Greenland's ice is melting more quickly revealing rich mining opportunities, but also controversy over how they should be used.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - 21:28

While most of the world worries about the effects of global warming, it's actually being given a cautious welcome by some in Greenland.

The ice is melting more quickly than before, revealing an untapped landscape of opportunity for mining companies.

What they want most is rare earth, a composite of elements highly sought after for smart phones and computers and currently predominantly supplied by China.

Dateline reports on the conundrum now facing this sparsely inhabited island, which still relies on mother country Denmark for half its annual budget.

How can the wealth be exploited to improve its economy without over-exploiting the beautiful landscapes and pristine waters?

WATCH - Apologies, but this story narrated by Victoria Strobl, is no longer available for copyright reasons. You can however still read the transcript.

EXTRA - Find out more about rare earth and the groups featured in this story by following the links under 'resources' on the right-hand side of the page.

REPLAY - Look back at Dateline's previous stories on Climate Change, including our recent report on the impact of Alaska's Big Thaw.



Now with a state of emergency declared in New South Wales, there's debate about whether the raging bushfires can be linked to global warming. In far off Greenland that is not even an argument. Ice is melting much faster than predicted as the frozen landscape experiences the warmest weather in 600 years. Some call that a disaster, but others are rubbing their hands with glee. As the ice shrinks, a mining boom has begun. So, what does the future hold for this pristine and spectacular-looking country? This story by Scott Hillier and narrated by Victoria Strobl

NARRATOR: Victoria Strobl

From the air, much of Greenland looks like it has always done, ice stretching to the horizon, in some places more than 3km thick. But as the world's largest island heats up, Greenland's ice is melting faster than scientists had predicted.

NAJA HABERMANN: We do have a lot more new land, which haven't been free of ice for maybe 10,000 years.

Nowhere is the big melt more evident than at the Ilulissat Icefjord, home to the world's largest glacier. Naja Habermann is tracking its decline for UNESCO.

NAJA HABERMANN: We lost about 12km of the glacier - it retreated very fast about 2002, 2004, which is very unusual. What we're seeing now is it is speeding up, it's doubling the speed.

In the fjords of Southern Greenland, Ole Moelgaard remembers the days of bounty, when fish would literally leap into his boat but that was long ago.

OLE MOELGAARD: Water is more warm than before.

As a result of the warming sea temperatures the cod and halibut he once fished are now scarce. Ole's livelihood may be under threat, but for others Greenland's retreating ice is revealing vast new opportunities.

JORGEN HAMMEKEN-HOLM: Greenland is a frontier country. It means you take a chance. It's not like you have everything in place in Greenland. There's no infrastructure. The distances are very long.

Ten years ago Greenland issued 17 mining exploration licences, now around 150 companies are in a race to find the country's hidden treasures.

JORGEN HAMMEKEN-HOLM: We have diamonds, we have rubies, we have iron, we have coal.

Jorgen Hammeken-Holm is from Greenland's Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum. Of the long list of valuable minerals that Greenlanders are sitting on, he says it's the discovery of rare earth elements that has them the most excited.

JORGEN HAMMEKEN-HOLM: There's been a new focus on rare earth minerals and we have one of the two largest deposits in the world.

GREG BARNES, GEOLOGIST: In there is the rare earth mineral Utelite, which is the red within that rock.

A composite of 17 elements, rare earths are used to make electronic components for everything from smartphones to fibre optic cables and jet engines.

GREG BARNES: Rare earths are the new wonder, hi-tech metal.

Perth geologist Greg Barnes, has made a career out of hunting down rare earth deposits for mining companies to exploit. In Greenland he has hit the jackpot.

GREG BARNES: On my first day in Greenland I flew out and said - wow I don't believe this and in 20 years since, we're still saying, wow, we don't believe it. It keeps turning up things you don't expect.

This mountain in the middle of Southern Greenland is his latest claim. It was here he uncovered an almost inexhaustible supply of rare earth minerals.

GREG BARNES: A very large deposit, there's 4 billion tonnes already and probably 10 times that if we wanted to. Once this mine starts, it will be here for a long while, hundreds of years. With such large reserves, there's thousands and thousands of years potential supply of rare earths for the whole world.

In Greenland's south, where the land is free from Arctic ice, Elna Jensen runs one of a few dozen farms in the country.

ELNA JENSEN: We have 650 sheep and rams and this year we have 1040 lambs.

She's concerned about the potential impacts of mining - particularly the large deposits of uranium ore that are mixed in with the rare earth minerals.

ELNA JENSEN: Some people are afraid of the radioactivity can be affecting the lambs and the sheep and the land around us, because we are using much of the land around where our lambs and sheep are going. It depends on how careful we are.

Here in the Kobberfjord, environmental scientist Josephine Nymand and her team are braving the summer flies to look at the consequence of Greenland's big thaw.

JOSEPHINE NYMAND: What we are looking at the rather closely, how the increasing amount of melting water is impacting the fjord systems, because the melting of Greenland ice, which is fresh water, then something is going to happen in the fjords, which is seawater of course.

For an environmentalist, she's surprisingly accepting of the country's impending mining boom.

JOSEPHINE NYMAND: I don't think mine log damage the environment, because we can mitigate the effects of the mining but of course there will be an impact on nature when you dig a big hole in the ground. Of course you can see the impact. Worst case scenario as I see it if pollutants get into the water because it's more uncontrollable in water and if it reaches the fjord systems, then there may be a large problem. As long as you keep it out of the water, then it is manageable, I think.

Deep in Greenland's isolated interior, camps are already being set up to house the coming influx of foreign mine workers. Greenland's population of 57,000 people could double or even triple in just a few decades.

TINE PARS: I don't see how we can avoid this. It's not only the Chinese people who are interested. It's the whole of Asia. We've had visitors from South Korea, Japan, and from Indonesia. So it is huge.

Tine Pars is from the University of Greenland. She worries with multinational mining companies poised to begin operations, there's more to lose than there is to gain.

TINE PARS: How do we make sure our culture is not lost in all this?

What is certain is that there is no turning back. Greenland is being reshaped in every way.

TINE PARS: It's hard to imagine how Greenland looks like in 10 or 20 years but it's definitely not going to look like this.

There could be big political changes, too. Many in Greenland hope the mining boom will help them achieve their long-time goal of independence from Denmark.

CHRISTINA BIILMANN: We used to be a colony for Denmark, and now we have a partial independence, but still very dependent on Denmark.

Single mum, Christina Biilmann, lives with her daughter in the capital Nuuk. She's cautiously optimistic about what the future holds.

CHRISTINA BIILMANN: It's a good thing if Greenland gets rich, but what is Greenland when it's rich? Because I know when I was a kid, when I got lots of candy, I would be happy and I would be eating everything until I got sick. Greenland is like a kid learning to walk. We have to learn how to be independent in a healthy way for everybody.




Associate Producer

Original Music Composed by VICKI HANSEN

A Zanzibar Shooting Stars Production

22nd October 2013