1 March 2019

Melting ice sheet transports sand worth billions


New research shows that the continuing increase in melt from the Greenland Ice Sheet leads to enormous sand deposits along the Greenland coast. And the deposits create a great income opportunity for the country struggling with a fragile economy.

Global sand reserves will soon be exhausted and urbanisation and massive infrastructure improvements around the globe are increasing the demand for sand. Global sand prices are therefore expected torise. In Greenland, on the other hand, there is more and more sand as climate change causes the ice sheet to melt faster.    

Our research has previously shown that the rapidly melting ice sheet delivers huge amounts of sediment to the coasts of Greenland. In fact, about 8% of the total sediment being washed into the global oceans comes from Greenland. And with continued global warming, we have to expect this figure to increase,” says PhD from the University of Copenhagen Mette Bendixen, who is currently affiliated with the University of Colorado in the United States as a postdoc.

She and a number of other Arctic researchers who have worked with sand deposits in Greenland now point to the possibility of establishing a sand industry in Greenland. They discuss the opportunity in an article in the journal Nature Sustainability, which has just been published.

Almost 8% of world’s total amount of sediment in the oceans originates from Greenland.
Photo: Nicolaj Krog Larsen.

Greenlandic sand is worth billions on the world market

The amount of sand along the coasts of Greenland has an annual market value of approximately DKK 14.5 billion. This is equivalent to more than half of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). If global sand prices rise as expected, this value will double over the next 25 years.

We see an unprecedented economic opportunity caused by climate change. Global warming traditionally brings a myriad of challenges for the people of the Arctic, but here, for once, we see an opportunity to take advantage of and benefit from the changes,” says Associate Professor Aart Kroon from the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, who co-authored the article.  

A sand industry would require close collaboration with the Greenlandic people

However, sand extraction in Greenland is controversial, as it will affect a pristine arctic landscape in many ways. If you are going to extract sand, it will require a detailed understanding of the environmental consequences it will have for the Greenlandic landscape and the establishment of a sand industry must be done in close collaboration with the Greenlandic people. The vast majority of sand ends up in a few enormous deltas in the southwestern part of Greenland and national implementation plans are essential if the extraction is to benefit the whole country.

If Greenland is to benefit from sand exports, we must raise awareness about this resource both locally and globally. The Greenlandic people must be part of it. Greenland has rigorous resource legislation and authorities and industry must collaborate to minimise the potential negative impacts of extraction on the environment,” says Minik Rosing, professor from the University of Copenhagen.

The research project is financed by the Carlsberg Foundation.