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Q&A: Trump wants to buy Greenland. How much is it worth anyway?

Aerial view of Greenland (Stig Nygaard/Flickr)

President Trump shocked the world this week when he said he was serious about wanting to purchase Greenland from the government of Denmark.

Leaders of Denmark and Greenland’s own government made it clear that the world’s largest island is not for sale.

Still, Trump’s eagerness to buy the icy land mass begs the question: How much is Greenland worth? And why does Trump want to buy it?

Greenland is one of the least populated areas of the planet, with just over 56,000 people living in an area more than three times the size of Texas.

It is not a particularly easy place to call home — 80% of the island is covered in an ice sheet that can be up to 2 miles thick, and temperatures regularly drop below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit during the dark winter months.

Greenland’s relationship with Denmark stretches back thousands of years, and the island officially became part of the Kingdom of Denmark in the 1920s. It was granted home rule in 1979 and is now considered an autonomous area within the kingdom of Denmark. The Danish government handles foreign affairs and national defense, but the Greenland government controls everything else — including the management of its mineral deposits.

Geologists have identified large deposits of rare-earth metals beneath Greenland’s ice sheet, including one near the town of Narsaq that could hold as much as 11 million metric tons of the minerals. That would make it one of the largest rare-earth deposits outside of China.

Greenland may also have substantial offshore oil and gas resources, although those have not yet been developed.

Minik Rosing a geologist and professor of natural history at the University of Copenhagen, is the co-author of a 2014 report that examined Greenland’s mineral resources, along with the financial and environmental benefits and challenges of mining them. He spoke with The Times about why Trump might be interested in Greenland, the natural resources it has, and how their value might change thanks to global warming.

Can you describe Greenland for people who are not familiar with it?

It’s stunningly beautiful. Everyone agrees that it is very beautiful. And even though it is almost 3,000 kilometers (about 1,660 miles) from north to south, everywhere you go has a similar quality — maybe because of the way the light reflects off the ice caps. The air is very clear, and in many places you can see more than 100 miles away. There are no trees or other structures to disturb your view.

Why do you think Trump would want to buy it?

It could be because of the raw materials on the island and its strategic location. But my question is, why would buying it be necessary? Greenland and Denmark have been very closely allied with the U.S. for a long time.

What kind of mineral resources does Greenland have?

The resources that have been identified include zinc, gold, iron ore, uranium and various other metals. It is the same cohort of minerals you would find in similar places. What is special is the rare-earth minerals in south Greenland.

Rare-earth metals have a multitude of applications in electronics, and also as a contrast for medical MR scanning. The Greenland deposits are huge, but also unconventional, and require special metallurgy for processing.

I’ve seen people mention that Greenland also has coal, but that’s not true. There is hardly any coal in Greenland.

Can you estimate how much those mineral deposits are worth?

It’s really difficult to put a price tag or a value on it. You can say, “So many tons of ore would bring in so many millions of dollars,” but the problem is the millions you spent extracting it. You can’t talk about the value of a commodity without talking about the cost of extracting it.

Is it hard to mine in Greenland?

There are a lot of challenges. For example, no two towns are connected by road. Also, it has a very small population, so you don’t have a big labor force to work with. And because of the climate, the season for exploration is short — you only have two or three summer months each year.

Many of these mineral resources have been known about for 50 years, but the development has been slow for these reasons.

Will global warming make it easier to mine in Greenland?

I think to some extent yes. The warming could make transport to and from mining sites potentially easier. But the effect on locating and mining ores would be relatively small.

There has been this big race because the ice caps are melting, but what you see is that while the ice sheet is getting thinner, the area covered in ice is not going down.

Is there other financial potential in Greenland that others are not seeing?

There could be. Greenland has a lot of fresh water. It also has large hydroelectric potential, so it could be an exporter of energy.

A project I’ve been running for a number of years is exporting glacial rock dust — a powder created by glacial erosion that can be used to re-fertilize depleted soils. The glaciers grind the rocks into a very fine powder, and then meltwater moves it out to lakes and fjords where you can find it in large quantities.

Anything else?

It’s worth remembering that 90% of Greenland’s economy is based on marine-driven resources — fishing. That has enormous value for humanity because everyone needs marine protein. As of now, those marine resources are still the most valuable to Greenland. And if they are managed well and strictly regulated, it is also a renewable and sustainable thing, in contrast to mineral resources.

What about offshore oil?

For a long period of time there was quite a lot of exploration off the shore of Greenland, but in the past few years all the licenses have been returned. There may be some potential there, but it seems it’s not very much, or the economy is not good enough to make more exploration worth it.

Most likely there is there is some, but there is no technology to extract it presently. I think this idea of drilling off Greenland would have a 50-year time frame, and nobody has seen that as particularly attractive.

If the ice in the Arctic melts and shipping routes emerge over the North Pole, would Greenland have some useful ports?

I think so. Greenland is one of the most centrally located places in the world for commerce, but the ice cover of the polar region meant it had no practical value for shipping.

Even just a few years ago, it was beyond anyone’s imagination that the Arctic ice cover could change so fast. But the time frame has changed completely in the past few years.

The Danish prime minister said Greenland belongs to Greenland. Does that mean that Trump should have made his offer directly to the Greenland government?

Greenland is a democracy, so if anybody was going to talk about selling the place, it would presumably be Greenland’s government. But I don’t think there is anything in its law or framework that provides for how the country would sell itself.

The Greenland premier Kim Kielsen put it very succinctly. He said Greenland is open for business but not for sale.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.


© 2019 the Los Angeles Times