(TASIILAQ, Greenland) — From a helicopter, Greenland’s brilliant white ice and dark mountains make the desolation seem to go on forever. And the few people who live here — its whole population wouldn’t fill a football stadium — are poor, with a high rate of substance abuse and suicide.
One scientist called it the “end of the planet.”
When U.S. President Donald Trump floated the idea of buying Greenland, it was met with derision, seen as an awkward and inappropriate approach of an erstwhile ally.
But it might also be an Aladdin’s Cave of oil, natural gas and rare earth minerals just waiting to be tapped as the ice recedes.
The northern island and the rest of the Arctic aren’t just hotter due to global warming. As melting ice opens shipping lanes and reveals incredible riches, the region is seen as a new geopolitical and economic asset, with the U.S., Russia, China and others wanting in.
“An independent Greenland could, for example, offer basing rights to either Russia or China or both,” said Fen Hampson, the former head of the international security program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation think tank in Waterloo, Ontario, who is now a professor at Carleton University.
He noted the desire by some there to secede as a semi-autonomous territory of Denmark.
“I am not saying this would happen, but it is a scenario that would have major geostrategic implications, especially if the Northwest Passage becomes a transit route for shipping, which is what is happening in the Russian Arctic.”
The Canadian coast guard icebreaker Amundsen travels to the west of Cornwallis Island in the Canadian Arctic. In 2015, scientists from the ArcticNet research consortium, which is based at Universite Laval in Quebec City, traveled through the Northwest Passage mapping the sea floor and studying marine life.
Alice Li—The Washington Post/Getty Images
In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin put forward an ambitious program to reaffirm his country’s presence in the Arctic, including efforts to build ports and other infrastructure and expand its icebreaker fleet. Russia wants to stake its claim in the region that is believed to hold up to one-fourth of the Earth’s undiscovered oil and gas.
China sees Greenland as a possible source of rare earths and other minerals and a port for shipping through the Arctic to the eastern U.S. It called last year for joint development of a “Polar Silk Road” as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to build railways, ports and other facilities in dozens of countries.
But while global warming pushes the cold and ice farther north each year, experts caution that the race to the Arctic is an incredibly challenging marathon, not a sprint.
The melting of the Greenland ice sheet creates uncertainty and danger for offshore oil and gas developers, threatening rigs and ships. “All that ice doesn’t suddenly melt; it creates icebergs that you have to navigate around,” said Victoria Herrmann, managing director of the Arctic Institute, a nonprofit focused on Arctic security.
On the other hand, while mining in Greenland has been expensive due to the environment, development costs have fallen as the ice has melted, making it more attractive to potential buyers, she said.
The town of Tasiilaq, East Greenland.
Christine Zenino—Getty Images
Strategically, Greenland forms part of what the U.S. views as a key corridor for naval operations between the Arctic and the North Atlantic. It is also part of the broader Arctic region, considered strategically important because of its proximity to the U.S. and economically vital for its natural resources.