Greenland is a large country with an area of more than 2 million square kilometers. Although most of Greenland is covered by the Inland Ice, the ice-free part along the coasts comprises more than 400.000 km2; this is much larger than most European countries, slightly smaller than Sweden, and slightly larger than Norway and Germany. With a complex and several billion years old geological history, Greenland offers interesting possibilities for exploitation of many different commodities in a variety of geological terrains. Despite optimism and policy-driven marketing and hype in the Greenland society in the new millennium, successful examples are, however, few, but why? To answer this question, an analysis of the historical and ongoing mineral exploration focuses on description and analysis of drivers at many different levels, ranging from simple profit for owners and shareholders to specific political agendas with focus on strategically important resources, beginning with cryolite, followed by uranium, and more recently rare earth elements (REE) together with other specialty metals (see definitions in Table 1).

Table 1 Terms, abbreviations, and definitions used in the present paper with comments in relation to drivers

In contrast to the Nordic countries Finland, Norway, and Sweden (Eilu et al. 2012; Weihed 2022), Greenland never developed a permanent mining industry driven by society’s need for base metals and other commodities. Such lack of continuity makes it difficult for industry to invest due to lack of a qualified labor force and limited experience in the political system of the long-term economical fluctuations of mining projects.

The present paper systematically reviews the mining and exploration history of Greenland with a compilation of all historical information of licenses. Focus is on drivers and the many different companies that have been involved over time and their total investments. Large international companies have been active from time to time, but Greenland has had long periods without any active mining, and numerous companies have been established and closed again and have been in Greenland for a few years, whereupon they preferred to explore in other countries. In later decades, mineral exploration in Greenland has been driven by a large number of so-called junior mineral companies. They all have a restricted financial base, and they are always looking for investors. The philosophy is to get a good idea or take over a project, raise money for new exploration, develop the prospect to be more interesting, raise more money for additional exploration, and if being so lucky that significant additional reserves can be demonstrated or that commodity prices raise significantly within the time of licensing, eventually sell to larger companies that have the financial and operational power to initiate the actual mining activity.

Such a process tends to give stepwise added knowledge on occurrences/deposits that in most cases have been known for many decades. In some cases, interesting deposits have seen several previous license holders, but in many cases, there is still a high risk that exploitation will never happen.

Methods, data, data gaps, and further information

Knowledge on the geology of Greenland, its mineral resources, and geological and geophysical data is easily accessible compared to many other countries. The Greenland Mineral Resources Portal ( (Greenland portal hereafter), operated jointly by the Greenland authorities and the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS), was established in 2012 and builds on previous GGU/GEUS services that were developed already in the 1980s and 1990s. The Greenland portal has interactive GIS maps that allow searching for data, reports, publications, knowledge on specific mineral occurrences, and general information within a framework of existing and some, but not all, historic licenses. The portal furthermore gives direct access to all geological maps, thematic maps, and geochemical data and compilations. The portal also provides information and access to relinquished geophysical data from company surveys and geophysical data from government funded surveys.

For the historical description and analysis of the exploration, background information on companies, license numbers, main targets, areas, and awarding and relinquishment of licenses has been compiled by the author in a large spread sheet (see tables SI1 in Supplementary material). On the Greenland portal, some maps of previous licenses can be found — but unfortunately only covering the period when licenses are active or have been granted after Greenland took over the full legislation and administration in 2009. Information has therefore been supplemented with knowledge from other sources, either publications or newsletters (overview in table SI2 in Supplementary Material). There is a particularly good overview of exploration activities in the Minex Newsletter. In many issues of Geology and Ore that have so far been published by GEUS and the Greenland authorities, they provide an overview of distribution or resource evaluations of specific commodities in Greenland but also with description of metallogenic provinces and single deposits.

