In Greenland, melting glaciers are exposing elements critical for the energy transition. Greenlanders are deciding if they want mining in their towns.
To some, it comes as a hurricane. A hurricane bigger than before. It comes too as the creep of the sea up the coast, bolder each year, and as bloated rivers tumbling downstream. It comes in floods.
To others, watching ice melt is watching an old friend change. A glacier is not a stranger; she is a neighbor. Watching her once-familiar face disintegrate entirely, replaced by an emaciated other, is a disorientation something like loneliness.
In Greenland, like everywhere, the ice is melting. With it, life is unraveling. For centuries, Greenlanders have built an existence that looks harsh to the rest of the world: thin slices of disappearing daylight in the wintertime, fishing in the frigid waters of summertime, patchy chances for farming. The specific harshness of these conditions, following the shifting rhythms of ice, changes with the seasons but has remained constant for generations. But a warmer world is also a wetter one, and as Greenlanders adapt to less ice, the rest of us will have to adapt to more water.
The global causes and effects of Greenland’s melting glaciers are important because the interests playing out in Greenland are global, too. In our limping race to slow climate change, we’ve turned toward electrification to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. But we find ourselves short on some key ingredients: rare earth elements. Under all that melting ice, Greenland is hiding great reserves of those exact ingredients. But what should happen to Greenland if mining comes to town?
Mariane Paviasen never thought she’d be a politician. She has lived in the big valley of Narsaq, Greenland for most of her life, which, until recently, was peaceful. Then, in 2013, the Greenland government abandoned their zero-tolerance policy for uranium mining, quickly opening the enormous, untapped landscape to foreign mining interests. Into this expanse walked Greenland Minerals.
Greenland Minerals A/S is a subsidiary of Energy Transition Minerals Ltd, an Australia-based mining company that focuses on elements critical to a low-carbon future, including rare earth elements (REEs). One of their projects—the Kvanefjeld project (also called Kuannersuit)—is proposed right next to Narsaq, Greenland and promises to extract REEs alongside uranium. They began working on the Kvanefjeld project in 2007, first submitting a draft environmental impact assessment in 2015 in the wake of relaxed regulation. Today, after over a decade of discord between the locals and the company, Greenland Minerals is still fighting to get their mine built.
To Paviasen, the promise of abundant REEs doesn’t make up for the danger of a uranium mine next door and the threat of radioactive pollution impacting Narsaq residents’ way of life. In response to Greenland Minerals’ proposals, locals formed the group “Urani? Naamik,” which translates to “Uranium? No.”
“We agreed to start an association because we had to stand up and fight for our town, our country, our world,” Paviasen said.
Narsaq, at the southern tip of Greenland, has enough ice-free land in the summer for limited farming—an activity that’s impossible across much of Greenland. But Paviasen worries that the presence of a mine will pollute the land, endangering their sheep, cows, and vegetables. She and other members of Urani? Naamik are worried, too, that the mine will impact the small but burgeoning tourism industry. Will those who want to see pristine Greenland, who want to catch the glaciers before they are gone, still want to come if the white ice is marred by a gaping open-pit mine?
And then there are the fish. Fishing is the largest industry in Greenland, and Urani? Naamik fears that pollution from the mine would extend beyond the town of Narsaq and into the ocean, carried by the same currents flooded with just-melted glacial water.
Paviasen used to be chairperson of Urani? Naamik. From 2013 to 2018, she tried to engage Greenland’s Parliament. She wanted information about the consequences of uranium mining and assurances that their rights as Indigenous people would be respected.
“They were not able to answer my questions,” she said. “That’s why I had to decide that I had to go into the Parliament to get those answers.”
Since she’s been in office, as a member of Inuit Ataqatigiit (an Indigenous-led party seeking Greenland’s independence), the Parliament has passed a ban on the mining of uranium above 100 ppm, effectively halting the Kvanefjeld project. According to Greenland Minerals, the ore reserves of the Kvanefjeld project have an average uranium content of 362 ppm.
Greenland Minerals is still trying. In July 2022, the company disputed the Greenland government’s draft decision to reject the mine on the basis of the new 100 ppm uranium limit. In December 2022, they amended their plan to extract only REEs, zinc, and fluorspar, treating uranium as an “impurity” that would be removed and stored. A spokesperson for the company said that they’ve consulted with the community every step of the way and that locals have a “range of views” on the Kvanefjeld project. He emphasized, as well, that the radiological assessment found that the project is expected to release “only small amounts of additional radioactivity” into the environment.
In each new push to get the mine built, Greenland Minerals forefronts the global urgency of climate change as a motivator for extracting REEs. Paviasen is determined to keep Narsaq at the center of the discussion.
“If we keep on doing this—giving our landscape to other countries’ mining companies—there will not be a place for us,” Paviasen said. “I think the way to get a cleaner world is not to destroy every corner of the world.”
Rare earth elements are not rare exactly. Rather, they exist in small quantities in the natural world, so it’s hard to find concentrations worth mining. When you do find usable deposits, in minerals such as bastnaesite and monazite, these minerals require heavy processing to get usable REEs.
