As Glaciers Melt, Greenland Eyes Mining and a Thawing Nuclear Base

The country's independence bid requires money from mines and fossil fuels, as climate change leads to hazards and opportunities for revenue.

When Americans think of Greenland, they might think of melting glaciers, polar bears or native hunters stalking their next meal on the ice. But Greenland is also feeling its political oats and looking to gain independence from Denmark, its former colonial master, under which it functions as an autonomous country. Becoming independent will require a more vibrant economy, according to Greenland Foreign Minister Vittus Qujaukitsoq.

Even as climate scientists document the rapid melting of the island's massive ice sheets as the result of climate change, Greenland's leadership wants to encourage U.S. and Chinese companies to pursue mining and fossil fuel development as a way to help the country of 56,000 residents stand on its own.

Qujaukitsoq told Seeker in an interview in Washington that he sees Greenland's rapidly changing environment as a benefit to its people.

"You should look at how the economy is working," he said. "Our main income is fisheries. We are working on diversity of our revenue to mining and tourism to spread the risk if commodity seafood prices go down. It is in recognition of diversifying the risks that we are developing tourism and making an effort to create the mining projects."

Qujaukitsoq said that an Australian firm with Chinese investors has two new projects underway in southern Greenland to extract rare earth minerals for use in consumer electronics such as cellphones and laptops. There's another small ruby mine operating as well. More Chinese firms will establish a beachhead in Greenland unless U.S. mining companies get involved, he said.

"If American investors would have been more active, I'm sure they would have had a greater role," Qujaukitsoq remarked. "The U.S. needs to assess if they are to prevent a greater Chinese involvement in Greenland, they need to look seriously at protecting their interests. The more the United States has a laid back position in these projects, other countries will emerge more and more."

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Greenland has been a vital base of U.S. military operations since World War II, when several installations were built to defend North America from Nazi Germany. One such base, called Camp Century, became part of an initiative called "Project Iceworm" after the war to store nuclear missiles under Greenland's ice sheet. In recent years, as the Earth's temperature has warmed and the ice sheet melts, the long-buried camp is starting to reemerge. That poses a potential risk to local residents and the marine environment, Qujaukitsoq said.

A recent scientific study of the 136-acre site revealed that it may contain diesel fuel, sewage, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are potentially hazardous to humans, as well as radioactive coolant from the base's former nuclear reactor.

"With the rate of the (ice) meltdown, the installation will resurface in the next decades to come," Qujaukitsoq said. "It is not so much how deep, but what the installation contains that is the cause of concern for us. We know for a fact there is radioactive material left and we are not sure whether the nuclear reactor was removed."

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials have said the reactor was removed.

In recent months, leaders of Greenland are tussling with Denmark over what sort of arrangement for cleanup or liability it made with the U.S. military after Camp Century was shut down in the late 1960s.

"They are very reluctant to give clear indication or answers, which is why we have been concerned," Qujaukitsoq said about his Danish counterparts.

The U.S. has an existing Air Force base at Thule in northwestern Greenland that employs more than 800 people. A Greenland-owned company lost the maintenance contract for Thule, which accounts for 10 percent of the nation's annual operating budget.

Qujaukitsoq said he hopes to get another chance to regain the contract.

"We are in danger of losing tax revenue, jobs and training facilities," he said.

The island has become a hotbed of climate research because of the simple fact that if Greenland's ice sheet melts, global sea levels would rise by 20 feet.

The Greenland government may also consider charging fees or imposing permit requirements for the hundreds of U.S. scientists who conduct research in Greenland and its surrounding coastline. Until now, those activities have been free.

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"That is something that is very wrong because we live in a time when we have a government in Greenland having the competence to make its own decisions within the environment and scientific fields," he said. "We want an active role, not least getting revenue for admission."

Some experts say that Greenland's push for political independence during a time of worldwide concern over its quickly changing environment is well-timed.

"Greenland often emphasizes that climate change is a big threat to traditional culture, especially of hunting along the coast," said Marc Jacobsen, a senior fellow at The Arctic Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Greenland's leaders emphasize the negative aspects of global warming as a way to position Greenland as a victim of climate change, he said. On the other hand, for Greenland to become independent, it needs to attract mining and possibly oil drilling along its coastline in the future.

"Right now," Jacobsen said. "They can play both horses."

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