As Greenland warms and its ice sheet melts,
sediment pours out along with the water.
That might help meet a growing worldwide demand for sand.
A few miles up the Sermilik Fjord in southwestern Greenland, the water has abruptly turned milky, a sign that it is loaded with suspended silt, sand and other sediment.
It is this material — carried here in a constant plume of meltwater from the Sermeq glacier at the head of the fjord — that Mette Bendixen, a Danish scientist at the University of Colorado, has come to see. As their research boat moves farther into the murky water, she and several colleagues climb into a rubber dinghy to take samples.
Mette Bendixen, left, David Blockley, center, and Mikkel Bojesen preparing to collect sediment samples.
Dr. Bendixen, a geomorphologist, is here to investigate an idea, one that she initially ran by colleagues to make sure it wasn’t crazy: Could this island, population 57,000, become a provider of sand to billions of people?
Sand for eroded beaches, potentially from the Rockaways to the Riviera. Sand to be used as bedding for pipes, cables and other underground infrastructure. Mostly, though, sand for concrete, to build the houses, highways and harbors of a growing world.
The world makes a lot of concrete, more than 10 billion tons a year, and is poised to make much more for a population that is forecast to grow by more than 25 percent by 2050. That makes sand, which is about 40 percent of concrete by weight, one of the most-used commodities in the world, and one that is becoming harder to come by in some regions.
But because of the erosive power of ice, there is a lot of sand in Greenland. And with climate change accelerating the melting of Greenland’s mile-thick ice sheet — a recent study found that melting has increased sixfold since the 1980s — there is going to be a lot more.
Sediment plumes are visible in the water below several of Greenland’s glaciers.
“It’s not rocket science,” Dr. Bendixen said. “One part of the world has something that other parts of the world are lacking.”
Dr. Bendixen is planning a two-year study to answer basic questions about the idea, including its feasibility and the environmental effects of extracting and exporting large amounts of the material. The government of Greenland, a self-ruled territory of Denmark, is studying it as well.
It would be up to entrepreneurs, possibly with assistance from the government, to make the idea a reality. Given the potential cost of shipping sand around the world, its feasibility would depend on the price of sand rising.
Currently almost all sand is mined within 50 miles of where it is used, said Jason C. Willett, a minerals commodity specialist with the United States Geological Survey. “Once you move it any distance it then costs too much,” he said.
The idea also raises questions that go beyond science — about Greenland’s economic future, about its potential independence from Denmark, and even about the appropriateness of capitalizing on climate change.
The need to diversify the economy is a big issue in Greenland, where fishing accounts for about 90 percent of exports and Denmark provides nearly half of the government’s budget through a block grant. A large sand-exporting industry could help reduce this subsidy, which would be critical to Greenland eventually becoming independent.
“The diversification discussion is very important,” said Birger Poppel, a political science professor at the University of Greenland. “This could fit into that discussion.”
Kuupik V. Kleist, Greenland’s premier from 2009 to 2013, said that exploitation of mineral resources, including sand, were the obvious targets for greater economic growth.
“But in order to replace half of the government budget you would need a lot of profit from any new activity which might arise,” he said. “How many projects it takes and how big, I’m not sure.”
Over time, Greenland’s ice sheet pulverizes the bedrock below.
This silt, sand and gravel forms deltas in the fjords.
All told, Greenland’s ice sheet delivers about 900 million tons of sediment to the waters surrounding the island each year, or about 10 percent of all the sediment delivered to oceans worldwide. The glacier at Sermilik Fjord, about 50 miles south of the capital, Nuuk, delivers about a quarter of Greenland’s total. That explains the vast delta of sand visible from the air as well as from a research boat as the tide begins to go out.
The delta, with muddy rivulets crisscrossing it, stretches to the glacier more than five miles away.
Dr. Bendixen has made some hypothetical calculations. If just 15 percent of the sediment pouring into this fjord every year could be extracted, that amount of sand — 33 million tons — is twice the annual demand of San Diego County in California, one of the most populous in the United States.
Sermilik Fjord is only one of a number of places in Greenland with large amounts of sand. And the sand will keep coming as the world keeps warming and the ice sheet keeps melting. “It’s like a tap pouring not only water, but sediment,” she said.
It was Dr. Bendixen’s work on the effects of climate change on Greenland that sparked the idea. She had come across a trove of aerial photos of the island, taken by the American military during World War II. Comparing them with more recent satellite images, it was obvious that deltas like the one in Sermilik Fjord were growing as the planet warmed and more meltwater came out of the ice sheet.
