2 June 2016

Stones to bread


Minik Rosing writes about his thoughts on the use of glacial rock flour in Greenland. A version of this article was published as op-ed in the Danish newspaper Politiken on 27 May 2016.

Stones to bread

By Minik Rosing, head of Greenland Perspective

Greenland has an urgent need for business development and many countries in the tropics desperately need to increase their agricultural production. Can mud benefit the Greenlandic economy and simultaneously solve global problems? 

In a new collaborative research project bringing together a number of researchers and institutions we wish to test if Greenlandic mud can be used to revitalize depleted and exhausted soils as well as identify any potential negative effects of the exhumation, transportation or general use of the mud.

At The Natural History Museum, we recently launched a collaboration with the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, The University of Greenland, The National Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland and the logistics company Usisaat in Nuuk. In order to examine the practical use of the mud in the tropics we are working with the agricultural research institute of Brazil EMBRAPA and the Institute of Soil Sciences at the University of Sao Paolo.

Exploring leads to transformations of society

For centuries Greenland has attracted attention from the rest of the world due to its natural resources. European as well as American entrepreneurs have attempted to join the Greenlandic adventure hoping to achieve wealth and happiness. Sometimes such attempts have succeeded but most often great plans have capsized due to logistical, societal and climatic problems. Every time a new industry based on Greenland’s natural richness has been established it has led to transformations of the Greenlandic society.

The export of whale blubber for oil lamps in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th century gave the Greenlandic population incentive to move from the scattered settlements into newly established towns. It was the beginning of a centralization which however was slowed down by the fact that it was necessary to spread out along the coast in order to harvest the resource. Therefore the towns were evenly allocated along the west coast and every town had a number of settlements under their jurisdiction.

The main industry in Greenland shifted from hunting to fishing in the 1920’s when large abundance of cod was discovered. Up until then seal meat formed the basis of the country’s food supply while an excess of blubber was sold to supplement the households with colonial goods. With the rise of the fishing industry the population in the towns became even more concentrated. Hunters became fishermen and when wage labour in the fishing industry became a norm the consumption of imported food rose.

A closer bond to the rest of the World

Ever since the colonization the Greenlandic society has developed increasingly according to the surrounding world. With the Self-Rule of 2009 Greenland got its own government and the responsibility of the national economy. This has led to Greenland paying increasing attention to its own potential regarding natural resources and how to exploit them. Greenland is now looking for international business opportunities that can strengthen the poor economy and create new wealth. However, successful business strategies from the outside world can rarely be applied to a Greenlandic context. 

When looking back at great business successes taking place in Greenland they have almost always been based on particular Greenlandic characteristics. The great profitable whaling taking place in the 1600, 1700 and 1800 was primarily founded on the abundance of especially fat bowhead whales coming to the Arctic to feed on the spring boom of plankton. Fishermen have conducted long and dangerous journeys to Greenland ever since the Medieval to provide fish for the European dinner tables. Fishing is still the most important industry and the foundation of the Greenlandic economy. Both whales and fish reflect a massive biological productivity in the North Atlantic Ocean. This unique productivity is a great advantage of both Greenland, Iceland, Faroe Islands and Norway and is caused by an exceptional richness of nutrients in the ocean.

Exploring what is special

The greatest industrial adventure in Greenland - and the foundation of great profit-making - was the cryolite mine in Ivittuut. Cryolite is an example of a unique Greenlandic resource. The occurrence was discovered in 1809 and the extraction began in 1854 through a partnership between university based academic research and the business sector. Cryolite worth extracting has so far only been found in Greenland. When it was discovered in 1886 that aluminium, which at the time was more precious than gold, could be manufactured by using cryolite as a flux in the manufacturing process aluminium became a practically usable metal. With the development of aluminium based aviation technology during the World Wars Greenland suddenly became the sole owner of an indispensable strategic resource and remained so until the mine was exhausted in 1987.

