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04 September 2019

Arctic Thoughts

This article was written by Bill Prast. All views and opinions expressed are strictly his own. 

The recent media interest in Greenland caught my attention for several reasons, not least of all because I once worked there, a quarter of a century ago, on an assignment from the Danish government to assist in promoting foreign direct investment in the extractive industries.

In addition to compiling a reference book that provided practical background information on the laws, the communities, the weather and other key topics that matter to prospective investors, our team produced a pair of useful short films, one highlighting the oil and gas prospectivity, and the other describing the minerals endowment.  Spending time there left me keenly aware of how remote it is, and I would gladly return.

In the intervening twenty-five years, the Greenlandic people have achieved a greater degree of autonomy from Copenhagen, but in many ways not much has changed.  Most of the current media coverage prates about undiscovered mineral riches, and features colourful holiday snapshots of icebergs.  Some pundits see a political risk in any Chinese investment in the region as something to be prevented, although the Chinese seem to have their hands full with strategic investments elsewhere and are not in evidence in Greenland.

Very little is said about the underlying difficulties of conducting economic mining and metallurgical activities there.  Or more to the point, the impossibility of conducting them.

A few basic facts may be helpful.  There is a resident population of less than 60,000 people with about one-third resident in the capital, Nuuk, and the others scattered in eighteen other locations, mostly on the west coast.  There are no roads.  Internal communication between the towns is by air or by sea, and the Danes provide excellent Nordic-level social services.

But there is really no infrastructure.  Any energy-intensive or industrial activities would require green-field development.  Perhaps another term than “green field” would more suitably describe the landscape.

A geologist colleague once described Greenland as “a circular Chile” and in recent years there has been an increased exposure of this extensive coast line as the ice cap melts a bit.  But exposure of more rocks to occupy earth scientists does not ensure profitability in the high Arctic.

Consider the situation in neighbouring Canada.  There is very little mining taking place in Nunavut.  The Canadian mining company Agnico Eagle currently has a couple of gold mines in the low Arctic, and the Nanisivik mine on Baffin Island produced lead and zinc from 1976 to 2002, but the high costs of operating in the far north have proven to be prohibitive.

Elsewhere at similarly high latitudes, there is some coal mining in Svalbard which is of historical importance.  The administration by Norway stems from a post-World War One international agreement and investments from other countries are possible but aside from a small Russian presence, this archipelago has remained comparatively untouched in recent decades.  Like Greenland, I found being in Svalbard to be memorable for similar reasons.  Perhaps Svalbard is best known today for hosting the world seed bank under carefully controlled conditions.  But, there is little economically viable mining or mineral processing in the unpopulated parts of the Canadian or European Arctic.

Currently there are about half a dozen exploitation licences held in Greenland, covering lead and zinc in a couple of locations, some gold in the south, and some interest in anorthosite.  Historically, there was mining for more than a century of cryolite, a very uncommon aluminium ore, but that ceased in 1987.

Interestingly, there is not much exploration interest yet in the potential to be a source of minor metals for battery technologies or for renewable energy applications, and there are no exploitation licences for these purposes at present.

The recent flurry of media interest is but the latest chapter in a fascinating history.  The first Europeans came from the east.  They were Icelandic Vikings led by Erik the Red, around 980.  These Norse settlers maintained regular trade with Iceland and Norway until the early 1400’s when contacts were broken.  It was not until 1721 when the Norwegian Lutheran missionary Hans Egede sailed in search of the long-lost Christian settlements that a European presence was resumed.

The very first inhabitants, however, were Inuit who came from the west some 2,500 years ago, crossing the Nares Strait from what is now known as Ellesmere Island, at the north end of the Kane Basin, itself at the north end of Baffin Bay.  The Nares Strait is barely 20 km wide at that point and freezes over.  It can be crossed on foot.

In the centre of the Nares Strait is Hans Island, a barren and uninhabited isle of less than 1.5 km in area.  It straddles the maritime border of Canada and Greenland, and both parties have made conflicting claims as to its outright ownership.  The issue remains unresolved but thankfully it is an amicable dispute between friendly countries.

If and when any serious effort to broaden the Greenlandic economy with a nascent mining and metallurgical industry does take place, I would expect it to be led by experienced Canadians or Scandinavians who understand the constraints of high Arctic conditions.  That would be logical.  But not yet commercial.

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