Greenland’s ice sheet represents one of global warming’s most disturbing threats. The vast expanses of glaciers — massed, on average, 1.6 miles deep — contain enough water to raise sea levels worldwide by 23 feet. Should they melt or otherwise slip into the ocean, they would flood coastal capitals, submerge tropical islands and generally redraw the world’s atlases. The infusion of fresh water could slow or shut down the ocean’s currents, plunging Europe into bitter winter.
Yet for the residents of the frozen island, the early stages of climate change promise more good, in at least one important sense, than bad. A Danish protectorate since 1721, Greenland has long sought to cut its ties with its colonizer. But while proponents of complete independence face little opposition at home or in Copenhagen, they haven’t been able to overcome one crucial calculation: the country depends on Danish assistance for more than 40 percent of its gross domestic product. “The independence wish has always been there,” says Aleqa Hammond, Greenland’s minister for finance and foreign affairs. “The reason we have never realized it is because of the economics.”
Climate change has the power to unsettle boundaries and shake up geopolitics, usually for the worse. In June, the tiny South Pacific nation of Kiribati announced that rising sea levels were making its lands uninhabitable and asked for help in evacuating its population. Bangladesh, low-lying, crowded and desperately impoverished, is watching the waves as well; a one-yard rise would flood a seventh of its territory. But while most of the world sees only peril in the island’s meltwater, Greenland’s independence movement has explicitly tied its fortunes to the warming of the globe.
The island’s ice cover has already begun to disappear. “Changes in the ocean eat the ice sheet from underneath,” says Sarah Das, a glaciologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “Warmer water causes the glaciers to calve and melt back more quickly.” Hunters who use the frozen surface of the winter ocean for hunting and travel have found themselves idle when the ice fails to form. The whales, seals and birds they hunt have begun to shift their migratory patterns. “The traditional culture will be hard hit,” says Jesper Madsen, director of the department of Arctic environment at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. “But from an overall perspective, it will have a positive effect.” Greenland’s fishermen are applauding the return of warm-water cod. Shops in the island’s capital have suddenly begun to offer locally produced potatoes and broccoli — crops unimaginable a few years earlier.
But the real promise lies in what may be found under the ice. Near the town of Uummannaq, about halfway up Greenland’s coast, retreating glaciers have uncovered pockets of lead and zinc. Gold and diamond prospectors have flooded the island’s south. Alcoa is preparing to build a large aluminum smelter. The island’s minerals are becoming more accessible even as global commodity prices are soaring. And with more than 80 percent of the land currently iced over, the hope is that the island has just begun to reveal its riches.
Offshore, where the Arctic Ocean is rapidly thawing, expectations are even higher. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that Greenland’s northeastern waters could contain 31 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and gas. On the other side of the island, the waters separating it from Canada could yield billions of barrels more. And while Greenland is still considered an oil exploration frontier, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Canada’s Husky Energy and Cairn Energy and Sweden’s PA Resources are aleady ramping up exploration.
In November, Greenlanders will vote on a referendum that would leverage global warming into a path to independence. The island’s 56,000 predominantly Inuit residents have enjoyed limited home rule since 1978. The proposed plan for self-rule, drafted in partnership with Copenhagen, is expected to pass overwhelmingly. It would grant the first $16 million of oil and mineral income to the local government, with further revenues split equally until Denmark’s share reaches roughly the $680 million a year Greenlanders currently receive from the Danes. Then there would be no further obstacles to sovereignty. “When we reach the point where we no longer need the subsidy, we’ll be able to say we’re economically independent,” Hammond says. “There will be nothing that ties us anymore.”