So far, more than 250 companies once or presently active in Greenland have been identified. These companies have had more than 700 exploration licenses in different regions and explore for many different commodities (see table SI1 in Supplementary material). The spread sheet is, as described above, based on many different and sometimes contradicting sources, but it is the best overview publicly available today. By nature, this is a dynamic overview, and such a spread sheet should constantly be updated as many changes will take place in coming years. Some of the details are probably not fully correct in the present version and should be modified/updated for future use. Everybody is welcome to contact the author with additions or corrections.

The discussion in the present paper of the different eras in mineral exploration and the changes of license holders and investors is based on a combination of information from authorities, websites from the different companies and investors (many of these are unfortunately inactive today), direct questions to more than 30 persons that have worked for license holders, authorities, or GEUS — and in a few cases combinations or all three (see table SI3 in Supplementary material). As many important questions are related to politics and administration, several former chairmen and members of the Joint Committee have been interviewed, so have some of the former top civil servants (see table SI3 in Supplementary material).

Key reviews of mineral occurrences and deposits in Greenland

Due to the size and remoteness of Greenland, geological mapping and geological research were rather limited and sporadic before World War I, so was mineral exploration and mining apart from a few spots close to accessible coasts. The first modern reviews providing a general overview of Greenland’s mineral occurrences were published by Nielsen (1973, 1976), who together with more general geological overviews including comments on economic geology (Henriksen 2008, 2015; Henriksen et al. 2000) provide a good framework for understanding the exploration history and resource potential (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Simplified geological map of Greenland showing basement terrains and sedimentary basins (from Henriksen 2008). Red stars indicate position of mines listed in Table 2; green stars large projects listed in Table 3

More recent reviews focus on specific metallogenic provinces in Greenland that are systematically related to a variety of geological terrains: Steenfeldt et al. (1997) on South Greenland and more recently by Stendal et al. (2005), and Kolb et al. (2015, 2016, 2017) covering most of the geological terrains in Greenland.

Previous mining

The mining history of Greenland is summarized in Table 2. It is remarkable that mining has been for so many different commodities, not only metals, and that each mine has been operated by a different company. In addition to these year-long mines, Greenland has also experienced several minor and short-lived activities including test mining, such as Cu and Ag mines in South Greenland, small Cg mines or quarries in South and West Greenland, and several small coal mines and marble quarries in West Greenland (Secher 2004, 2008; Sejersen 2015).

Table 2 Overview of main mining activities in Greenland. SG: South Greenland, WG: West Greenland, EG: East Greenland

The economical outcome of the different mining activities has been rather varying, so were the reasons for closing mines. Ivittuut, Qullissat, Blyklippen, Black Angel, and Nalunaq all closed when proven reserves were exhausted with the knowledge and technology at the time of decision. There are, however, still discussions whether additional reserves eventually could be exploited in Ivittuut and attempts to re-open both Black Angel and Nalunaq have been discussed from time to time.

The Ivittuut cryolite mine gave a huge profit to the owners, including the Danish State (Topp 1990, 2009). In periods of time Cominco and Boliden also got profit from Black Angel and paid significant taxes (Lodberg 1990), whereas Qullissat, Blyklippen, and Nalunaq were all economically marginal, but still created jobs and income for local society. Seqi closed for economic reasons, the reserves are huge and could be strategically important in the future. The resources of the rubies in Aappaluttoq and elsewhere in the region, and the anorthosite in White Mountain are also high. The future of these mines is primarily defined by the markets and specific offtake agreements for their products.

