Climate-friendly agriculture: melting Greenland glaciers offer an answer

NUUK FJORD, Greenland, November 18 (Reuters) – On a shore near Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, a local scientist points to a paradox emerging as the island’s glaciers recede: one of the most alarming consequences of warming climate could provide a means of limiting its effects.

“It’s kind of a wonderful material,” says Minik Rosing, originally from Greenland, referring to the ultra-fine silt deposited when glaciers melt.

Known as glacial rock meal, silt is crushed into nanoparticles by the weight of the receding ice cap, which deposits about a billion tonnes of it on the world’s largest island per year.

Professor Minik Rosing and his team at the University of Copenhagen have established that nutrient-rich sludge increases agricultural production when applied to agricultural land and absorbs carbon dioxide from the air during the process.

Scientists at the multinational brewer Carlsberg (CARLb.CO) are also investigating and found that adding 25 tonnes of glacial rock meal per hectare increased crop yields in barley fields in Denmark by 30%.

Likewise, researchers at the University of Ghana have managed to increase maize yields by 30% by using glacial rock meal to offset the impact of rain and heat on poor farmland.

The nanoscale size of silt particles is what allows plants to have more access to nutrients, including potassium, calcium, and silicon, compared to normal rocky farmland.

“We are the stage of this project where we really know it works,” said Rosing. “There are a lot of barriers between this and a large-scale industry, but the potential is definitely there.”

His team asked the Novo Nordisk Foundation, owner of drug maker Novo Nordisk (NOVOb.CO), to expand its funding for the project.

After the small tests, over the next three years, larger scale field tests are planned in Denmark and Ghana to assess whether it is cost effective to ship the equipment to farmers around the world.

Scientists also plan to start testing the material on other types of soil in Australia, France, Italy and the United States next year.


The small size of silt particles also helps speed up a natural process by which rocks absorb CO2.

When silt dissolves in rainwater and releases its nutrients, it undergoes a chemical reaction that traps carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The solution is then washed with drainage water and finally deposited on the seabed in the form of carbonate minerals.

The idea of ​​applying fine-grained rock to agricultural land is not new and several studies have shown that by-products from mining or quarrying can improve soil quality. But the method gained interest because of the added benefit of absorbing CO2.

“This awareness has been a catalyst for much more research in this area,” said David Beerling, professor at the University of Sheffield and lead author of a study on ground basalt.

The study found that spreading finely ground basalt on fields, while helping crops to grow, removes CO2 from the atmosphere at a cost comparable to other carbon capture methods.

Such detailed calculations have not yet been made for glacial rock meal, but tests carried out by scientists in Copenhagen indicated that a ton of glacial rock meal would absorb between 250 and 300 kilograms of CO2 when used. applied to fields, potentially allowing farmers to sell this as carbon. credits.

With large quantities readily available off the coast of Greenland, Rosing says this could be an alternative to supplying rock dust from mines or its mechanical crushing.

Carlsberg scientists see it as a potentially more sustainable alternative to conventional fertilizers.

“It would be nice if we could use it as a substitute for nutrients like phosphorus which are expected to run out in 50 to 100 years,” Pai Rosager Pedas, senior scientist at the brewer’s research lab.

Glacial rock meal has the potential to replace phosphorus, mainly mined in China, Morocco and the United States, or potassium, mined in Canada and Russia. However, nitrogen, which is made from ammonia through an energy-intensive process, still needs to be added.


The Canadian fertilizer company Nutrien (NTR.TO) said it had studied the extraction and shipping of silt from deposits outside Greenland, but found that it was not economically viable.

“The stage of development of glacial rock meal in Greenland is indeed very early and we cannot speculate on its potential at this stage,” a spokesperson said.

Greenland’s new government, which has taken a more cautious approach to developing the country’s natural resources, hopes that the mud can one day bring much-needed income as an alternative to dirtier forms of mining. Read more

“This is a really interesting resource and part of a positive story that we want to tell the world,” Resources Minister Naaja Nathanielsen told Reuters.

“We don’t need to blow up a mountain top or build a processing plant,” she told potential investors during a presentation in Nuuk in September.

Government officials will present the mineral at a mining conference in Vancouver early next year, although they say commercial development and use could take years.

The ministry has received an investigation from a group of local entrepreneurs who aim to apply for an exploration permit, a preliminary step.

The more expensive process of obtaining a mining license would require detailed studies of the impact on the environment and local society.

“Glacier flour is incredibly interesting, also because of the volumes. It can easily be shipped to farmers in containers,” said Verner Hammeken, CEO of Greenland’s state-owned shipping company, Royal Arctic Line.

Scientists from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Ghana say large-scale success could improve food security and economic imbalances due in part to an uneven distribution of good quality farmland across the world.

Geological studies show that the best agricultural land, which stretches across parts of North America and Europe, was covered with ice during the last Ice Age.

As is the case in Greenland today, the thick layer of ice has firmed and revitalized the ground.

“In Northern Europe, we think the reason we’re better off than the rest of the world is because we’re a lot smarter than everyone else. In fact, we just have better ground under our rubber boots,” Rosing said.

Reporting by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen; edited by Barbara Lewis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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