Dr. Bendixen noted that Greenlanders’ contribution to global warming was very slight — their emissions are a tiny fraction of the global total. “They have a long list of negative consequences they have to deal with,” she said, including rising sea levels and thawing permafrost. “If one of the consequences is actually positive, who are we to say that they cannot benefit from it?”
Worldwide, the demand for sand and gravel is relentless and increasing. Mining, usually from open pits or by dredging, is unregulated in many areas and often illegal. In India, for example, sand “mafias” have developed, with gangs stealing sand from a river bend or a beach overnight.
A United Nations report this year noted that extraction of sand around the world is exceeding the rates by which it is replenished. Sand removal along rivers and coastal regions often leads to greater erosion and harm to ecosystems, the report said.
In addition to better regulations, the report called for reducing the demand for sand and gravel through improved designs that cut the amount of concrete in buildings and infrastructure. (Lighter designs would also help address a climate change problem: Manufacturing of cement, the reactive ingredient in concrete, is responsible for about 5 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide.)
Concerns about the supply of sand seem far off in Nuuk, population 17,500, where it’s possible to walk from one end of the city to another in less than an hour and where the Greenland government works out of an office building above a shopping mall.
Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, needs sand for its own plans to expand.
But even Nuuk has its sights on expansion. There are plans to build thousands of homes and apartments to accommodate a population that is forecast to reach 30,000 by 2030. More immediately, work crews will soon begin lengthening the airport’s sole runway to handle jets, which would help Greenland’s nascent tourism industry.
Nicolai Mogensen, who runs Nuuk’s only concrete plant, is ready. This year he stockpiled extra sand, anticipating the start of the runway project. He currently has about 15,000 cubic yards, a small gray mountain next to the plant. It comes from a nearby fjord, sucked from the bottom by a dredge.
Nicolai Mogensen has stockpiled sand for the concrete plant he runs in Nuuk.
Mr. Mogensen, who has run concrete plants in Norway, Poland, Germany and Denmark, said he thought Dr. Bendixen’s idea was a good one. “All these countries are running out of sand,” he said.
Mike Hoegh, who owns a marine salvage business, extracts sand for use in Nuuk and other communities along the coast with his 150-foot dredging ship, the Masik Sioraq. On a recent afternoon, the ship was in a small fjord less than an hour’s sail from the capital.
A 60-foot pipe is lowered to the seabed.
Water and sand are sucked up and into the ship’s hold.
The water is eventually displaced, leaving 450 cubic yards of sand.
What Dr. Bendixen and others envision would be on a much larger scale, extracting sand from fjords like Sermilik and loading large bulk carriers for shipment elsewhere. Ports and loading facilities would have to be built.
Dr. Bendixen said there could be environmental effects, which she and her colleagues will investigate as part of their study. With all the meltwater and sediment entering it, Sermilik Fjord’s ecosystem has always been disturbed, she said. “But we’d need to assess the impacts in the vicinity of Sermilik that a dredging industry would cause.”
Kaare Winther Hansen, the World Wildlife Fund’s representative in Greenland, said the fjords themselves were not that environmentally sensitive. “To my knowledge the biggest impact would be the shipping, and a risk of accidents with those ships.”
Dredging sand from one of Greenland’s fjords.
For his dredging business, Mr. Hoegh chooses areas where he knows the sand is good and there is little of the silt that was prevalent in the middle of the Sermilik Fjord. Nature tends to self-sort sediment: As a stream of meltwater enters the fjord and slows down, the largest and heaviest material — gravel — drops out first, followed by sand and finally silt. So one of the challenges of making large-scale sand extraction work would be to figure out a way to get to the sand and avoid the fine silt, which would not be useful for concrete.
On this, their first foray in pursuit of sand samples to analyze, Dr. Bendixen and her colleagues encountered some difficulties. Even after motoring the dinghy farther into the murky water, all they were able to sample was silt.
At one point Dr. Bendixen stepped out of the dinghy to tug it along. There was so much silt in the water, she said, it was like pulling the boat through paint. She hopes to use a helicopter for future fieldwork.
Dr. Bendixen said the goal of her studies is to give Greenlanders a thorough analysis of the prospects for developing a sand industry. But that’s where her involvement would end.
“It’s up to Greenland itself to figure out if this is something it wants to do.”