During the modern history of Greenland the profitable resources has most often been utilized by European and North American interests while the local population in Greenland has kept living its own local parallel life. The cryolite mine in Ivittuut and the lead and zinc mine in Maarmorilik are among the few examples of successful mining industry in Greenland. In both cases the main industrial activities have been carried out by external manpower and most of the profit has ended up outside Greenland.

In the pursuit of business opportunities for Greenland, history shows us that it is crucial to identify what makes Greenland special and what only few or no other countries in the world can compete with. What is possible in most parts of the world usually turns out to be twice as difficult and much more expensive to pursue in Greenland and will almost certainly fail in the competition with the outside world.

Greenland Perspective

The University of Greenland, Ilisimatusarfik and the University of Copenhagen have founded the research initiative Greenland Perspective in order to activate the great academic knowledge and research capacity of the universities and thus identify the parameters that can be beneficial for Greenland. 

Greenland has, like all other countries, a need to be recognised and respected in the World that the country is an integrated part of. This need often reveals itself through the political demand for recognition. However, recognition and respect are not received by asking for it, but something that grows out of the relevance one’s country has for the rest of the world. Therefore we have to look for what is special about Greenland, what Greenland has that is needed in other parts of the world.

The inland ice creates biological productivity 

Greenland’s first resources with great international relevance and thus trade value were whales and fish. The enormous success these industries achieved were caused by the fact that they focused on the unique Arctic conditions and maybe especially Greenland. While most of the tropical seas can be characterized as marine deserts with a minimal biological productivity, the seas surrounding Greenland are especially rich in nutrients. The nutritious water causes a great biological productivity, which shows in the high abundance of whales, seals and fish. We are still not familiar with all the causes of this particular richness, but a part of it is caused by a high level of easily accessible mineral nutrient that are found in finely dispersed rock material washed out into the sea by the melt water from the Greenland Ice Sheet. Thus, to some extend, the richness is a result of something unique for Greenland, namely the only ice sheet on the northern hemisphere.

Even though it might not seem obvious at first, there is a connection between the existence of the Inland Ice and biological productivity. This is due to geology and biology being linked through so called bio-geo-chemical cycles. All organisms are built up of a combination of elements. The majority of an organism consists of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen, which are the main components of the atmosphere and the ocean. However the organisms need a wide range of elements to function. Great amounts of phosphor, potassium, magnesium, calcium and iron are needed to build up an organism and all the enzymes that support the function of life contain more or less exotic metals. All of those elements are components in the crustal rocks of the Earth. When the rocks weather the chemical elements, to a varying degree, dissolve in rainwater and are being washed out into the ocean via rivers or seep down into the groundwater. Through the years the most easily soluble elements are thus moved from the land to the sea. Some precipitate, some are used by the organisms in the sea, but eventually they all end up on the seafloor. The seafloor will at some point sink back into the interior of Earth where the sediments will melt after millions or billions of years and at last return to the crust as magma that will solidify and become new rocks. The cycle is complete. 

In areas with volcanic activity the soils become replenished with nutrients and therefore are generally more fertile. These areas are typically rich and have high population densities.

Areas with no volcanic activity will slowly be depleted in the vanishing nutrients that the organisms need to thrive. Especially in the tropics the warm and humid conditions cause rapid weathering and leaching of the nutrients. As long as there is fresh material present, there will be a high level of biological productivity. Gradually the reserves of mineral nutrients will be depleted. The least soluble components of the soil are alumina and iron oxide, which remain and form red tropical soils. Thick layers of this so-called laterite cover large areas in the tropics and sub-tropics, which means that the plants’ roots can’t reach the nutrient bearing layers deeper in the ground. 

This is where glaciation enters the picture. A glacier’s inner dynamics are driven by new ice forming on the upper parts while the lower parts gradually melt. The ice therefore moves away from areas of accumulation towards the margins where it melts. When the ice traverses the land it crushes the crustal rocks into a fine, silky glacial rock flour. The glacial rock flour is deposited along the ice front or led into the sea via streams of melt water. The glacial rock flour replenishes the nutrient content in the soil in front of the ice. 