Meanwhile, in the human world, they can be found everywhere. The glassy black display of every smartphone likely contains praseodymium and dysprosium. The magnets tucked in the microphone and speaker contain praseodymium and neodymium. The magnets in the motors of electric cars have praseodymium, neodymium, and dysprosium. So do the magnets in wind turbines. These three elements are all classified as rare earth elements, and all of them are key to the transition away from fossil fuels.
Every step, from extraction to processing, poses threats to the surrounding environment in the absence of tight, rigorously enforced environmental regulations. Balaram Vysetti, chief scientist at the National Geophysical Research Institute in Hyderabad, India, said in an email that the “cutting, drilling, blasting, transportation, stockpiling, and processing” of REEs can release dust containing REEs and other toxic metals into the air, impacting human and ecosystem health. If the deposit contains radioactive elements like uranium or thorium, Vysetti said that the radioactivity can contaminate air, water, soil, and groundwater.
On the other hand, there are the unquantifiable health impacts of runaway climate change—our solutions to which currently rely on available REEs.
At the end of the last century, the U.S. monopolized the REE market, producing 99% of heavy REEs as by-products of other mining. Regulation in 1980 expanded the definition of nuclear-weapon source material to include two elements that are often found alongside REEs: uranium and thorium. This added new rules around licensing, regulation, and disposal, making mining a lot trickier and more expensive. In response, the U.S. slowed production.
In its absence, China took over. China has the largest known reserves of REEs, and now—with few environmental regulations, exploitative labor practices, and investment in industrial technology—controls much of the supply chain. The West is wary of China’s grip on the production and price of REEs, worried that the fate of electrifying the grid lies in often unfriendly hands. The U.S. is working to regain a foothold in the market, with President Biden signing an executive order in 2021 to reestablish the U.S. supply chain, then allocating $35 million toward REE processing in the U.S. in 2022. Internationally, countries like India, Malaysia, and Australia are looking to expand their REE production. And then there’s Greenland.
If mining comes to town, Narsaq will balloon in size. The center of gravity will shift from the port to the open pit. New industries will circle the mine like planets: restaurants and cafés whose rush hours will match the daily swell and retreat of mine workers, housing to hold foreign workers for however long they stay. Other industries will shrink and drift further from sight: fishing without fishermen (they are at the mine now), tourism now that the melting glaciers cannot be called “untouched.”
In 2010, the population of Narsaq was 1,915. By 2020, it was 1,346—a nearly 30% decline in 10 years. The ones who can afford to leave are those with money or job offers in the capital, Nuuk. As the glaciated landscape and its communities undergo twin processes, slowly dissolving into other geographies, those left behind have to decide how to move forward.
It’s not just Narsaq—the whole continent is deciding what’s next. Since the early eighteenth century, Greenland has been under Denmark’s rule. To this day, Denmark gives Greenland an annual block grant of the equivalent of about $511 million USD, which is 20% of Greenland’s GDP. Greenland has been inching toward more autonomy: in 2009, Greenland gained a measure of self-rule, including control of its mineral resources.
Since then, some have argued that mining is the clearest path toward independence. This is definitely the belief shared by much of Greenland’s government: a 2020 report from the Ministry of Mineral Resources asserts a “wide political consensus” to develop mining, laying out a strategy for 2020 to 2024 to encourage and expedite the process.
Proponents of mining see it as a necessary form of adaptation to a changing climate and a way to take advantage of the recent changes to the landscape. In addition to melting ice exposing ground for mines, global warming is clearing previously unpassable shipping routes. As the waters around Greenland remain iceless for longer stretches of summer, more cargo ships can sidle up to the country and cart away loads of rare earth elements. Less ice also clears up access to untapped oil and gas reserves, but Greenland’s government is clear that they don’t want to exploit those resources; they are only interested in the ones that could help transition our energy systems.
Regardless of which resource is being exploited, Greenland does not currently have the infrastructure to handle new extraction industries. Much of the island remains without roads or electrical infrastructure. The regulatory architecture is missing too: from prospecting to digging up the Earth to refining, mining is a complex process that requires tight oversight. Greenland is still scaffolding the capacity to do so.
All that infrastructure—roads, views encumbered by wires, bustling industrial ports, air full of noise and dust—threatens the traditional way of life in Greenland, which has survived for so long because the island is so sparsely inhabited, so loosely linked to the rest of the world. Those who oppose mining worry that the pollution will impact their communities and ecosystems in ways we don’t even understand yet. What will all that noise do to marine mammals? What will ocean-side mines do to fishing? How will mining dust impact sheep farms? These concerns are especially potent when it comes to uranium mines, where the pollution has the added threat of radioactivity.
Paviasen said that she is not opposed to all mining, though. She explained that as long as local Indigenous communities are properly consulted and the mine doesn’t hurt the community and environment, she’s willing to accept it. Her biggest problem with the Kvanefjeld project is the presence of uranium.
