June 27, 2012

BY SOLVEIG TORVIK

ILULISSAT, GREENLAND – If you want to see what a warmer climate portends, come to Greenland. There’s more going on here, though, than just a rapidly melting ice cap and spectacular scenery bathed in crystal clear Arctic light.

Greenland’s hot – in more ways than one. Since 1951, its temperature has in- creased twice as fast as the global average. It also turns out Greenland may have a hot commodity: offshore oil. On shore it has 250 valuable minerals, including the rare earths needed for cell phones, flat screen TVs, hybrid cars, computers, windmills and missiles; 100 mining licenses have been issued.

The irony inherent in sucking more oil out of the Arctic when burning oil fueled this rapid Arctic melting to begin with is simply a testament to the enduring reliability of human folly. Despite lack of proven technology for containing oil spills in icy Arctic waters, Greenland has issued exploratory licenses to seven companies; none have yet struck oil. The U.S. Geological Survey says 31 billion barrels of oil lie on Green- land’s west coast plus 17 billion more off its inhospitable east coast.

If only Greenland’s entire, two-mile thick ice cap melts, sea levels will rise 23 feet. Yet as more of Greenland’s ice melts, the more accessible its precious minerals become.

It’s an ill wind indeed that blows no good.

Why should we Americans trouble ourselves about Greenland’s rare earth minerals? Because China has 97 percent of them and charges whatever it wants – if it even deigns to sell them. Might this be why the Chinese, as well as Hillary Clinton, are now courting this sleeping ice giant? Hello?

Lying 155 miles above the Arctic Circle, Ilulissat – Jakobshavn (Jakob’s Harbor) to the Danes who colonized Greenland in the 1700s – became a tourist draw when UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site on account of its massive glacier, Sermeq Kujalleq (Jakobshavn glacier). It’s receding at 65 feet per day, shedding enough ice each year to provide more than the entire annual water supply for the United States. In one decade, the rate of melting has doubled, though it may momentarily have slowed.

Why this is happening is the subject of interminable jabbering. The glacier historically has waxed and waned dramatically. But now it’s melting much faster than usual, say scientists. Higher temperatures cause the ice to melt, first by forming brilliantly blue pools on top of the ice sheet. The pooled water eventually breaks the ice apart to form deep crevasses and flows down underneath the glacier, lubricating and speeding its journey across the rocks and into ice-choked Disko Bay, where massive ice sculptures congregate to lap at the shores of Ilulissat.

Helicopter inland, away from the 300-foot-high collapsing front of Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, and you’ll see the deeply ridged icecap behind it crumbling and splitting apart into deep canyons. It’s an astounding glimpse of what’s actually meant by “melting ice caps.” It’s a scary loop: The more dark, underlying rock is exposed, the more heat is absorbed from the sun, and the faster Greenland heats up.

Home to 57,000 mostly indigenous Greenlandic people, Greenland is 80 per- cent ice. The rest is rock, though southern Greenland’s lovely historic Norse-settled fjords do merit the nation’s name. The country is a treeless, roadless expanse the size of France, Germany, Spain, Great Britain and Italy combined. Humans cling to the picturesque, stony coast, fishing for halibut, cod and shrimp and hunting seals and whales in productive, pristine waters.

The Vikings arrived in 985 A.D. but mysteriously disappeared by 1450 after half a millennium in what some ancients called Ultima Thule – the northernmost reaches of the habitable world. The Thule, predecessors of today’s indigenous Inuit Greenlanders, arrived with their dogsleds in 1,200 A.D.

Granted home rule, Greenland still defers to Denmark in matters of foreign policy and national security, and Denmark provides roughly half of Greenland’s national budget. Greenlanders have all the rights of Danish citizenship, including such perks as free university education in Denmark.

Denmark’s government even has relinquished its claims to Greenland’s mineral and oil resources. As natural re- source income begins to fill Greenland’s coffers, Denmark gradually will reduce its contributions to Greenland’s budget. If Greenland’s oil and mineral income someday equals the sum contributed by Denmark, the Danish government will go away empty-handed despite hundreds of years of expenditures in Greenland – though, of course, that’s not necessarily true for Denmark’s privately held natural resource extraction companies.

Why this Danish altruism? “We did something wrong here,” explained Christian, a Danish guide. Denmark tried to culturally assimilate the Inuit. First they were isolated to protect them from outside influences. But that effort went awry during World War II, when Denmark fell to Hitler and the United States stepped in to supply Greenland and build air bases.

The United States – which tried to buy Greenland for $100 million in 1946 – also did something wrong here: In the 1960s it lost a nuclear bomb that has yet to be recovered near the Thule airbase in the far north. It wasn’t until 1997 that the Danes discovered what the United States had been up to with Project Iceworm, a failed attempt to tunnel out a nuclear missile launch base under Greenland’s icecap.

After the war, Denmark moved the Inuit to towns into grim, barrack-style housing to better provide for them. This assimilation policy changed native culture and prompted an independence movement. Today there’s a palpable sense of optimism in the colorful towns perched on rocky outcrops along Greenland’s sea- shores. This is a young country tantalized by the promise of riches that could mean complete national independence.

So you wonder: Will Greenlanders prove any brighter than the rest of us about how to manage natural resources? Or will they exchange what remains of their unspoiled natural environment for freedom?