Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Warmer Greenland Faces an Economic Transition ; Mining Rush Could Bring Wealth, but Some Fear Loss of Traditional Ways

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Warmer Greenland Faces an Economic Transition ; Mining Rush Could Bring Wealth, but Some Fear Loss of Traditional Ways

Article excerpt

But the rapid transition from a society of individual fishermen and hunters to an economy supported by corporate mining raises difficult questions.

As icebergs in the Kayak Harbor pop and hiss while melting away, this remote Arctic town and its culture are also disappearing in a changing climate.

Narsaq's largest employer, a shrimp processing plant, closed a few years ago after the crustaceans fled north to cooler water. Where once there were eight commercial fishing vessels, there is now one.

As a result, the population in Narsaq, one of southern Greenland's major towns, has been halved to 1,500 in just a decade. Suicides are up.

"Fishing is the heart of this town," said Hans Kaspersen, 63, a fisherman. "Lots of people have lost their livelihoods."

But even as rising temperatures are upending traditional Greenlandic life, they are also offering up intriguing new opportunities for this state of 57,000 -- perhaps nowhere more so than in Narsaq.

Vast new deposits of minerals and gems are being discovered as Greenland's huge ice cap recedes, forming the basis of a potentially lucrative mining industry.

One of the world's largest deposits of rare earth metals -- essential for manufacturing cellphones, wind turbines and electric cars -- sits just outside Narsaq.

This could be momentous for Greenland, which has long relied on half a billion dollars a year in welfare payments from Denmark, its parent country. Mining profits could help Greenland become economically self-sufficient, and might someday even render it the first sovereign nation created by global warming.

"One of our goals is to obtain independence," said Vittus Qujaukitsoq, a labor union leader.

But the rapid transition from a society of individual fishermen and hunters to an economy supported by corporate mining raises difficult questions. How would Greenland's insular settlements tolerate an influx of thousands of Polish or Chinese construction workers, as has been proposed? Will mining despoil a natural environment essential to Greenland's national identity -- the whales and seals, the silent icy fjords and the polar bears? Can fishermen reinvent themselves as miners?

"I think mining will be the future, but this is a difficult phase," said Jens B. Frederiksen, Greenland's housing and infrastructure minister and a vice prime minister. "It's a plan that not everyone wants. It's about traditions, the freedom of a boat, family professions."

The Arctic is warming even faster than other parts of the planet, and the rapidly melting ice is causing alarm among scientists about a rising sea level. In northeastern Greenland, the average yearly temperature has risen 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 Fahrenheit) in the past 15 years, and scientists predict the area could warm by about 8 to 12 degrees Celsius (14 to 21 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

Already, winter pack ice that covers the fjords is no longer stable enough for dog sledding and snowmobile traffic in many areas. Winter fishing, essential to feeding families, is becoming hazardous or impossible.

It has long been known that Greenland sat upon vast mineral lodes, and the Danish government has mapped them intermittently for decades. Niels Bohr, the Danish Nobel Prize-laureate nuclear physicist and a participant in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb, visited Narsaq in 1957 because of its uranium deposits.

But previous attempts at mining mostly failed, proving too expensive in the inclement conditions. Now, warming has altered the equation.

The Greenland Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum, charged with managing the boom, has 150 active licenses for mineral exploration, up from 20 a decade ago. Altogether, companies spent $100 million exploring Greenland's deposits last year, and several are applying for licenses to begin construction on new mines, bearing gold, iron, zinc and rare earths. There are also foreign companies exploring for offshore oil. …

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