Aarhus Universitets segl

No. 482: South Greenland - Regional environmental baseline assessment for mining activities

Fritt-Rasmussen, J., Raundrup, K. & Mosbech, A. (Eds). 2023. South Greenland - Regional environmental baseline assessment for mining activities. Aarhus University, DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, 201 pp. Scientific Report No. 482 http://dce2.au.dk/pub/SR482.pdf


The purpose of a Regional Baseline Assessment (RBA) is to provide information to support environmentally sound planning and regulation of mining activities by summarising existing regional background information supplemented with new studies and making these results operational and easily accessible. The RBA for South Greenland compiles existing spatial baseline information on geology, environmental chemistry, biodiversity, human use, and heritage values of South Greenland. The existing information has been supplemented with a vegetation mapping study and additional sampling and chemical analysis of environmental samples. Based on the current information, an integrated spatial overlay analysis was compiled, which highlights areas with potential conflict zones between possible future mining activities and areas of biological, human and heritage values interest.

The available information is presented and described on a general level in the report and supported by overview maps. The full data are given in NatureMap.gl and an integrated project-specific webGIS (rba.eamra.gl). The scientific report “South Greenland – Regional Environmental Baseline Assessment for mining activities” is comprised of 9 chapters and 4 appendices.

Chapter 1 Introduction – Regional baseline assessments (RBA) of mining activities in South Greenland

Mining activities (exploration, exploitation and transport) are bound to have a certain impact on nature and environment. In Greenland, as in other countries, it is often necessary to set up temporary industrial zones in connection with mining. Mining has a negative impact on nature, the original environmental conditions and occasionally cultural heritage, and it may limit other types of human use in the area. Environmental regulations and nature planning aim to ensure that the existing nature and environment are not destroyed to the detriment of current as well as future generations, while still creating the possibility of developing mining activities. Sufficient background knowledge about process technology, geochemistry, ecotoxicology, biodiversity, and ecological contexts can help predict the impacts of new mining projects and often by planning, mitigation and regulation largely limit any effects beyond the actual area of exploitation.

Regional Baseline Assessments (RBA) of mining activities will, for selected areas of mining interest, provide:

available knowledge of the location of vulnerable and important areas through studies of the distribution of plant and animal species as well as local knowledge of the areas.

updated knowledge of natural background levels for selected elements.

improved public access to updated environmentally relevant knowledge and data via, e.g., NatureMap (naturemap.eamra.gl).

Chapter 2 Geological setting of South Greenland from a mining perspective

This chapter gives a short overview of the geological setting of South Greenland with focus on descriptions of localities of economic interest, including specifications of enriched elements. More details can be found in Appendix 1 “Geology in South Greenland”. This information provides an important understanding of the geological baseline levels in the Area of Interest (AOI). In South Greenland, there are several occurrences of economic interest. Based on the environmental geochemistry, some of the elements that may potentially have an impact on the environment and need to be managed have been identified. An overview of these occurrences is given in Table 2.1.

Chapter 3 The environmental baseline chemistry of South Greenland

This chapter gives an overview of the available environmental chemistry data on South Greenland. The data are derived from different projects and presented here as median, minimum, and maximum values. Data can be found in the environmental chemistry database “AMDA”, maintained by the DCE/GINR Environmental Datacenter.

The baseline environmental chemistry of South Greenland has been investigated during the past approx. 40 years, mostly in relation to the mineral prospects mentioned in Chapter 2 and exploration and exploitation activities (Figure 3.1).  Overall, the major types of environmental samples available are of blue mussels (Mytilus edulis), crinkled snow lichens (Flavocetraria nivalis), sediments, fresh water (filtered and unfiltered), shorthorn sculpin (Myoxocephalus scorpius) and seaweed (Fucus vesiculosus and Ascophyllum nodosum). Analyses of other matrices are also available and found in the AMDA database.

Based on all available baseline data (samples representing unpolluted conditions) in the AMDA database, “Greenland median” concentration values of approx. 70 different elements in eight different sample types have been calculated. Baseline median values have also been calculated for eight separate larger regions of Greenland. Here, the “South Greenland median” is of primary relevance to the area of interest for this assessment report. The full list of regional median concentration values of the different elements in the different sample types are given in Appendix 2.

Chapter 4 Biodiversity and biologically important and protected areas

This chapter gives an overview of the biological environment. This includes presenting the regular occurring fauna as well as the significance of the populations at three different levels: at AOI scale, at Greenland scale and at global scale. The threat status according to the red list (summarised based on the IUCN threat categories: LC, least concern; NT, near threatened; VU, vulnerable; EN, endangered; and CR, critically endangered) both at national and global level is presented in Table 4.1 (fauna) and Table 4.2 (flora).

As the offshore areas are not included, only marine mammals and fish occurring in the coastal environment are included. Of the marine mammals the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) is of particular importance as the major part of the Greenland population is found in the AOI. There is a single area where this species still haul-out – at the archipelago Qeqertat east of Narsaq Kujalleq (Narsarmijit). Most of the whales occurring in Southwest Greenland stay in offshore waters however, minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) and to a lesser degree humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) occur along the coast and in the outer parts of the fjords in the summertime.

A large section of the chapter is dedicated to terrestrial and freshwater birds as well as seabirds. Of the birds of prey especially white-tailed eagle has relative high densities of nesting territories, and a significant part of the Greenland population is found in the AOI. The western AOI is very important for the Greenland harlequin duck population (Histrionicus histrionicus). Several birds associated with the marine environment breed and winter in the AOI, with the most important seabird group being the alcids. The AOI is especially valuable for common murre (Uria aalgae) and thick-billed murre (Uria lomvia). In winter, the coast and the waters off Southwest Greenland, including the AOI, act as very important winter habitats for seabirds and birds breeding at freshwaters. 

