Even long-term problems can yield short-term gains.
Our world doesn’t seem short on sand. It covers our beaches, lines our rivers, and makes up a good portion of soils. Silica, the primary component of sand, is the second most abundant element on Earth.
But global demand for sand is high, and supplies—in the form of pits and offshore dredging sites—are limited, leading to conflicts and even violence in some areas. “People are being killed over sand in India,” says Mette Bendixen, a physical geographer at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research of the University of Colorado, Boulder. “This is really something that gives me the goosebumps—it’s a huge, huge conflict mineral in some areas, and the world doesn’t really know.” In India, for example, so-called “sand mafias” have killed people who posed a threat to their illegal mining.
Bendixen’s found a perhaps surprising source of sand—growing deposits off the coast of Greenland, accelerated by the country’s melting ice sheet. In a perspective articlepublished in Nature Sustainability yesterday, Bendixen and her fellow authors explain that dredging up and exporting this sand could be big boost for Greenland’s economy. “Generally in the Arctic people are experiencing a lot of problems related to climate change,” she says. “We show a rare example of how the Greenlandic population can actually benefit from it.”
Along most Arctic shorelines, sand and gravel are eroding away into the ocean. As permafrost sea cliffs thaw, they become unstable and waves eat away at their sediments. In her previous research, however, Bendixen found that Greenland’s coast was actually growing larger. As temperatures warm and the country’s land ice melts, more water flows into rivers, making the current more powerful. These rivers scrape away and carry more sediment, which eventually settles along the island nation’s coast in deltas.
All this extra sand could be an opportunity for Greenland, Bendixen found. Right now, fishing is keeping the economy afloat—fish and shellfish sales make up about 90 percent of the country’s revenue. Arctic tourism is also a growing industry. The problem is, these economic sources themselves will probably not be enough to meet the welfare needs of the country’s aging population.