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Greenland lost a record amount of ice in 2019, researchers reported Thursday. Nearly half of it was lost in July, when the region roasted from an unusual heat wave. The net ice loss of more than 530 billion metric tons was more than twice the annual average since 2003, the scientists said.What happened to the Greenland Ice Sheet? ›
Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting rapidly and driving sea level rise, new satellite data finds. A view of the Greenland Ice Sheet. The Earth's ice sheets lost enough ice over the last 30 years to create an ice cube 12 miles high, according to new research.What is causing the melting of Greenland? ›
Warm air temperatures cause melting to occur on the surface of the ice sheet—that process accounts for about half the ice Greenland loses each year. The other half comes from glaciers at the ice sheet's edge crumbling into the sea.How much of the Greenland ice sheet has melted? ›
In August 2020, scientists reported that the Greenland ice sheet lost a record amount of 532 billion metric tons of ice during 2019, surpassing the old record of 464 billion metric tons in 2012 and returning to high melt rates, and provide explanations for the reduced ice loss in 2017 and 2018.What is the return to rapid ice loss in Greenland and record loss in 2019 detected by the Grace Fo satellites? ›
For 2019, GRACE-FO reveals a return to high melt rates leading to a mass loss of 223 ± 12 Gt month−1 during the month of July alone, and a record annual mass loss of 532 ± 58 Gt yr−1.How many tonnes of ice did Greenland lose each minute in 2019? ›
Greenland ice sheet lost a record 1m tonnes of ice per minute in 2019 | Glaciers | The Guardian.Are the Greenland glaciers growing again? ›
WASHINGTON (AP) — A major Greenland glacier that was one of the fastest shrinking ice and snow masses on Earth is growing again, a new NASA study finds. The Jakobshavn (YA-cob-shawv-en) glacier around 2012 was retreating about 1.8 miles (3 kilometers) and thinning nearly 130 feet (almost 40 meters) annually.Is Greenland ice cap melting faster than ever? ›
Ice sheets in Greenland, Antarctica melting faster than previously thought, research shows. New research shows that the massive ice sheets at the top and bottom of our planet are shrinking much faster than previously thought.How long will it take Greenland to melt? ›
“A complete melting will take time, hundreds or even thousands of years, especially if we cross the threshold only by a bit,” Höning said. “Even though the atmospheric CO2 concentration will decline on these long timescales, it won't decline at a pace fast enough to stop melting the ice sheet.”Will sea level rise if Greenland ice melts? ›
If all the ice that is on Greenland were to melt or calve into the ocean, global sea level would rise 7.2 meters (23.6 feet). Melting Greenland ice increases global sea level by at least 0.5 millimeters each year, though recent studies suggest this rate may be increasing.
The Thwaites Ice Shelf, a floating ice shelf which braces and restrains the eastern portion of Thwaites Glacier, is likely to collapse within a decade from 2021.What happens if all the ice melts? ›
There is still some uncertainty about the full volume of glaciers and ice caps on Earth, but if all of them were to melt, global sea level would rise approximately 70 meters (approximately 230 feet), flooding every coastal city on the planet. Learn more: USGS Water Science School: Glaciers and Icecaps.Which two major cities will be underwater if the Greenland ice sheet melts? ›
Publishing their results in Science Advances they show, for example, if the north-west part of the Greenland ice sheet melts then London is likely to be affected by sea level rise, while if the entire northern and eastern parts of the sheet melted, it will be New York that is flooded.How would the world look if all the ice on Greenland all melted? ›
If all the ice covering Antarctica , Greenland, and in mountain glaciers around the world were to melt, sea level would rise about 70 meters (230 feet). The ocean would cover all the coastal cities. And land area would shrink significantly.Is Antarctica gaining or losing ice? ›
Antarctica is losing ice mass (melting) at an average rate of about 150 billion tons per year, and Greenland is losing about 270 billion tons per year, adding to sea level rise.What factors in the 2019 Greenland Ice Sheet Mass Loss include ______? ›
The key factors for surface mass loss and melting for Greenland in 2019 included: 1) exceptional persistence of anticyclonic conditions (high pressure) during the 2019 summer, promoting dry and sunny weather that enhanced the surface melt thanks to the melt-albedo feedback, and 2) low snowfall in the preceding fall- ...Did Greenland Ice Sheet lose water enough to submerge us in 20 years? ›
This represents 4,700 cubic kilometres of melted water -- "enough to cover the entire US by half a meter" -- and has contributed 1.2 centimetres to sea level rise, the Arctic monitoring website added.Is the Greenland ice cap now inevitable? ›
Scientists have said major sea-level rises, due to the Greenland ice cap melting, is now inevitable, with the world looking at a minimum rise of 27cm.How much ice is left in the world? ›
|Ice mass||Total ice volume||% Global land surface|
|WAIS & APIS||4.5 m SLE|
|Greenland||7.36 m SLE||1.2%|
|Global glaciers and ice caps*||0.43 m SLE (113,915 to 191,879 Gt)||0.5%|
The latest IMBIE assessment, which was published today, states that between 1992 and 2020, the polar ice sheets lost 7560 billion tonnes of ice – equivalent to an ice cube measuring 20 km each side.