Wealth is linked to soil quality

In Western Europe and North America we believe that our wealth is a result of our high intelligence and diligence. However the cause of our wealth is quite literary to be found in the underground. The Danish writer Jeppe Åkjær wrote vividly about the misery of the barren moor of Denmark opposed to the richness of the fertile grounds. At a global level, this is the case as well. If one looks at the global distribution of crop yields per hectare one finds very large contrasts. The agricultural zone covering North America and Northern Europe is especially significant. Within this zone a substantial part of the world’s total food production is grown. Today the high productivity is to a certain degree a result of a highly industrialized agriculture using a large amount of fertilizers and pesticides, but the reason for the development of this high efficiency is the extraordinary fertile soil in that specific zone. The belt of extremely fertile soil marks the marginal zone of the great American and European ice sheets during the last Ice Age. Here the soils contain all the mineral nutrients plants need to grow. Therefore there are good reasons to believe that it is possible to revitalize exhausted fields by copying what the glaciers did during the Ice Age.

Attempts to re-mineralize exhausted soils

Through the past decades a wide range of initiatives have been taken to re-mineralize exhausted fields by adding mechanically ground rocks to the soil. A number of scientific experiments have shown that artificially ground rocks can improve the fertility of soil while other experiments have proved doubtful or even no effect. It is difficult to draw clear conclusions from these studies and the inconsistency of the results may stem from the fact that different types of rocks were used and the crushing have resulted in different grain size distribution in the products. Still there exists enough evidence that it is worth conducting further experiments.

The grinding process consumes a great amount of energy and that makes the process expensive and environmentally problematic.

The melt water from the Greenlandic Inland Ice brings about one billion tons glacial rock flour to the Greenlandic coast every year. The majority sinks to the bottom of fjords and lakes and the rest ends up in the ocean. The part that is deposited in lakes and fjords forms thick layers of mud under the cold water. It never gets into contact with the surrounding environment and thus does not contribute with nutrients to either the sea or the living organisms on land. For millennia the ice has generated enormous deposits in fjords and lakes with the mineral nutrient still intact. Greenland therefore has a great resource of finely ground glacial rock flour that can be used without energy intensive industrial processing and minimal need for expensive new infrastructure. It is unlikely that extraction and transport will have significant negative impact on the local environment. The meltwater rivers and fjords are already saturated with sediment extraction will not increase the turbidity of the water. Because the material in the deposits is isolated from the surroundings it is not a part of the nutrient ‘budget’ of the sea or land, and exploitation of the material will not change the nutrient supply for the surrounding eco-systems.

Investigating environmental consequences 

There seem to be little negative consequences for the environment or the Greenlandic society even if extracting large amounts of the glacial rock flour, but it is still a topic we will have to clarify through further research. We will also research the possible negative consequences of transporting the material and adding it to the soil in other parts of the world. Regarding the transport we will analyse the energy consumption and CO2 emission associated with shipping

Using large vessels like those used for ore shipping emits ca 7 gram CO2 per kilometre per ton. Grinding of natural rocks at the site rock flour usage rather than importing the natural glacial rock flour would lead to around 100 kilograms CO2 emission per ton. (This number is depending on a number of factors like which energy sources one would use). From an environmental perspective it will thus be an advantage to use the natural Greenlandic glacial rock flour almost no matter where in the world one would wish to use it.

Regarding the climate economic aspect it is important to mention that the Greenlandic glacial rock flour absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere during the weathering process that releases the nutrients in the ground. We will examine how effective and how fast the glacial rock flour react with the CO2 in the air. However, we know, from the chemical composition in the glacial rock flour, that the flour’s ability to absorb CO2 most likely is greater than the amount of CO2 emitted during shipping the material at distances up to 10.000 kilometres.

With generous support from the Novo Nordisk Foundation we can now start researching the opportunities and problems linked to moving large amounts of mud from Greenland to the tropics. We started the project on the 27th of April with a symposium in the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters with kind support from the Academy. We hope to bring good news from the North in the following years.