Drivers by world class analogues

For decades, mineral prospectors in Greenland were inspired by classical analogues elsewhere in the World such as layered intrusions (Bushveld type), porphyry deposits (Climax types), and Norilsk Ni conduit type deposits. Prospectors looked for specific analogue deposits, although many of the possible targets found in Greenland were completely different in geological setting, size, petrology, and age but still on their own very interesting targets.. Knowing Bushveld in South Africa with mining of large reserves of chromite and PGE (Merensky reef) already before World War II, it was quite natural for exploration companies also to look at layered igneous intrusions in Greenland such as the World-famous Skaergaard intrusion in East Greenland. Skaergaard was described in classical papers already in the 1930s. Bushveld is, however, much larger, much older, and situated centrally in a Precambrian craton, whereas the rather small Skaergaard intrusion is in a position close the break-up zone between North America and Europe when plate separation started in the Paleocene. Although being an almost closed system, the petrology of Skaergaard intrusion is complicated with different phases of crystallization and liquid immiscibility. With a much better understanding of the crystallization history (Nielsen et al. 2005, 2019) and better 3D models, the various zones of mineralization are much better understood than before (Nielsen 2004; Nielsen et al. 2009). There is no doubt that large resources of Au, Pd, and other PGE in the so-called Platinova reef are well-documented and could be made profitable, if and when logistical challenges are solved. The outcrop areas of the actual Skaergaard intrusion and the surroundings have over the years been licensed by many different companies, and with changes in ownerships between companies and their subsidiaries (Table 3) (see also table SI1 in Supplementary material). With several rather large drilling programs and detailed analyses, knowledge and well-documented reserve estimates have increased significantly. A similar gold-bearing horizon overlying PGE enriched layers have also been found in the Kap Edward Holm complex situated ~ 10 km west of Skaergaard (Bird et al. 1995).

Table 3 Timeline for selected projects on large mineral deposits in Greenland

Low-grade, but voluminous, porphyry Mo deposits in North America, such as the Climax and Henderson mines in Colorado, have also affected Greenland exploration, especially Malmbjerget (discovered 1954, see Harpøth et al. 1986) and Flammefjeld (discovered 1982, see Geyti and Thomasen 1984), both in East Greenland. The classical porphyry deposits are formed in a subduction zone environment — a geological environment that is not well documented in the post-Precambrian terrains in Greenland. The East Greenland mineralizations are rift-related and associated with the top of granite intrusions formed at the time of Tertiary continental break-up. The Malmbjerget molybdenum deposit is known in detail, thanks to the initial exploration by Nordisk Mineselskab from 1952 to 1962, and especially through the intense appraisal activities by Arktisk Mineselskab from 1962 where three adits were constructed and ~ 22 km of cores was drilled. Quadra Mining, through their subsidiary International Molybdenum — also known as Intermolly (2002 − 2012), continued exploration in the new millennium. The Polish company KGHM took over Quadra Mining and hence their Greenland licenses in the period 2013–2017 and was followed by Greenland Resources (2018 −) (Table 3). Flammefjeld, situated relatively close to Skaergaard, has not been explored in the same detail, but is presently licensed by 21st North.

Over long periods of time, there has been mineral exploration for Ni in Greenland inspired by the mines in the Norilsk region in Arctic Russia. Such deposits are linked to large volumes of flood basalts. Contaminated lava units low in Ni and Cu suggest the existence of major deposits in the underlying magma chambers or in the sill and dyke conduit systems. To make the model work, contamination of basement and/or sedimentary rocks is needed so the magma can reach sulphur saturation. Such mineral occurrences are likely below the Tertiary volcanics on Disko − Nuussuaq, potentially also in the Tertiary volcanics in East Greenland and the Proterozoic volcanics in North Greenland (Stensgaard et al. 2018). Using this model on Disko − Nuussuaq, Cominco and Greenex carried out exploration in 1980s, Falconbridge in 1990s (Lightfoot et al. 1997), Vismand Exploration in 2002 − 2011, Avaanaa Resources in 2012 − 2016, and recently Blue Jay Mining and Anglo American continue this exploration.

Drivers by Canadian examples

In addition to search for World Class deposits, as mentioned above, examples from Canadian exploration — across either the Labrador Sea, Davis Strait, Baffin Bay, or Nares Strait in the north have affected Greenland exploration activities, and in some cases even given a boom in exploration investments with many new companies applying for licenses.

