Greenland’s melting glaciers reveal a very poisonous gift

Greenland's melting glaciers reveal a very poisonous gift

Although several deserts on our planet are entirely made of it, sand remains a material in such demand that some mafias are fighting over it to the death.

That’s because these wars are about a very particular kind of sand: the kind we use to make concrete and build infrastructure. And it is precisely this precious sand that is found in the remains of melted glaciers in Greenland, as Wired explains.

Global warming is causing the destruction of the island’s ice cap, producing, in effect, an immense amount of meltwater laden with the right kind of sand for concrete production.

Even though Greenland is only three times the size of Texas, its ice cap is the source of 8% of the suspended river sediments that flow into the ocean. The country must now decide whether the exploitation on a larger scale of this sand would be tenable economically, socially and, above all, ecologically.

“It’s a rather controversial idea: we say that Greenland can benefit from climate change, affirms Mette Bendixena geographer from McGill Universityto Montreal. Unlike most other parts of the Arctic coast, Greenland is not eroding. It is even getting bigger, because the ice cap is melting. We can therefore think of it as a kind of tap that not only pours water, but also sediments.

The scientist explains that unlike the sand found in the Sahara, which is too rounded, this type of material is perfect for making concrete: the particles coming from Greenland are cooler and instead of acting like marbles, they fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

Sand merchants

Greenland already harvests this sand for the local production of concrete, but it is reserved for national companies which must obtain a permit, provided by the administration after an environmental examination.

And if the government is not opposed to mining for export, it will be treated like any other mining activity: with regulations and environmental and social impact assessments.

However, Mette Bendixen says that the environmental consequences of this extraction could be significant. First, because the boats that would be used to bring the sand to international ports would risk introducing invasive species off the coast of Greenland.

Second, dredging (removing material from the bottom of a body of water) of coastal sediments would further endanger local species, and mining operations could scare away the game that Inuit hunters depend on.

Mette Bendixen and her colleagues published investigation on August 18 on the opinion of Greenlanders regarding sand extraction: it appears that 84% of adult residents are in favor of it. Nevertheless, the economic model of such an export of sand from Greenland, at a time when the world demand is immense, is not yet entirely clear.

The government of Greenland has also worked with a consulting firm which has concluded that exporting the sand to Europe is not economically feasible at the moment. Added to this are other criteria such as the future development of export costs and the fact that Greenland could then find itself in competition with Europe.

Finally, the paradox is notable, a world with more sand harvested to make concrete would also mean more carbon dioxide emissions, more warming and therefore always more melting of the ice cap.

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