Climate change could unleash Greenland sand bonanza, say researchers

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The Zackenberg River delta in Greenland’s National Park in 2017. While climate change is eroding coastlines elsewhere in the Arctic, in Greenland it’s building up the coastlines with sediment. Now the question is, what to do with all that sand? (Asger Meldgaard/Courtesy Mette Bendixen)
The sediment left behind as climate change melts Greenland’s glaciers could provide unexpected export opportunities for the territory as the global demand for sand increases, say the authors of a new paper.

“Why not try and look into whether this could be feasible? said Mette Bendixen, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and the paper’s lead author.

“We’re suggesting that sand could actually be a valuable resource for Greenland and then it’s up to the (territory) itself to find out if it’s something they want to pursue or what they do with this knowledge,” Bendixen said in a telephone interview with Eye on the Arctic.

Climate inducing bigger sediment deposits

Coastlines across the Arctic are eroding as permafrost melts and sea ice disappears.

But Greenland’s coastlines are behaving differently than other places in the Arctic.

“Because of climate change you have so much more melt coming from the Greenland ice sheet,” Bendixen said. “All of this additional melt creates bigger rivers which can transport more sand and gravel and this is deposited at the coast.”

The deposits are often found along fjords and in embayments and are made up of massive mounds of gravel, sand and silt, which can measure several kilometres wide and be tens of metres in height, say the authors of the paper “Promises and perils of sand exploitation in Greenland,”  published on Monday in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Feature Interview
Realizing that sand is more valuable than most people think is something I want to stress,” says researcher Mette Bendixen. (Lars Loensmann Iversen/Courtesy Mette Bendixen)

For more on climate, coastlines and some of the big questions ahead for Greenland, listen to Eye on the Arctic‘s conversation with Mette Bendixen, a researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research:

The demand for sand

This increase in sediment at Greenland’s coastlines comes at the same time there’s an upswing in the global demand for sand

Despite sand’s prevalence, the resource is increasingly under pressure as the world population grows and infrastructure demands increase, with price hikes to match.

“The current demand for sand has a market value of US$99.5 billion,” the paper says. “This estimate has been projected to reach US$481 billion in 2100 with a future increase in sand demand alongside sand shortages and the consequent increase in prices.”

“I was surprised myself to find that sand is such a scarce resource,” Bendixen said. “People normally think of sand as something you just take for granted, but sand is all around us. The roads we drive on are created by sand, most of the buildings made with concrete are built up by sand. But realizing that sand is more valuable than most people think is something I want to stress.”

Environmental and social impacts of sand mining

The global need for sand provides a rare opportunity for Greenland, with its population of approximately 56,000 people, as the territory seeks to diversify their economy, now dominated by the fishing industry.

A video produced by Lars Lønsmann Iversen, one of the paper’s authors, on the potential pros and cons of sand exploitation in Greenland

However, the same kinds of environmental assessments would need to be done on potential sand mining projects as with other extraction industries, with careful attention paid to not to disrupt fishing areas and regions developed for tourism, Bendixen said.

“Mining natural resources, whether it’s oil and gas, uranium or sand, it always comes with consequences,” she said.  “Exploiting this sand should not interfere with those two important economies for the country, that’s also something that needs to be addressed and investigated.

“Making sure all those industries can co-exist is really essential.”

Economic models focused on the shipping of sand would also need to be developed, she said.

What’s next?

Bendixen said there’s more work that needs to be done around sand mining potential and that the team behind the paper is looking to collaborate on future projects.

“We’re actively initiating research on future systems on these sand resources,” she said. “We want to establish future research collaborations on this topic to gain knowledge and include the Greenlandic researchers and population too.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Theoretical physicist helping scientists understand how glaciers flow, CBC News

Finland: Climate change, birth rate should be Finnish gov’s top priorities: report, Yle News

Greenland: New model predicts flow of Greenland’s glaciers, Alaska Dispatch News

New Zealand: New Zealand glaciers on the retreat, Deutsche Welle’s Ice-Blog

Norway: New climate report predicts extreme warming for Arctic Svalbard by 2100, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia’s quest for Arctic resources unhindered by climate crisis, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Glacier in central Sweden “collapsing” as climate warms, Radio Sweden

United States: Melting small glaciers play a big role in Alaska river systems, Alaska Dispatch News

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Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is a journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project.

Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the violent death of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on violence and trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

Twitter: @Arctic_EQ

Email: eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

One thought on “Climate change could unleash Greenland sand bonanza, say researchers

  • Avatar
    Wednesday, February 13, 2019 at 15:34
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    Very interesting. A positive aspect of the otherwise depressing climate change issues.

    Reply
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