Key Points. Since 1992, Greenland and Antarctica have both lost ice overall (see Figure 1), each one losing more than 100 billion metric tons of ice per year on average.Will all glaciers melt by 2050? ›
A new study warns that glaciers in a third of them will disappear by 2050 due to carbon emissions warming the planet. The other two-thirds can still be saved — but only if global temperatures don't exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial times, UNESCO says.What is the only glacier that is still growing? ›
If you only visit one glacier in your life, Perito Moreno would be a good one to pick. It towers above the turquoise glacial water of Patagonia's Los Glaciares National Park, beaming a blinding white and exuding cold blue hues. Unlike most of Earth's other glaciers, Perito Moreno is still growing.How long until all glaciers are gone? ›
Mostly small but well-known glaciers are marching to extinction, study authors said. In an also unlikely worst-case scenario of several degrees of warming, 83 percent of the world's glaciers would likely disappear by the year 2100, study authors said.How much would sea level rise if Greenland melted? ›
For example, if the Greenland ice sheet were to completely melt and the meltwater were to completely flow into the ocean, then global sea level would rise by about seven meters (23 feet) and Earth would rotate more slowly, with the length of the day becoming longer than it is today, by about 2 milliseconds.Is Antarctica warming faster? ›
It has now been established that the Antarctic Circumpolar Current is warming more rapidly than the global ocean as a whole. Studying climate change in Antarctica is important because it enables scientists to predict more accurately future climate change and provide information to politicians and policy makers.How long will it take for all the polar ice caps to melt? ›
There are more than five million cubic miles of ice on Earth, and some scientists say it would take more than 5,000 years to melt it all. If we continue adding carbon to the atmosphere, we'll very likely create an ice-free planet, with an average temperature of perhaps 80 degrees Fahrenheit instead of the current 58.What is zombie ice? ›
Zombie ice, also known as doomed ice, is the one that continues to be a segment of the parent ice sheet but does not accumulate fresh snow. This type of ice is prone to melting and raising sea levels.What happens if sea levels rise 1 foot? ›
A 1-foot rise in sea level swallows up more coastline than you think. For every 1 foot of vertical rise in sea level, 100 feet of shoreline is swallowed up if the slope is just 1% or more. That's a typical slope for most coastlines.Will Greenland be habitable? ›
With agriculture newly possible and a bustling North Sea Passage shipping route, the far north will be transformed. The melting of Greenland's ice sheet—the largest on Earth after Antarctica—will expose new areas for people to live, farm and mine minerals.
The researchers suspect the cold water was set in motion by a climate pattern called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), which causes the northern Atlantic Ocean to switch slowly between warm and cold every five to 20 years. The climate pattern settled into a new phase recently, cooling the Atlantic in general.How long would it take for Antarctica to melt? ›
If the ice sheet were to melt completely--a process that could take as little as 500 years according to some models--global sea levels could rise by as much as 20 feet, inundating islands and coastal areas worldwide. The debate over whether the ice sheet is at risk hinges partly on its past history.What will the sea level be in 2100? ›
The high-end global mean sea-level rise is now projected to be up to 1.3-1.6 meters for strong warming in 2100.What happens to Florida if Antarctica melts? ›
In past years, scientists have outlined what a melting of the polar ice caps would mean for the Florida coastline. Simply put, sea levels would rise, creating higher flood risks across the globe.What happens on Earth if the Doomsday Glacier melts? ›
The collapse of Thwaites would cause seawater levels to rise by around 2 feet (65 centimeters). This could, in turn, destabilize neighboring glaciers, potentially increasing future sea levels by almost an additional 10 feet (3 meters).Is it too late to stop glacier melting? ›
Nearly half the world's mountain glaciers are expected to disappear by the end of this century, even if the world meets its most ambitious climate goals. A new study found that 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming would wipe out around 104,000 glaciers and raise global sea levels by about 3.5 inches in the process.How much of the world will be underwater by 2050? ›
It found that an estimated 4.3 million acres — an area nearly the size of Connecticut — will be underwater by 2050, including $35 billion worth of real estate.Will Antarctica ever be habitable? ›
Even without growing crops, melting sea ice may mean people will attempt to fish in the area. But despite our attempts to explore and study Earth's harshest, most inhospitable continent, we're unlikely to have Antarcticans anytime soon.Is the Earth still in an ice age? ›
We are technically still in an ice age.
