Wired: Greenland's Complicated Treasure

Wired headline: Greenland’s Melting Glaciers Spew a Complicated Treasure: Sand

Sub-headline: Meltwater from the island’s ice sheet is loaded with the right kind of sand for concrete production—which further warms the planet.


SAND IS BOTH abundant and rare. Earth has vast deserts of the stuff, of course, but not the kind that’s in such high demand that sand mafias are killing for it. That special variety is a critical component of the concrete used in buildings and infrastructure, the production of which has skyrocketed exponentially over the last few decades. That has come at a significant climate cost: The industry now accounts for 8 percent of global carbon emissions.

Sand is also at the center of a strange climate story. Climate change is destroying Greenland’s ice sheet, producing an extraordinary amount of meltwater. (Even if we somehow totally stopped emissions today, Greenland’s melting could still contribute nearly a foot of sea-level rise.) And in a twist of fate, that meltwater is loaded with the right kind of sand for concrete production, which causes more warming and more melting. Great plumes of glacial sediment are swirling along the coast, actually adding land along the edges of the island. Even though Greenland is only three times the size of Texas, its ice sheet is the source of 8 percent of suspended river sediments flowing into the oceans.

The country now has to figure out whether exploiting that valuable, abundant resource on a wider scale would be environmentally, socially, and economically tenable. “It is quite controversial—we’re saying Greenland can benefit from climate change,” says Mette Bendixen, a geographer at McGill University in Canada, who’s studying the idea. “Contrary to most of the other parts of the Arctic coast, Greenland is not eroding. It’s in fact growing bigger, because the ice sheet is melting. So you can think of the ice sheet as a tap that pours out not only water, but also all the sediment.”



Yes, a world with more sand harvesting for making more concrete would also mean more carbon emissions, more warming, and more melting of Greenland’s ice sheet. But, Bendixen says, all that glacial sand need not go exclusively toward concrete. Coastal communities are increasingly clamoring for sand to hold back rising seas, a fortification known as beach nourishment. “Just think of the irony in using the sand for beach nourishment to mitigate sea-level rise,” says Bendixen, “which is caused by—to a large extent—the melting of the Greenland ice sheet!”

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