Building an economy on sand

September 6, 2022

Sand could become a lucrative export item for Greenland. But as with all the other resources it could be supplying the world with, cost is an object

Worth its weight in subsidies (📸: Nikolaj Krogh Larsen / KU)

Key findings
■ Sand is commonplace, but not all sand is suitable for building
■ Meltwater from Greenland’s icecap deposits lots of the type of sand builders need along its coasts
■ Greenland’s potential sand exports could amount to half of its current GDP and four times its annual subsidy from Copenhagen
■ Despite the uncertainties about sand harvesting, it appears less divisive than other forms of natural-resource extraction

Sand, gravel and stone are the world’s largest group of natural resources. Due to global urbanisation and generally increasing economic prosperity, the demand for these raw materials of urban development and infrastructure is increasing rapidly. That is good news for the countries that have the right sorts of them. Between 2017 and 2021, global exports of sand, for example, rose 10.5%, and are now valued at €1.7 billion.

Greenland has considerable amounts of the sort of gravel and sand (pointy and sharp, which helps grains to bond together, making it better for things like cement and mortar) that builders want. Some of this is in the form of rock that can be processed mechanically, but what entrepreneurial sorts have their eye on is the huge amounts of sand and gravel that has been crushed by natural forces and gets washed down to the coast with meltwater from the ice sheet.

Were all of the sand deposited along Greenland’s coasts to be collected and sold abroad, it could bring in some €2 billion a year, or more than half of the value of its current economic activity, and four times the annual subsidy it gets from Copenhagen. And that without taking into account the increasing volume of sand that is being washed out as global warming drives faster melting of the ice sheet. Nor does it take into account a projected doubling of the cost of sand over the next 25 years as supplies dry up.

Greenland already harvests limited amounts of sand for its local building projects. And, in 2020, the Self-Rule Authority commissioned a study into whether it would be possible to scale up harvesting and to export sand to Europe and North America. The study found that this was indeed feasible and technologically within Greenland’s reach, but it had a caveat for anyone interested trying to make money off doing so: sand is a low-cost product with a slim profit margin. Although harvesting sand from the coastline would be a relatively simple operation, getting it to market would be costly, making it a viable industry only if the sand could command a high enough price.

As things stand right now, Greenland’s sand is no gold mine, and it is hard to say whether it ever could be, even with growing demand and concerns that supply can keep up. The study suggests that, yes, because of the make-up of its sand, there is plenty of potential, but that, it in order for an operation to be profitable, the sand must be located in easy-to-reach places. It must be also piled up high enough, which rules out newish formations caused by recent global warming, though the fact that these formations will continue to grow will ensure a long-term supply if harvesting ever does get off the ground.

Other studies have also warned that there may be environmental and social costs of sand mining, and that this needs to be looked into more closely before operations are allowed to begin. As far as the latter goes, there appears to be broader popular support for expanded extraction and export: a survey, published in August, found three-quarters of those interviewed were in favour, making it much less divisive type of mining activity than other proposed projects.

“Global warming traditionally brings with it a myriad of challenges for the Arctic people, but here, for once, we see an opportunity to use the changes to one’s advantage,” Aart Kroon, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen and a co-author of a paper based on the survey, said. Never was there such optimism about an an economy built on sand.

Further reading
Greenland’s Indigenous population favours extracting and exporting sand from melting ice sheet (McGill University)
Greenland’s Melting Glaciers Spew a Complicated Treasure: Sand (Wired)
Even desert city Dubai imports its sand. This is why (BBC)
Greenland: Build an economy on sand (Science)
Promises and perils of sand exploitation in Greenland (Nature Sustainability)

The PROGLAKE Project
Can coastal changes in Greenland create prosperity locally (video recorded 3 June 2019)

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