by China). Whereas Chinese investors may have been the quickest to arrive, they were soon followed by Australian mining companies. Currently 131 mineral deposits of Greenland are licensed for prospecting and exploration and four for exploitation. According to the report to Inatsisartut, the Parliament of Greenland, on Activities Concerning Mineral Resources in Greenland (Greenland Government, Greenland Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum, 2012, about 40% of the licences are in the hands of companies registered in Australia, almost 20% from Canada, and the rest from Greenland, Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway and Iceland), Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

An indication of the scale of these projects is given by the fact that the energy consumption of the Isua mine would increase Greenland’s total energy consumption by 80% through a plant fuelled by diesel and because only this mine will generate benefits from exploitation license equivalent to 20% of the Greenland government’s current budget (including the large contribution from Denmark). It will also be necessary to build a new high-capacity airport to welcome the large labour population and develop additional infrastructure, all of which will generate huge profits for the public coffers.

The International Architecture Biennale in Venice this year featured a project by Danish and Greenland architects and engineers entitled: “A Possible Greenland”. It offered a vision of a Future Greenland packed with futuristic buildings and infrastructure to accommodate these developments.

The Greenlandic government sees the development of the resources industry as an opportunity to raise the standard of living of its inhabitants. But this view of prosperity comes along with big risks to social and cultural integrity of the Greenlanders. With a population of only 57,000 people, Greenland has fewer inhabitants than there are employees in some of the big companies that are landing in the area (ALCOA: 61,000, Shell: 90,000, Maersk: 108,000).

If the resources boom has brought prosperity but also a number of social imbalances to Western Australia, it is no wonder that the Greenlanders, the Inuit people native of Greenland, expressed mixed feelings about all of this. They are worried, rightly, that the influx of workers from remote areas and the flood of money that will surely pour in the streets of Nuuk might aggravate the difficulties already experienced by the Greenlandic people. Rates of suicide, which also occur in early adolescence, triple those of the Danish inhabitants of the territory. The Greenlandic government efforts have succeeded in reducing alcohol consumption per capita (population over 14 years) from 22 L per year in 1987 to just over 11 L today.

The opportunity is too attractive for Greenlanders and their government to to turn away, but the risks are significant. Will Greenlandic society be strong enough to resist this gold rush?

This post is coauthored with Dr. Núria Marbà, IMEDEA, Spanish National Research Council


Duarte, C.M., T. M. Lenton, P. Wadhams and P. Wassmann. 2012. Abrupt climate change in the Arctic. Nature Climate Change 2, 60–62.

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