A 2019 study on attitudes toward mining in South Greenland also found that radioactivity inspired the most fear. In the end, however, the study noted that some residents of Narsaq just wanted a decision made. Many have held off making important decisions about their own lives: whether to expand their tourism business, whether to expand their farm. Mine or no mine, the prospect of uranium as a neighbor has already profoundly changed Narsaq. Relationships have soured and lives have been postponed as everyone waits to see what will happen with the project.
In a landscape darkened by uncertainty, Paviasen is also wary of the suggestion that mining—if it’s helmed by foreign companies—will help Greenland on its road to independence.
“The way to be independent, as I see it, is to produce more food here in our country,” Paviasen said. “The mining company is not the way to get independence because then we’ll be dependent on them.”
All this begins with the glaciers themselves, those endangered giants. How can we connect with them from afar? If you ask glaciologist and author M Jackson, every glacier feels different. If you set her down on the glacier closest to her heart, Breiðamerkurjökull in Iceland, she could tell you where she was even if blindfolded. That glacier has a smell and a sound, and that sound shifts throughout the day: chiming bells in the morning and then slushing in the afternoon.
In the decades that M Jackson has spent studying glaciers, she’s watched her own body change. She’s watched her hair turn gray, traced new wrinkles. But the change is slow, set to the rhythm of our teeny human timescale. She has the chance to get used to it, is never unrecognizable to herself.
But every year, she returns to the same glaciers—Breiðamerkurjökull in Iceland, Mendenhall in Alaska, Heaney in South Georgia Island—to find them completely different. Of her last visit to the Heaney glacier, she said, “I didn’t have time to watch her hair turn gray.”
Part of M Jackson’s job is to communicate that loss to everyone who hasn’t spent their whole life leaving footprints at the bases of the world’s glaciers. She is armed with the latest metrics on the rates and the volumes of loss. But what she wants to do is sit down and show photos of her mother, dying of cancer, right before she passed. These glaciers, whom she has known her whole life, are family.
“You take the word glacier out of that sentence, people have the same relationship,” Jackson said. “They have that with their parks, their river, their Mount Rainier, their ocean. We’re told we’re not connected to ice because that’s easy. But people are connected to ice.”
In both the geologic sense and our narrow human one, it is rare to live alongside glaciers. But if there wasn’t value in preserving rare things, we would not be fighting to keep the climate of today.
All weather, everywhere in the world, is brought to us by glaciers. Melting ice means more water in the atmosphere. That makes hurricanes and typhoons more intense and more frequent, increasing storm surges and further eroding the coasts. Dumping a glacier’s worth of freshwater into the sea changes the circulation of the ocean currents that, though largely unseen, balance our planet’s climate. They do so by redistributing heat, making the temperatures of the world less extreme.
The Qalerallit Sermia glacier, accessible from Narsaq, is retreating. That is the word we use: retreat, the language of war, as if it is us against them and we are winning. But we are losing. We are losing the Greenland Ice Sheet, which was the single largest contributor to sea-level rise this century. People come from all over to see what we are losing before it is lost. They land by helicopter among the calving ice (this is the language we use: calving, the language of birth, though these chunks of floating ice are a graveyard) so that they can drink a glass of almost-freezing water with a cube of glacier they chipped themselves.
There is room for a lot of warranted panic here. But M Jackson doesn’t live that way. The story of the glaciers isn’t over. There are three things a glacier needs to grow, she said: cold temperatures, snow, and time. If we cut our emissions and our climate cools down, the glaciers can grow forward again—not in our lifetimes but perhaps in future ones. Geologic time is long, and glaciers will outlive us all.
“We have planetary times with ice and times with no ice,” M Jackson said. “I just happen to have a preference for living in a time with ice. That’s the climate I prefer. That’s the climate I think is healthier for humanity.”
What is happening in Narsaq exposes a real tension in our stretching for a new world. In order to stop the melting of the glaciers, to save Narsaq and our entire world from destruction, we must stop burning fossil fuels. To do so, we need to electrify everything. To do that, we need more batteries and more magnets. To get those batteries and magnets, we need rare earth elements. To get those rare earth elements, we need to mine. But where? Everywhere there are elements there are ecosystems, both human and otherwise, that will be disrupted. The Indigenous people of Narsaq do not accept that their town will be a sacrifice zone.
The people of the Arctic are flexible people. They have always lived with hazards and with the shifting of the seasons. They have had to navigate through fjords, face icebergs, fish in freezing waters. So much of that knowledge is now shifting. The depth of the water is different: the glaciers have dumped sediment in, the fish have moved to clearer waters, the rock used as a landmark by generations is submerged now. Life in Greenland is changed and changing.
Indigenous Greenlanders know that better than anyone. But they want to decide what their country changes into. Maybe it does include mining, or maybe not. It could be last-chance tourism, or farming, or some new, unseen future. The important thing is that Greenlanders decide—and that they control whatever project is on their land.
Their land is rare. In both the geologic sense and our narrow human one, it is rare to live alongside glaciers. But if there wasn’t value in preserving rare things, we would not be fighting to keep the climate of today. The towns spread along the edges of the world’s largest island, however small, want what the rest of us want: to survive.
“I like staying here, living here in Narsaq,” Paviasen said, smiling as she talked about her home. “There will always be people like me who will love living in Narsaq.”