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Why Greenland sees opportunities in rapidly melting Arctic ice

This natural-color image taken on July 4, 2010, by the Advanced Land Imager on NASA's Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite, shows a sapphire-colored pond springing up as snow and ice melt atop the glaciers in southwestern Greenland. Greenland’s PM says the rapid melting of glaciers will benefit its economy and geology.

NASA/REUTERS

Amid the dark predictions by environmentalists of doom and destruction wrought by climate change and rapidly melting Arctic ice, Aleqa Hammond sees glittery diamonds, rubies, gold and so much opportunity.

Ms. Hammond, the 48-year-old prime minister of Greenland – its first female leader – is bullish about climate change and what it can do for her island, which makes up 20 per cent of the Arctic.

For Ms. Hammond, the melting ice means that hidden mountains are suddenly popping out from the fjords – and they are full of riches, including the rare earth minerals used in products such as wind turbines, magnets and fluorescent lights, along with iron, rubies, gold, diamonds – and controversially, uranium.

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"This has given Greenland a new opportunity," Ms. Hammond, elected in April, explained to the 300 participants – political leaders, senior generals, leading academics and security experts – at the Halifax International Security Forum this weekend.

With a population of only 56,000, Ms. Hammond, who studied for a couple of years at the Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit, noted that riches contained in the mountains combined with achieving self-government in 2009 will allow Greenlanders a chance to change their own course.

Outspoken and fiercely proud, Ms. Hammond is only the fifth prime minister of Greenland and was first elected to parliament in 2005. She now leads a democracy in Greenland, an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark.

Climate change, she says is not all bad – "It has brought a lot of good with it. That is because ice is … disappearing and snow is disappearing and that makes our mountains more accessible and our mountains are of great geological and economic interest."

The Arctic region is a hot issue these days as the world eyes the tremendous potential – oil and gas, new food stocks, transportation routes and minerals – because of the melting ice.

In the keynote speech to the Forum, in its fifth year, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel raised eyebrows when he spoke strongly about climate change and the Arctic, which he described as "the first new frontier of nautical exploration since the days of Ericson, Columbus and Magellan."

"Throughout human history, mankind has raced to discover the next frontier. And time after time, discovery was swiftly followed by conflict," he said. "We cannot erase this history, but we can assure that history does not repeat itself in the Arctic."

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An hour-long panel on the Arctic at the HISF included Canada's Defence Minister Rob Nicholson and his Danish counterpart, Nicolai Wammen, who spoke about Arctic sovereignty and countries working together to make sure peace reigns in the region.

Mr. Nicholson told the audience about Prime Minister Stephen Harper's annual summer visit to the region, and military exercises; he said Canada is building an icebreaker and mentioned the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships, which are to be built in Halifax.

It was noted during the panel discussion that there is too much talking among countries, while Russia is busily building a presence in the region.

"We know the Russians are way ahead of us," argues NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, who is attending the Forum. He told the Globe that what is clear to him is that "we need to get going in a hurry." He's critical of the Harper Conservative plan for the region, which is focused, he believes, too much on putting "military assets" there.

He also sees the urgent need for plans in the event of an environmental disaster as more and more commercial ships and tourist ships go through the region.

For Ms. Hammond, however, who was not included on the panel, the issue is not simply a question of defence and security.

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In a separate interview with The Globe and Mail, the former tourism executive, who trained as a teacher, said that the Arctic is not an "untouched frontier."

"It is very interesting for me to see a forum like this where some of the people are discussing about the fight for resources and the fight for territory … where I must say this is not a question about getting the rights because the rights are already by the people who are living here."

The Greenland Prime Minister joked that she and her country are very popular these days, breaking records for the number of international delegations making visits.

But there is also her refusal that her people be "victimized" by climate change. She wants to change this into a win for Greenland – "The people of the Arctic have survived climate change during the last 4,500 years that Greenlanders have lived in Greenland and we are going to make this to a winner case," she says.

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