From Frobisher’s ‘Gold’ to Bountiful Uranium: Greenland and the riches of the Arctic

The melting of the polar ice caps is not all bad news for the people of Greenland. Indeed, it has increased the prospects of exploiting the abundant mineral resources on the world’s largest island, which remains under the sovereignty of Denmark.

Greenland's ice sheet is melting quickly, uncovering more natural resources every year
Greenland’s ice sheet is melting quickly, uncovering more natural resources every year

In particular, the Greenlandic government claims that it has sufficient uranium reserves to make it the fifth-largest exporter of the metal in the world, enough to contribute $20bn a year to the island’s economy.

Unlike large parts of the Arctic, the sovereignty of Greenland is not disputed between the world’s powers. That said, there has been a growing agitation for independence from the Greenlandic people. This has been nipped in the bud by economic realities, which dictate that Greenland is too reliant on Danish loans and grants to go it alone.

Uranium could change that and its presence on the island is undisputed. This is not the ‘fool’s gold’ of history. Between 1576 and 1578, English seaman and privateer Martin Frobisher embarked on three voyages in search of the Northwest Passage. His attempts foundered yet along the coast of Greenland and present-day Canada he discovered what he believed was an abundance of gold.

Risking his men and his ships in hazardous Arctic conditions, Frobisher transported several hundred tons of the ‘gold’ ore back to England (along with several captured Inuit) believing that, whilst he had failed in achieving his main goal, he had made his fortune.

The first European portrait of an Inuit by John White - this Inuit was captured on Frobisher's 2nd voyage
The first European portrait of an Inuit by John White – this Inuit was captured on Frobisher’s 2nd voyage

Of course the ‘gold’ turned out to be iron pyrites, a worthless commodity, and Frobisher is now better remembered for the geographical contributions of his voyages and his efforts in repelling the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Although uranium is ready to be mined in Greenland it is proving, in a sense, to be a modern-day ‘fool’s gold’. This is a result of legal, rather than technical or geographic, limitations. Because uranium is a crucial component in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, its extraction and export has to be carefully monitored.

Therefore, negotiating a legal framework to allow Greenland to export the product, as well as to invite global mining corporations to come and excavate it, could take many years and requires Danish leadership given that Copenhagen is responsible for Greenland’s defence.

Frobisher thought he had discovered fabulous riches that would bolster the fortunes of England in the 16th century. He was wrong. Greenland’s politicians today know that they are sitting on a fortune that will transform their economy and potentially set the stage for independence.

Despite this, they are feeling the same frustrations experienced by the great sea captain over 400 years ago. Watch this space.

A uranium mine in Australia which, along with Canada and Kazakhstan, accounts for 64% of the world's production
A uranium mine in Australia which, along with Canada and Kazakhstan, accounts for 64% of the world’s production
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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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