Greenland's Melting Glaciers Are Problematically Worth Billions of Dollars

It's time to decide whether it's okay to profit off of climate change.

Greenland’s glaciers are melting at the fastest rate in 350 years — disappearing so quickly that an ancient meteorite impact site has recently been revealed under half a mile of ice. Thanks to climate change, glacier melt is now the status quo. Taking inspiration from the old adage “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” some scientists are suggesting that Greenland make the best of this scary situation: Find a way to turn catastrophe into cash.

In an article published Monday in Nature Sustainability, researchers point out that all of the sand and sediment being liberated from the melting glaciers is worth a lot of money. The world is currently, ludicrously, facing a sand shortage: The seemingly abundant natural resource is used to make concrete, computers, and glass, and as NPR reported in 2017, humans are building these things so quickly that a global black market for sand has developed.

According to the authors of the new study, the amount of sand that’s leaking out of Greenland’s melting glaciers each year has a market value that’s worth over half of the nation’s GDP of roughly $2.22 billion. And it’s only going to get more valuable — and more abundant — as the demand for sand continues to increase.

Kurt Kjær
Sand samples at the front of Greenland's Hiawatha Glacier.

“Eight percent of the annual sediment contribution delivered to the global oceans comes from the Greenland Ice Sheet and with continued global warming, this number is expected to increase,” said Mette Bendixen, Ph.D., lead author and researcher at CU Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. With her co-authors from the University of Copenhagen, Arizona State University, and the Rhode Island School of Design, she identifies the pros and cons of seeing climate change as a moneymaking opportunity.

Sand Mining Isn’t Great for Greenland’s Environment

Making money off of the effects of climate change has its problems. Chief among them in Greenland is the concern that extracting and shipping all this sand could worsen environmental conditions. Depending on where glacial sand is extracted, they write, doing so could require setting up huge conveyor belts stretching from land to floating carriers, or the construction of a pipeline to pump sand into large barges.

Furthermore, dredging might worsen the current biological consequences of climate change. As glaciers melt and disperse their sediments into the sea, it becomes harder for light to penetrate the depths where organisms live, and the increased levels of micronutrients lead to the excessive growth of phytoplankton. Digging up sand at the sea floor, the team writes, could “amplify the ongoing changes in ecosystem dynamics.”

But Greenland’s Economy Is Already Being Hurt by Climate Change

Calculating how much money Greenland will need to make in order to maintain its present-day welfare level into the 2030s, the team finds that the nation is going to fall short $160 million each year. Greenland’s GDP is mostly dependent on commercial fishing, tourism, and hunting, but that’s not going to be enough to support its aging population. One solution is to turn to its increasingly abundant natural resources: San Diego’s rising population, together with the American beaches destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, are just two potential markets the team identifies for Greenland sand.

The team agrees that Greenland could “create prosperity” with a sand mining industry, though it’d have to be done with “legislation safeguarding the natural environment and society from negative impacts.”

“The Greenlandic people must be part of this,” said Minik Rosing, Ph.D., a co-author and professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum of Denmark. “Greenland has rigorous resource legislation and authorities and industry must collaborate to minimize potential negative impacts of extraction on the environment.”

Greenland’s current dilemma is just one example of an increasingly pertinent moral issue: Is it okay to make money off of climate change? No matter where society stands, it’s going to happen: As Bloomberg reports, worsening climate change holds a lot of moneymaking potential: in fact, investors are already putting money into building sea walls, indoor agriculture, and emergency housing. Wagering on sand from melting glaciers sounds like a sure bet, but if we end up reaping the benefits, we’ll have to ensure we haven’t forgotten the cost.