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18 November 2013

Greenland’s untapped mineral bounty 

Melting of polar ice is unlocking a potential treasure in the frozen north of Greenland: “rare earth” elements that are critical to the manufacture of cellphones, lasers and hundreds more everyday products.

Until recently, China held a near-monopoly on rare earth metals, which are often found near large deposits of uranium. As Greenland’s ice sheet recedes, the feasibility of mining substantial quantities of uranium and rare earths increases, a source of both opportunity and danger.

A new supply of rare earth metals will bring prices down and make related goods more profitable, or cheaper. But uranium and rare earths are so closely intermingled that they typically must be mined together. Without extreme care, extracting radioactive uranium could trigger environmental disaster.

Greenland has governed itself since 2009 but remains a protectorate of Denmark, which provides for its defense, subsidizes its government and exerts substantial influence on the economy.

The potential rewards of extracting both types of mineral prompted Greenland’s parliament to repeal legislation banning uranium mining in October, lifting one of the barriers to development of its natural resources.

Severe cold and limited economic opportunities make life difficult for Greenland's population of just over 56,000. Despite widespread unease over the hazards of uranium mining, rare earths could be the salvation for struggling communities.

Mining on the Kuannersuit plateau near Greenland's southern tip could produce up to 40,000 tons a year, bringing jobs and investment to the nearby town of Narsaq, which has lost nearly 10 percent of its 7,000 inhabitants over the past five years. Greenland could produce up to a quarter of the world’s rare earths supplies – if a “green” method can be devised.