Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Greenland Melting: The Winners and the Losers

We’re always talking about the victims of climate change: ruined Texas ranchers, flooded Pakistani farmers and desperate African migrants fleeing food shortages or resource conflicts. Today we’re looking at the other side of the coin: a man for whom climate change means striking gold – literally.

First, a little background. In 2007, the UN’s climate change panel warned that sea levels were rising due to global warming. By the end of the century, they said, oceans could be two feet higher than they are today.  They cited two undisputed facts: water expands as it warms; and mountain glaciers are melting across the globe, releasing their once-frozen reservoirs into the seas.

Two feet higher seas in about 90 years. It probably doesn’t sound so bad to people who don’t live in Miami, New Orleans or Bangladesh.

Meltwater lakes on Greenland ice sheet
But there was a catch.  Yes, the UN panel scientists measured the effect of ocean thermal expansion and mountain glacier melting. But they didn’t feel comfortable projecting a third factor: the rate of melting of the world’s great land-based ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica. Together, those ice sheets contain enough water to raise sea levels by more than 200 feet. But forecasting ice-sheet melting and the speed of ice flows was a daunting challenge back in 2007. So the UN panel made a footnote, and left it out completely.

So maybe you’re wondering: What’s been happening with the ice sheets since then? The news from Greenland has been coming fast and furious. Since 2007, it’s fair to say that virtually all researchers have upped their forecasts for ice melt there. With ice averaging about one mile in thickness over an expanse as vast as the land between New York and Denver, Greenland alone contains enough water to raise sea levels by 22 feet. And while much uncertainty remains, signs are everywhere that this long-dormant giant is growing very restless.

  • In each of the last two years, icebergs bigger than Manhattan have broken off the accelerating Petermann Glacier in the far northwest.
  • This summer, satellite measurements showed that 97% of the surface of Greenland ice was melting, up from about 50% in all prior summers.
  • Ice-quakes, the glacial equivalent of earth-quakes, have seen a dramatic increase throughout Greenland, and have spread north into once-stable cold zones. Ice-quakes occur when warming ice sheets destabilize, crack, and accelerate over rough ground.
  • Ice has receded by miles in coastal areas, exposing moonscapes of rock hidden for millennia.
  • The fishing industry in some settled southern towns has collapsed, as once-abundant fish and shrimp have fled northward from newly-warming waters.
Unstable: Ice quakes moving north

Scientists still don’t have a firm grip on the full meaning of all this for the world’s seacoasts, but they are clearly more concerned. Most are now looking for global sea-level rise of 2.5 to 6.5 feet this century, but all acknowledge that this could change rapidly. This is almost certainly bad news for the earth’s coastal communities. 

But it’s not bad for everyone.

It turns out that Greenland sits on some of the earth’s richest deposits of gold, iron, zinc and – most importantly – rare earth metals, essential for cellphones and other electronic devices. In the past, these deposits were locked behind an impermeable wall of ancient ice. But the retreating glaciers have uncovered a treasure trove of minerals, and mining companies from Australia to China are eager to get their hands on it. Greenland’s mining authority has issued 150 mineral exploration licenses, up from only 20 a decade ago. For Greenland’s 67,000 residents, this could mean lots of new jobs, and a measure of independence from their overseers in far-off Denmark.  All they need is for the ice to keep on melting.

"For me, I wouldn't mind if the whole ice cap disappears," Ole Christiansen, the chief executive of NunamMinerals, Greenland's largest domestic mining company, told the New York Times as he surveyed a proposed gold mining site near Nuuk, Greenland's capital. "As it melts, we're seeing new places with very attractive geology."

As the ice melts, Mr. Christiansen sees gold, and the potential for untold wealth. But not everyone will fare so well while Mr. Christiansen gets rich. This is because Greenland’s melting will raise sea levels – ultimately by about 22 feet. There are 22.9 million Americans whose homes will be underwater when that happens. Globally, two-thirds of the world’s largest cities (cities with more than five million people) are within 30 feet of sea level.  And in those cities and other low-elevation coastal zones live 634 million human souls.

Bangladesh: Red zones inundated
Consider the 150 million men, women and children of Bangladesh. This low-lying country in the Ganges-Brahmaputra River Delta will essentially cease to exist if Greenland's ice should disappear. We're not really talking about moving people to another place. This country -- with about half the population of the U.S. -- has virtually no other place for them to go to.

So if Mr. Christiansen gets his wish for more gold, almost one in ten humans across the globe would pay for it by fleeing inundated homelands. And for every single Greenland resident who may wish for the whole ice cap to disappear, there are 3,500 other souls living on land that would then be permanently reclaimed by the seas.

I know this sounds like a tongue lashing for a Greenland mining executive. But as Americans, we shouldn't be too hard on Mr. Christiansen. First of all, he’s not causing the warming that’s melting Greenland’s ice. That distinction goes to the countries with the highest per capita CO2 emissions: Australia, the U.S. and Canada. And his wish would fit in almost perfectly with the American election-year narrative: Create wealth at any cost, whatever the consequences for others, near and far.

But to some Christians, the God of the Bible appears to have an entirely different agenda. Consider his covenant with Abraham, one of the core milestones in the history of redemption. God told Abraham: “I will bless you … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  When a Christian responds to the God of Abraham, he is signing on to a plan to bless all the people of the earth – those “from earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast.”

Millions dwelling on those distant coasts are now in peril, and may soon be awash, if the current science is to be believed. The God of Abraham plans to bless them. Will he use us to do it? Or will we take Mr. Christiansen’s approach, blinded to distant grief by the brilliance of gold?

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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