More than 370 species of plants are known to occur in South Greenland and of these, 56 are found within the AOI and are red listed (vulnerable and near threatened). Ten of these species are unique to South Greenland. An updated vegetation map (scale 10x10 m) of South Greenland with 5 vegetation types (copse, dwarf shrub heath, lichen-rich shrub heath, grassland, and fen) was made. Thorough information on the methods used for making the vegetation map can be found in Appendix 3.

There are four types of protected areas in the South Greenland AOI. The areas fall within the legislation related to “Nature protection areas”, “The bird protection act”, “Ramsar sites” and “The UNESCO’s World Heritage List”. Within the AOI three sites are “Nature protection areas”: Uunartoq, and the two valleys Qinngua and Klosterdalen. There are three sites in the “Bird protection act”: Kitsissut Avalliit (also the AOI’s only Ramsar site, no. 388), Indre Kitsissut and the islands of Qeqertat east of Narsaq Kujalleq (Narsarmijit). In 2017 an area called “Kujataa – a subarctic farming landscape in Greenland” was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The UNESCO protected area is composed of several land areas surrounded by a buffer zone.

Due to lack of specific knowledge of distribution and diversity, fungi, bryophytes, and invertebrates are not included in this report. Furthermore, some of the results presented in this chapter is based on relatively old data. This holds particularly true for the distribution of plant species, and several of the bird colonies have not been surveyed in recent years.

Chapter 5 Human use

This chapter gives an overview of the human use i.e., agriculture/farming (sheep and reindeer as well as muskox introductions), use of marine resources, plantations as well as tourism and larger technical infrastructures. Human use of the resources in South Greenland is characterised by the presence of land-based agriculture and farming. It is the only region in Greenland where this takes place at a large scale. South Greenland is home to approximately 6,500 inhabitants – ca. 5,600 people in the towns of Qaqortoq, Narsaq and Nanortalik, and ca. 900 in the settlements including sheep farms.

Agriculture was first introduced in the area by the Norse ca. 985 AD. For centuries the Norse farmed e.g., sheep and cattle, but from ca. 1450 AD and the following 4-500 year period agriculture and farming was absent from Greenland. Sheep farming was re-introduced in 1915 and today there are 37 active farms with ca. 18000 ewes and ca. 350 heads of cattle in South Greenland.

Reindeer herding takes place at two locations – at Isortoq (since 1973) and at Tuttutooq (since 1992). The combined ranges of the two herds amounts to ca. 1700 km2 and holds ca. 1200 (Isortoq) and 350 (Tuttutooq) animals. 18 muskoxen were introduced to the Ippatit valley on the northern coast of the Nanortalik peninsula in 2014. Today there are little less than 50 muskoxen in the area.

Long stretches of the coastline has fishing resources for both private as well as commercial use. In general, the commercial fishing in South Greenland is limited compared to other Greenland waters.  In the report, the important areas for fishing Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus), Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua), Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides), lumpsucker (Cyclopterus lumpus), northern shrimp (Pandalus borealis) and snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio) are presented. 

An essential part of making an RBA is to include local knowledge of the biological resources in the AOI. When plans were made for the field work in 2020, this part was an integral element, but due to Covid-19 restrictions the field work was trimmed to only include vegetation analyses, and collection of environmental samples for chemical analyses (see chapter 3). As meetings with locals, municipality representatives as well as other stakeholders were prohibited, the inclusion of updated local knowledge is not part of this chapter.

Chapter 6 Greenland’s cultural history – an introduction

This chapter gives an overview of the cultural history. The heritage zones in South Greenland are presented in Figures 6.2 and 6.2. Furthermore Figure 6.3 shows the density of registered heritage sites within a 5 km hexagon grid in South Greenland. The heritage site density mostly reveals archaeological survey intensity but also to some extent actual past settlement intensity.

While heritage sites in Greenland may be found almost everywhere, particular landscape types and features are predictively more likely than others to produce new, unregistered sites – especially larger camps or settlements. Land-scape features that normally receive heightened attention during archaeological surveys and should do so also during exploration and development activities because of their increased probability for producing heritage sites/features, can be found in Table 6.1.

Chapter 7 Integrated spatial analysis of overlapping interests

In chapters 4-6, a number of maps are presented, highlighting known distribution areas of important flora and fauna, human use of the region and concentrations of cultural heritage sites. All these features may be regarded as landscape assets or interests that should be taken into account when planning mineral resource exploration or extraction activities.

In this chapter, a summary analysis of how many of these landscape assets overlap in different parts of the area of interest (AOI) is provided. In total, 51 map layers were included in the analysis (Table 7.1). Three different analyses were conducted – one including all 51 map layers, reflecting both flora and fauna, human use and cultural heritage (Figure 7.1 and 7.2), one including 34 map layers with mainly biologically relevant information (Figure 7.3) and one based on 29 map layers with information primarily reflecting human use and cultural heritage interests (Figure 7.4).

When using the maps, it should be remembered that a large number of overlaps in an area do not necessarily mean that mineral resource activities will have a high environmental impact here. They do, however, emphasise that, given the present knowledge, several different interests need to be addressed in relation to mineral extraction operations.

Chapter 8 Mining and environmental impacts

In this chapter, an overview of the typical environmental impacts that can be expected from modern mines operated according to high international environmental standards is given. Examples of the geographical extent and duration of the effects that can be expected from a typical modern mining operation is provided for different activities. It should, however, be kept in mind that mineral projects are diverse and so are the potential environmental impacts.

The last section in this chapter describes potential environmental impacts from accidents.

Chapter 9 Future perspectives and data gaps

This chapter gives an overview of the future climatic changes expected to occur in South Greenland. It further provides examples of the data gaps identified throughout the report.