The two underground Zn-Pb mines, Navisivik on Baffin Island (1976 − 2002) and Polaris on Little Cornwallis Island (1982 − 2002), both in the Canadian High Arctic inspired exploration in the Franklinian Basin in North Greenland. The Citronen Fjord Zn-Pb deposit was discovered by geologists from Platinova in 1993, and more than 32 km of cores were drilled in the following years. Ironbark took over the project in 2007 and developed it further through additional drilling and detailed documentation of reserves. From a mineral systems point of view, it is the prolongation of a several thousand km long sedimentary basin with similar Palaeozoic platform and trough sediments. In resource size, the Citronen Fjord is a World class Zn-Pb deposit; it has been described in detail by Van der Stijl and Mosher (1998).

The Canadian diamonds rush with discoveries in the early 1990s and opening of mines such as Ekati (1998 −) and Diavik (2003 −) in the Lac de Gras kimberlite field led to an exploration boom for diamonds in West Greenland. This was driven by many different companies from Canada, Australia, but also from Denmark and Greenland — and in various joint ventures (see table SI1 in Supplementary material). Specific indicator types of garnets that are associated with kimberlites were found in large areas early in this exploration boom. Later, numerous microdiamonds and some macrodiamonds were found in kimberlite dykes different places in central West Greenland, especially in the Maniitsoq − Kangerlussuaq area in the mid-late 90 s and the start of the 00 s (Jensen and Secher 2004; Secher and Jensen 2004). Interestingly, it is now well documented that the diamondiferous kimberlite-petrology system works in the thick Archean basement in Greenland, but so far only dykes and sills of rather small volumes — not with discovery of any large pipes/diatremes like in Canada. The Greenlandic diamond boom died out early in the new millennium.

The discovery of the Ni-Cu-Co deposit Voisey’s Bay on Baffin Island in 1994 (Lightfoot et al. 2012) with start of mining already in 2005 gave renewed focus on the norite belt in the Maniitsoq region, where Ni occurrences were drilled by Kryolitselskabet already in the 1960s, and later explored by Cominco, Falconbridge, and NunaMinerals, respectively. North American Nickel started new exploration in 2011 and have carried out a large drilling program with many significant ore intersections. It has been suggested, but also intensively questioned, that the mineralization model has a possible relation to an impact like in Sudbury, Canada (Garde et al. 2013). The many discoveries demonstrated so far are, however, discontinuous ore bodies in rather small outcrop areas but in a rather large arch-shaped belt of 20 by 70 km).

The large open-pit Mary River iron mine on northern Baffin Island has massive high-grade Fe ore (65–70%). The deposit was discovered in 1962, construction started in 2007, mining in 2014, and the first export was in 2015. The deposit is a typical banded iron formation hosted in a folded Archaean supracrustal belt with various volcanics and siliciclastic metasediments. It is an important analogue for exploration of BIF deposits in Northwest Greenland. The Mary River mine is also interesting as a direct comparison with the Isua deposit in Greenland, especially with logistics, size, and ore grade. The key difference between these two deposits is a much higher ore grade in Mary River.

Different era in exploration and exploitation, different drivers

In the analysis and presentation of the mineral exploration history and the drivers behind, it was quite natural to make a division into some specific eras defined by distinct differences in political systems, corporate structures, public versus private investments, the different drivers of the exploration, and how the eras ended.

Cryolite era

Kryolitselskabet Øresund A/S (KØ) received a new concession in 1939 to continue exploitation of the famous cryolite mine in Ivittuut including local exploration for additional cryolite reserves. KØ also carried out exploration in a large area in South and West Greenland from 1939 to 1987 (Keto 1998). The Danish State was a major shareholder (50%). The 1939 concession had no fees nor royalties; income to society was through ownership of shares and personal taxes.

Being important in the process of alumina smelting, cryolite was of great strategic importance for the aviation industry — especially during and shortly after world war II. This was one of several reasons for the US interest in Greenland during and after the war (Knudsen and Nielsen 2016). Hence, the Naval Base Groennedal was established by the US Navy in 1943, approximately 10 km northeast of Ivittuut, with a well-protected deep-water harbor. Denmark took over the base in 1951 and used it as headquarter for the Greenland Command, until 2012. After the war, KØ restarted mineral exploration, primarily looking for additional cryolite deposits close to the mine but also prospecting for other mineral occurrences such as magnetite and zirconium in South Greenland. From the early 1960s, KØ was a first mover in modern mineral exploration in Greenland using fix-winged airborne magnetics and systematic helicopter reconnaissance with check of all gossans, rusty zones, and other abnormal colorations in the basement terrain throughout most of West Greenland (Keto 1998).