The current ice age started just over two and a half million years ago, and it hasn't quite ended yet. Within a single ice age, there are periods of warmth where glaciers melt, which are called interglacial periods. The opposite, when glaciers spread, is called glacial cycles.
If all the Greenland Ice Sheet melted, it would raise the sea levels by 6 to 7.2 meters or 20 to 24 feet. That would submerge the Everglades and Miami but not the state at large. The complete melting of the ice sheet won't be happening any time soon (it's predicted in 100 to 150 years).
You see, Greenland has more land ice than any other place except Antarctica. If it all melted, it would raise sea level around twenty-three feet. That's enough to put coastlines throughout the world under water.What is beneath Greenland ice? ›
Subglacial sediment from ~1.4 km (0.87 mi) beneath the ice stored since 1966 indicates that Greenland was completely ice-free and vegetated at least once within the last million years. This was not expected and may show Greenland to be more fragile and sensitive to climate change than previously thought.Will the Earth melt a few years from now? ›
Four billion years from now, the increase in Earth's surface temperature will cause a runaway greenhouse effect, creating conditions more extreme than present-day Venus and heating Earth's surface enough to melt it. By that point, all life on Earth will be extinct.Is there land under the ice in Antarctica? ›
The Antarctic continent lies on a large landmass. Underneath that smooth ice sheet there are mountains and valleys.What will be underwater in 2050? ›
- Louisiana Seaboard.
- The State Of Washington.
- Southern Florida.
- Western Oregon.
- The South-Eastern coast.
- Southern California.
Antarctica hasn't always been covered with ice – the continent lay over the south pole without freezing over for almost 100 million years. Then, about 34 million years ago, a dramatic shift in climate happened at the boundary between the Eocene and Oligocene epochs.Who owns the Antarctic? ›
Seven countries (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom) maintain territorial claims in Antarctica, but the United States and most other countries do not recognize those claims. While the United States maintains a basis to claim territory in Antarctica, it has not made a claim.How much ice has Greenland lost since 2000? ›
Research based on observations from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites (2002-2017) and GRACE Follow-On (since 2018 - ) indicates that between 2002 and 2021, Greenland shed approximately 280 gigatons of ice per year, causing global sea level to rise by 0.03 inches (0.8 millimeters) per year.How much ice combined did Greenland and Antarctica lose between 1993 and 2019? ›
All total, Greenland and Antarctica have lost 6.4 trillion tons of ice since the 1990s. The resulting meltwater boosted global sea levels by 0.7 inches (17.8 millimeters).How much ice has melted since 2000? ›
Between 2000 and 2019, glaciers lost 267 gigatonnes (Gt) of ice per year, equivalent to 21% of sea-level rise, reveals a paper published in Nature. The authors said the mass loss was equivalent to submerging the surface of England under 2 metres of water every year.
The Greenland Ice Sheet covers about 80 percent of the world's largest island, stretching across 1.7 million square kilometers (656,000 square miles)—an area about three times the size of Texas.When was Antarctica last ice free? ›
Antarctica hasn't always been covered with ice – the continent lay over the south pole without freezing over for almost 100 million years. Then, about 34 million years ago, a dramatic shift in climate happened at the boundary between the Eocene and Oligocene epochs.How thick was the ice only 15 000 years ago? ›
About 15,000 years ago the ice sheet grew to more than a mile thick and covered all but the highest peaks in the area. During its maximum stand the cordilleran ice sheet buried much of the northeastern North Cascade Range.Has Antarctica ice loss tripled in a decade? ›
The Antarctic Ice Sheet has lost 3 trillion tons of ice since 1992, according to a new analysis published in the journal Nature.What did Antarctica look like 250 million years ago? ›
Approximately 250 million years ago during the Triassic period, Antarctica was part of the supercontinent of Pangea. During this time, all of the continents were assembled into a large and continuous land mass that was free of polar ice and all of the oceans were combined into one large oceanic mass (Panthalassa).How many glaciers have disappeared in the last 50 years? ›
His research reveals that over 509 small glaciers disappeared in the past 50 years and even the biggest ones are shrinking rapidly.When was the last time all the ice melted? ›
Roughly 20,000 years ago the great ice sheets that buried much of Asia, Europe and North America stopped their creeping advance. Within a few hundred years sea levels in some places had risen by as much as 10 meters—more than if the ice sheet that still covers Greenland were to melt today.How much ice has disappeared in the last 30 years? ›
We lose Arctic sea ice at a rate of almost 13% per decade, and over the past 30 years, the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by a stunning 95%. If emissions continue to rise unchecked, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer by 2040. But what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.