I once flew over Greenland on my way to Iceland. It was an overnight flight, but the pilot was fond of pointing out geographic features as we passed over. “Look below, everyone. It’s the Canadian boreal forest. Look at those trees,” he said, like an enthusiastic Scandinavian game show host. “Wakey, wakey — we’ve just entered the Arctic Circle,” he’d call out. And near the end of the trip, “Hey everyone, we’re flying over Greenland. And guess what? It’s really made of ice.”
I glanced below, and he was right: even in the Arctic darkness, the land was covered in a ghostly sheet of thick, impenetrable snow. Flying over, the surface looked like the moon — serene and vast, with a strange and alien beauty.
I hadn’t thought about Greenland since that trip, and chances are, it doesn’t rank high on your list of concerns, either — up there with groceries, errands, the gym and whether you want to watch “The Voice” or Tivo it for later. But in a few years, that’ll all change. Those gadgets in your hand… they may have a bit of the isolated Arctic country in them, bringing it closer to your everyday life.
First, some facts about Greenland: it’s the world’s largest island — and three-quarters covered in a sheet of ice. It also has near-mythic origins: after Iceland exiled legendary Viking Erik the Red for murder, he set sail for a land he’d heard about to the northwest.
When he got to the barren glacier, he named it “Greenland,” in hopes of attracting settlers. But despite his primitive efforts at tourist marketing, the country is still the least densely populated nation in the world. Not everyone, it seems, wants to live on a sheet of ice.
But that ice sheet, for better or worse, is melting, revealing a tantalizing store of wealth: a slew of so-called “rare-earth” minerals. After high school, you probably forgot about the Periodic Table of Elements, but rare-earth minerals are an important part of your favorite gadgets. That gorgeous color display on your smartphone? Yttrium, europium and dysprosium produce those vivid colors and hues. Those circuits in your electronics? That’s gadolinium and dysprosium.
But really, neodymium is the main mineral driving the tech industry. It’s the vital ingredient necessary to build permanent magnets, the components that make your phone vibrate. They also go into wind turbines, making them gearless for less maintenance so they can be put offshore. Hybrid cars even rely on them for electric motors and generators, said Jamie Tuer, president of Hudson Resources, an exploration company focused on rare-earth elements in Greenland, in a video. In short, permanent magnets, a recent invention from the mid-80s, are a small, but critical part for not just electronics, but every industry that relies on electronics.
Despite the name, rare-earth minerals aren’t actually rare — they’re scattered around the world. What makes them highly-desired is the extreme difficulty it takes to extract them.
In Greenland, for example, they’re mixed in layers of uranium, which can’t be mined due to laws in the country, but its newly-elected Prime Minister, 47-year-old Aleqa Hammond, and her party won 43 percent of the vote, in part due to her willingness to lift the ban and levy larger royalties on foreign mining firms.
For a country whose chief exports are fishing and shrimping, it’s a lucrative opportunity into a fast-moving global economy set to the pace of innovation. But the benefits and consequences will send ripples beyond the Arctic — and into your local Apple Store.
If Greenland ramps up rare-earth mining, it’ll take on China, an economic giant that controls a whopping 97 percent of these precious elements. While China’s labor is cheap, its rare-earth metals are not, and in its bid to cement itself as a political and technological superpower, it restricts the export of those precious extracts, saving the resources to fuel its own tech sector to continue its breakneck economic growth.
Much like OPEC in decades past, China often uses raw materials as geopolitical leverage, according to the New York Times. For a world transitioning to smaller electrics and greener technologies, the steady flow of rare-earth minerals are not just critical for companies that make electronics, but also to contractors that develop weapons defense systems for national security.
Opening Greenland to mining would loosen China’s stronghold ever so slightly. While the polar island’s reserves pale in comparison to those Asia, it would give manufacturers and global leaders an extra source. China will still supply the bulk of the minerals, but Greenland puts a dent, if tiny, in the scarcity of those elements.
As goods beyond electronics — like refrigerators, cars and appliances — become wired with screens and circuitry, the market for rare-earth minerals only promises to get bigger, and Greenland will have a lucrative opportunity to reinvent its small fishing towns for the 21st century.
Climate change and melting ice caps is a problem, but not for Greenlanders. To them, it’s an opportunity to bolster a struggling depression — both economically and emotionally. The minerals underneath the thawed land are a lifeline to communities plagued by high unemployment and depression.
On a sheet of ice, not surprisingly, there’s little work to be found, and that toll is reflected in its staggering unemployment rate, upwards of 55 percent in a few communities, and increasing suicide rate — one of the highest in the world.
“Every young person in Greenland knows someone who has committed suicide,” Bodil Karlshoj Poulsen, director the country’s public-health center, Slate. “It’s a new phenomenon.”
“It went from two suicides in 1979, to about 48 a year now,” Nick Lazaredes, a video journalist, said in his report on the divisions opening up on the island. “For a population of 55,000, that’s really quite incredible.” The root traces back to Greenland’s first soft-rule government — when it became autonomous, he added. And from then on, the suicide rate jumped dramatically.
Greenlanders once thought oil would be their salvation — but that industry has yet to materialize. Rare-earth mining, now, represents a realistic chance to bring income and jobs to its sleepy towns. But the move isn’t without peril. Mining for these persnickety elements, when unchecked, can wreak terrible damage to the environment. China’s own success had come at great cost.
Take Baotou, a town in Inner Mongolia, for example. When refineries needed to dump radioactive waste, they infected the artificial lake, the town’s main geographic feature. According to the New York Times, when the lake was built decades ago, companies failed to properly line it. As a result, toxic waste seeped into the surrounding areas, contaminating the ecosystem and poisoning locals. The air now reeks of a sharp, acrid odor, and farmers say plants can’t grow and animals are sick.
Villagers even report of hair turning white and teeth falling out. In fact, scientists expect skyrocketing levels of lung and pancreatic cancer due to prolonged exposure to the by-products of rare-earth mining.
If Greenland goes ahead, it’ll need to do so with caution, perhaps taking a page from companies like Calif.-based Molycorp, which developed a more environmentally-sensitive method. Still, if you fly over Greenland one day, look down at the frozen tundra. Amid those white rolling sheets of snow and ice, you just might see a mining crater. And if you reach for your iPhone to take a photo, just remember its connection to the pock-marked landscape below. ♦