Promises and Perils of Sand Exploitation in Greenland

Roughly two years ago, colleagues and I discussed in a Perspective in Nature Sustainability the promises and perils of setting up a sand industry in Greenland to meet the growing global demand for sand, while diversifying the country's economy. What happened since, I would not have guessed...

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A 'Perspective' in Nature Sustainability is "meant to stimulate discussion" and "can advocate a controversial position". Our Perspective (Bendixen et al. 2019 Nature Sustainability) did indeed gain attention and stimulated discussion - after all, it is rather controversial to suggest, Greenland can potentially benefit from the consequences of climate change by supplying an increasingly starving world market with sand. 

The weeks following the publication, I received dozens and dozens of interview requests from quite a broad range of countries from Egypt and Austria to France and Australia and from a broad selection of medias, big and small and of various types, podcasts, radio, tv and news papers. It really was a great learning experience communicating our research with such intensive 'training', numerous interviews a day for several weeks can give you. 

A few months later, the experienced science writer, Henry Fountain, who has been with the New York Times for a quarter of a century (!) wrote and asked for an interview. When on the phone with him, he asked if I was going to go to Greenland any time soon. And I was. Three weeks later. He asked if he and a photographer could come join me. And they did. Together with Ben C. Solomon, a Pulitzer price winning photographer, we flew to Nuuk in the final days of May 2019. A few weeks later, together with three colleagues, we were on our way to the river outlet, that delivers 1/4 of all river sediment in Greenland in a small boat I'd rented. The aim was to sample some of the massive amounts of sand, that site holds. It turned out to be more challenging, than I'd thought, and I realized having a helicopter might be a better (and more expensive!) sampling approach. The following day, Henry and Ben rented a helicopter to ensure great photos (not for sand-sampling though), as they wanted to make a visually appealing feature story of the idea of Greenland exporting sand. We landed on the top of a mountain, where Ben flow his drone to capture what turned out to be the front page photo displayed in the New York Times on July 4th, 2019. Henry and Ben produced a beautiful feature article 'Melting Greenland is awash in sand'.

Our work made it to the front page of the New York Times on July 4, 2019.

Lunch break on top of a mountain with the Greenland Icesheet in the background. New York Times photographer Ben C. Solomon (left), journalist Henry Fountain (right) and myself (center). Our pilot was enjoying the view in the back of the photo. Ben flew his drone to take what turned in to be the photo for the front page.

The massive media interviews were one great outcome of the paper. Another thing was all the follow up projects and people I got to meet and collaborations I have started. The amazing photographer Tawanda Kanhema has not only become a collaborator but also a friend. Tawanda reached out to me as he wanted to map and obtain imagery of the remote parts of Greenland to digitally preserve the changing landscape. Just as he has done in Zimbabwe, Namibia and Ontario to put these places on the map. We are hoping to map these massive amounts of sands in some of the many beautiful deltas in Greenland. 

Another very direct outcome of the paper was the fact that just four days after it was published, five of the total 7 parties in the Greenland Government decided they wanted an economic assessment of the potential of sand exploitation in Greenland. It was indeed rewarding to see just how open the Greenland Government was to the idea we proposed. The genuine interest from Greenland led to a request for the Danish and Greenlandic Geological Survey (GEUS) to conduct an economic impact assessment, which is underway and scheduled to be published Fall 2021. 

When proposing such an idea, that Greenland should look into the possibilities for creating jobs, advancing the economy and relieve the pressure of sand to the global market, one thing that has stuck with me the entire time was "how do the people of Greenland feel about this idea"? I kept wanting to understand their opinion. During Greenland Science Week in December 2019, a little less than a year after our publication in Nature Sustainability, I presented our work at several public events in Nuuk, Greenland, and in the Fall of 2020 I collaborated with students at the Greenland Business School to better understand their opinions and views on this. Luckily, I've been awarded funding from the Danish Carlsberg Foundation for a project I proposed together with social scientist PhD student at University of Copenhagen Kelton Minor and Political scientist Assistant Professor Rasmus Leander from Ilisimatusarfik (University of Greenland) for the project 'Including Indigenous Perspectives in Emerging Greenlandic Resource Exploration'. We are right now conducting a household survey with the help from Greenland's largest analytical company to better understand local's opinions on this idea. We are hoping our insights will allow us to raise the voices of indigenous people in a time where interests in the Arctic are many and constantly growing. 

In December 2020, I was deeply honoured and thankful to receive the American Geophysical Union's Science for Solutions award "in recognition of significant contributions in the application and use of the Earth and space science to solve societal problems" for this work on Greenland's potential role in the increasing global sand scarcity. 

I want to take this opportunity writing this 'After the paper' to share what I believe has been helpful in communicating our research and getting our message across to a broad range of people:

- Share your findings! Make a webpage, a short video on YouTube (like we did) or make use of your university's press office to make a press release.

- Say yes to every single interview request you get. From small blog posts to the world's biggest news outlets. Not only will you learn to sharpen your message - sometimes the most critical and relevant questions are not from the established medias. Also, it will prepare you for questions from peers when giving talks, presentations or interviews later on. Maybe even lead to new research ideas...

- Use twitter to communicate your output. We all feel proud after having worked with an article for months and months and sometimes even years. Twitter is an excellent outlet to reach peers and other people who you share interests with. I have several good collaborations that started through twitter!

Mette Bendixen

Research Fellow, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR)