The Arctic landscape is endowed with incomparably generous deposits of rare-earth elements, from neodymium and praseodymium to terbium and dysprosium, so many of which are critical to the energy transition. The region is becoming an increasingly attractive rare-earth mining destination as countries and companies rush to get ahead in the electric vehicle and renewable energy race.
But beyond rare-earth elements, the Arctic is home to significant volumes of other valuable natural resources, from metals such as gold, iron, lead, nickel, silver, and zinc to minerals such as mica to construction minerals such as sand, gravel, and crushed rock to precious stones such as diamonds and rubies to combustibles such as oil, gas, and coal. What is more, most of the Arctic’s natural resources are not subject to questions of ownership and exploitation rights, because they are found within clear national borders.
Metal mining and exploration has been an important industry in Alaska and the Arctic regions of mainland Canada since the discovery of gold in the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon Territory in the late nineteenth century. Mining accounts for half the income of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Canada was the world’s third-largest producer of rough diamonds by early 2020, generating 12.5 percent of global production by value and 13.5 percent by volume.
Alaska is also home to abundant resources: 12 percent of the world’s coal, 3 percent of the world’s zinc, 3.5 percent of the world’s gold, 1.6 percent of the world’s lead, 1.5 percent of the world’s silver, and 0.3 percent of the world’s copper, as per recent estimates. Alaska’s mineral industry had a reported value of $3.2 billion in 2020, despite a 15 percent decrease in exploration expenditure and a 23 percent decrease in development expenditure resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the United States’ leading producer of zinc, which accounted for 15.8 percent of the state’s aggregated exports in 2020, Alaska also produces gold, gemstones, and gravel, amongst other resources, and is set to become a major global exporter of rare earth minerals, pending the industry’s approval.
The Russian Arctic has been a site of mining operations for the past 300 years, beginning with gold and silver exploitation in the early eighteenth century and eventually evolving into one of the world’s most important suppliers of metals such as nickel, platinum, and palladium and precious stones such as diamonds (including both primary and placer deposits, the latter accounting for 99 percent of Russia’s total production). Russia also produces platinum-group metals (the Russian Arctic is the site of 40 percent of the world’s palladium production and 15 percent of the world’s platinum extraction), nickel, cobalt, chromium, manganese, copper, tungsten, and gold, in addition to rare-earth metals. The Arctic is home to more than 97 percent of Russia’s reserves of platinoids and 40 percent of Russia’s reserves of tin.
The earliest mining operation in the Arctic was that of coal exploitation on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the seventeenth century. Today, around four centuries later, Scandinavia is still an important site in the mining industry. It is, for example, home to the Kiruna mine, the world’s largest and most modern underground iron ore mine (though most of this is currently undermined). Sweden produces 93% of all iron ore and about one third of all lead and zinc generated within the European Union.
Finland is the largest nickel producer in the European Union and its only producer of cobalt, of which it has known resources that exceed 445,000 tonnes, as well as large deposits of chromite, cobalt, copper, iron, lead, limestone, talc, and zinc. Expecting to start producing lithium and graphite in the 2020s, the country also processes metals and industrial elements and is an important steel producer.
Greenland has been the site of mining operations since the late nineteenth century. Gold production ended for the first time in 160 years with the closure of the Nalunaq gold mine in 2014. While there are only two functioning mines in Greenland at present, one that produces rubies and another that produces anorthosite (which is used in plastic coatings, amongst other applications), dozens of companies are engaged in exploration projects and five have digging licenses. The country has significant reserves of rare earth minerals such as neodymium and dysprosium, enough to meet at least a quarter of future global demand at 38.5 million tonnes, as well as reserves of gold, iron, corundum, anorthosite, uranium, zinc, lead, oil, gas, and other natural resources, though the local population has shown great resistance to developing the country’s mining industry despite the economic benefits it stands to gain. Despite being developed, the Kvanefjeld uranium project was suspended after Greenland’s parliament passed legislation to prohibit uranium exploration in 2021.
Aluminum is Iceland’s leading mineral commodity. The country also produces ferrosilicon and diatomite.
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