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Observations of an Expat: Consequences of Greenland

Observations of an Expat: Consequences of Greenland
Photo Courtesy: Georgetown Journal Of International Affairs
Observations of an Expat- Consequences of Greenland
Photo Courtesy: Georgetown Journal Of International Affairs

Greenland is one of the richest untapped sources of minerals, oil, natural gas, precious and industrial metals anywhere on Earth. The ice cap here is melting faster than in any other part of the Arctic and Antarctic regions and now the ships, the miners and the soldiers are coming to the Arctic.

By Tom Arms

Greenland is not usually a world election hotspot. This is because most of the time the biggest issue for the 57,000 inhabitants is filling the pothole on Nuuk’s high street or the siting of a new streetlight to illuminate the long cold winter nights.

Not this time. The issue at stake—mining—will have consequences well beyond the shores of the misnamed Danish possession involving the environment, world shipping, defence, economic development and tectonic shifts in global power.

The election was won by the Inuit Ataqatigiit or Community of the People Party on the platform of stopping development of the uranium and rare earths mine at Kvanefjeld. The increasingly sought after rare earth minerals are essential for the running of computers and various medical treatments. Eighty percent of the world’s rare earths are found in China who are keen to keep their virtual monopoly. Greenland has the world’s second largest deposit, which is why a Chinese company is behind the Kvanefjeld mine.

Greenland actually has more than a few rare earths. It is in fact one of the richest untapped sources of minerals, oil, natural gas, precious and industrial metals anywhere on Earth. Fortunately for environmentalists, the Greenland ice cap has kept out development. But that ice cap is melting faster than in any other part of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. In fact, Greenland is expected to be ice free (and properly named) sometime between 2037 and 2067.

The Danish government had been preparing for Greenland mining operations which would completely transform their Arctic possession. They had not counted on the country’s strong environmental lobby. Eighty-eight percent of Greenland’s population is indigenous Inuits who are quite happy with their lives of hunting and fishing and keeping the modern world at bay.

But it is doubtful that Greenlanders will be able to enjoy their splendid isolation for much longer. The country is strategically located on transit routes through the Arctic Ocean and straddles Canada’s fabled Northwest Passage and Russia’s Arctic Sea. These are the shortest and thus most cost effective links between Europe and Asia. They can also take large deep ships which are unable to squeeze through the Suez and Panama Canals (or become stuck).

Until recently the Arctic ice cap kept out all but the most intrepid heavy duty ice breakers. Now the Arctic is open between July and September and climatologists reckon that it will be available to year-round shipping in the not too distant future.

The warming of the Arctic will also have economic benefits (if that is the correct word) for land-based operations. Permafrost has prevented development of oil exploration and mining in the environmentally fragile environments of Russia, Canada, Norway and Alaska as well Greenland. Russia is expected to be the biggest beneficiary as it controls 53% of the Arctic coastline. It is estimated that the region contains 412 billion barrels of extractable oil and natural gas. Gazprom has already started operations.

Perhaps more important will be the impact of climate change on Russia’s access to the sea. Throughout history its economic and political development has been hamstrung by lack of access to warm water ports. Well, now it has nearly 6,000 miles of soon-to-be ice-free territory on which to build as many ports as it wants and has allocated $2.8 billion between now and 2025 for infrastructure development.

Moscow is also beefing up its military presence to protect and expand its new-found opportunity. It now has four new Arctic brigades, four airfields, six deep water ports, 40 icebreakers and regularly stages Arctic war games.

The Russians claim that the build-up is purely defensive. But Western governments are dubious, especially after the deployment of 30 nuclear-tipped Poseidon missiles capable of avoiding detection by crawling along the seabed to targets 6,200 miles away.

Greenland also has a military base, the American owned and operated Thule Air Base only 974 miles from the North Pole. It provides warning of missiles coming over the Arctic and key operations for the new and expanding Space Force. This, plus Greenland’s economic potential, explains Donald Trump’s cack-handed attempt to buy Greenland from the Danes. He was, by the way, quickly followed by bids from China and Australia.

An ice-free maritime Arctic also raises interesting legal questions. Under the 1982 International Law of the Sea, states bordering a sea coastline can claim an exclusive economic zone over all water 200 miles from an owned land mass. Not from the mainland but from the tiniest island to which it can claim ownership. As the ice retreats new islands will appear and so expect a flurry of flag plantings.

The Law of the Sea also allows for international transit within the 200 mile zones. But political reality means that ownership of contingent land provides de facto control of vital shipping lanes. Canada, for instance, is currently arguing with allies in the US and Europe over the nature of international transit rights through the Northwest Passage.

The ships, the miners, the soldiers, the oil wells… they are all coming to the Arctic. It is unlikely that the plucky Greenlanders can stop them. But good luck.

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About the Author

Tom Arms Journalist Sindh CourierTom Arms is the London-based American foreign affairs journalist. He has nearly half a century’s experience of world affairs, and has written and broadcast for American, British and Commonwealth outlets. Positions he held included foreign correspondent, diplomatic correspondent, foreign editor, editor and founding CEO of an international diary news service. He is the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War,” “The Falklands Crisis” and “World Elections on File.” His new book “America: Made in Britain” is expected this year.
{The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Sindh Courier}