Given recent and unprecedented melting of Greenland's icy surface, leaders from Greenland and across Europe are now proposing to open up the country's pristine wilderness to an onslaught of international mining companies. Below Greenland's disappearing ice sheet lie vast amounts of "rare earths" -- a small group of 17 elements, which are currently in great demand.
Rare earths are used in the production of computers, batteries, phones, high-tech equipment, medical technology, electric cars, wind turbines, and countless other technologies.
Officials from the EU and around the world are chomping at the bit to explore and exploit Greenlands' rich layer of resources. Antonio Tajani, the European commission's vice-president is now leading the charge and is attempting to form a mining and drilling agreement between Greenland and EU countries. The agreement includes exploration for rare earths, metals such as gold and iron, and further oil and gas exploration.
Officials in Greenland have been receptive to the proposals, boasting the economic benefits of resource extraction; however, while Henrik Stendal, head of the geology department at Greenland's Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum, has expressed an eagerness to begin explorations, he also has admitted that officials have little experience of regulating extraction, according to Fiona Harvey at the Guardian.
Environmental concerns around rare earths mining include, but are not limited to:
- Improper disposal of waste water from the mines
- The use of toxic chemicals in mining processes
- Transport of the products to and from the mine sites
- Some rare earths are likely to be found in deposits that also contain uranium, leading to the dispersal of uranium dust
Mikkel Myrup, of a local environmental organization Avataq, believes that the Greenland government is not capable of regulating mining practices: "We do not have the institutions ready, or the competencies, and we are facing a huge invasion from many big multinational companies."
Mining and drilling in and around Greenland was previously impossible due the 150m thick sheet of ice that has covered most of the country; however, to the astonishment of researchers, Greenland has experienced a period of unprecedented melting this summer. An estimated 97 percent of the ice sheet surface thawed at some point in mid-July, and a massive iceberg, twice the size of Manhattan, broke off of Greenland's main glacier.