Ice loss from Greenland hit a new record this year. The latest report from the European Space Agency shows that ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica has increased fivefold since the 1990s due to climate change. The receding ice is exposing Greenland’s rich mineral resources. Still largely unexplored, companies and governments are now eyeing mining in Greenland, including for the critical minerals needed for the energy transition.

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The Artic has long been of geopolitical significance. Areas with vast mineral deposits can be found in north-east Asia, and northern Canada has large reserves of nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earths, among others. Both Russia and China are building nuclear-powered icebreaker ships that are able to mine the Arctic. In 2019, former US President Donald Trump said he wanted to buy Greenland.

An exploration in Greenland’s Nuussuaq region made headlines in 2021 after KoBold Metals announced a joint venture with Greenland-centred mining company Bluejay Mining for the Disko-Nuussuaq project, which will primarily focus on mining nickel, copper, platinum and cobalt. The venture is backed by some of the world’s richest people including Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Michael Bloomberg.

According to Bluejay Mining, the project has the potential to rival the Norilsk-Talnakh mine in Siberia.

“There is a lot of interest around Disko-Nussuaaq due to the geological settings,” says Bo Møller Stensgaard, CEO of Bluejay Mining. “It is comparable with the Norilsk district, which is one of the largest nickel and copper producers in the world.”

Mining in Greenland: an underexplored frontier

Greenland has been largely untouched by the mining industry due to a combination of protected nature and harsh conditions within the country. In 2014, a report from the Brookings think tank said it was unlikely the country would attract major mining projects any time soon.

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“The costs of exploration and extraction of other resources in Greenland are high due to the harsh environment and the lack of infrastructure, both of which are deterrents to investment,” said the report. “Like other areas on the frontiers of resource extraction, successful development of major projects in Greenland depends largely on international commodities prices.”

There have been successful mining projects in the country. The town of Ivittuut once held the world’s largest reserves of cryolite, a mineral used to produce aluminium. The mine was operational for more than a century before ceasing production in 1987.

“There are some modern mines established in Greenland, but Greenland would have seen a lot more development if it wasn’t for the challenging environment,” explains Stensgaard. “You need to have expertise and respect for the conditions to have a successful operation.”

Currently, Greenland has two active mines. However, Bluejay Mining alone has four projects under development, and dozens of other companies also have exploration projects under way. Several companies have already laid claim to licences, most notably Anglo American.

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The melting ice is not just exposing mining areas in Greenland. It is also easing some of the hurdles that come with remote Arctic areas. Ships are able to reach areas that were not reachable before and the shipping season is longer.

The juxtaposition between new mining partly made possible due to global warming and mining minerals for the energy transition is not lost on many. The Arctic is warming up four-times faster than the rest of the world and climate change is already affecting the lives and livelihoods of Greenland’s population. Three in four residents say they have personally experienced the effects of climate change and around 38% say they are very or moderately afraid of climate change.

We are seeing longer seasons and milder winters, where we are able to do more exploration. At the same time, weather patterns also seem to be more dynamic and less predictable.

Bo Møller Stensgaard, CEO of Bluejay Mining

“We are seeing longer seasons and milder winters, where we are able to do more exploration, ” says Stensgaard. “At the same time, weather patterns also seem to be more dynamic and less predictable.” Having worked in Greenland for more than 20 years, he has seen the landscape change.

“You see the effects of climate change. Glaciers have retreated and ice caps are melting. While it does unlock new ways of operation out here, I wouldn’t say I am happy about this. Irrespective of the situation, I would be operating in Greenland.”

To stop the ice caps from melting further, countries must drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Doing so depends on electrification and the minerals needed for technologies such as batteries and electric vehicles. Mining can provide these minerals, but at the same time, mining itself inevitably has an impact on the environment and local communities.

“Greenland is a frontier area that is underexplored and can provide resources that the future needs,” says Stensgaard. “We are recognising the surrounding issues, while also acknowledging that the metals extracted from Greenland could be part of the solutions to climate change.”

Mining as a road to financial independence

Greenland has been a self-governing country since 2009 and is entitled to the right of self-determination, but it is also still part of the Kingdom of Denmark. While the country has the right to declare independence, which is also what most Greenlanders want, doing so is tricky, mainly due to Greenland’s financial dependence on Denmark. Denmark provides around $500m (DKr3.42bn) each year to Greenland in subsidies. There are not many options to replace those funds. As a result, many of the political parties in Greenland support building up the mining industry to gain financial independence – unless uranium is mined.

The Kvanefjled project had the potential to become one of the world’s most significant producers of rare earths. However, the project also mined uranium, which made it controversial among locals and politicians. During national elections, both current coalition parties opposed uranium mining, a ban followed and the project was blocked.

Read more from this author: Isabeau van Halm

If no uranium is involved, most Greenlanders are not opposed to mining. A 2022 study published in Nature Sustainability, showed that a large majority of Greenlanders support minerals extraction. The mayor of the Avannaata municipality, under which many prospective mining projects fall, has pointed out the benefits for local communities in interviews, “in particular creating growth through employment and additional infrastructure developments”.

According to the latest data available from Greenland’s Mineral Resources Authority, the Avannaata municipality alone had almost 20 outstanding mining licences, covering nearly 12,000km². More than 7,000km² of those are licensed to Anglo American alone. In 2019, almost 35,000km² were under exploration in Greenland. For context, that is around the size of Taiwan or Moldova. With the increased interest in mining in Greenland since then, it is likely that the area is now even larger.

Many of these projects are in the early stages, still having to go through exploration, planning and development. Due to all the hurdles that mining projects have to overcome, local cooperation is particularly important in remote areas, notes Stensgaard. “Local knowledge is essential in being able to actually operate in remote and occasionally inaccessible areas," he says. "You need that understanding of what the limitations, the conditions and the risks are.”