KØ discovered the Isua Fe deposit by airborne magnetics in 1965 and followed up with field work and core drilling in the following years in corporation with Marcona (later licensed and drilled by Rio Tinto). London Mining got an exploitation license in 2013 after additional drilling and logistical and environmental studies) (Table 3). Among other important KØ discoveries were the Ni norite belt in the Manitsoq region (later licensed and drilled by Cominco, now by North American Nickel with an extensive exploration program), the Itipilua dunite (later known as the Seqi olivine mine), the anorthosite at Qaqortorssuaq in 1977 (later known as the White Mountain mine), and the Qaqarssuk carbonatite complex with its REE, Nb, and P occurrences (discovered in 1969). Several graphite and sulphide occurrences in the Nordre Strømfjord region, on Lersletten, and Arveprinsens Ejland were evaluated in detail based on core drilling.

Throughout this several decades long exploration period, KØ drilled no less than 33 prospects, a total of 628 holes with 35 km of cores (Keto 1998). This was a major achievement that in philosophy and techniques set the game for later exploration by many other companies. It is by far the largest number of prospects drilled by a single company, and although many holes were rather shallow drilled with a Winkie rig, they provided important information on the nature of the mineral occurrences beneath gossans.

Although Keto (1998) provided a comprehensive statistical overview of many details of the exploration programs, there are no details on costs, neither external nor internal. It is, however, estimated that KØ in average used approximately 10 mio. DKK for mineral exploration per year (Hansen pers. comm. November 2021) which for more than 30 seasons (27 drilling campaigns) sums up to a total present value between of more than 1 billion DKK. This investment came from the revenue of the Ivittuut mining activity. The Kryolitselskabet exploration ended when the cryolite export stopped in 1987, and the Danish State sold their shares. Due to other investments and subsidiaries of the company, especially in food business, this sale yielded a high profit (730 mio. DKK) to the Danish State, but also many political discussions in the Danish Parliament and with Greenland (Martens 2021). At the time, Greenland politicians wanted half of the revenue used for Greenlandic purposes. Only a minor part of the revenue, 50 mio. DKK and with some subsequent direct cost including geophysical data — total in the order of 100 mio. DKK — was later used for specific Greenlandic purposes. It is estimated by Hansen (2018) that the total income from the cryolite throughout the lifetime of the mine and the processing plant in Copenhagen was in the order of 4 billion DKK (recalculated to present value).

Seen in hindsight, the cryolite era was successful — both commercially and politically. In addition to the mining of the cryolite deposit, KØ was a first mover in Greenland exploration, and they made many important discoveries and observations.

Uranium era

At the end of World War II, there was strong international focus on Uranium resources, both for military use and for civilian nuclear energy. The USA wanted to buy Greenland already in 1946 for military reasons (Knudsen and Nielsen 2016) but probably also to take control over strategic resources. In deep secrecy, American geologists carried out minor, but poorly documented, studies in Greenland in 1944 and shortly after the war. This delicate international situation put Denmark under quite some pressure from the USA in the 1940s and 1950s.

Governmentally driven uranium exploration started from 1953 by Danish State Institutions GGU and AEK/Risø. The USA — and other countries — were kept out in this early part of exploration, whereas international collaboration became important in the 1970s. The collaboration between AEK and GGU was complicated and harsh at a personal level, and especially AEK’s attempts to carry out field studies and planning of drilling without using geological expertise caused lots of frustrations in the newly established GGU (Knudsen and Nielsen 2016).

The uranium exploration included large, airborne gamma-spectrometric and ground scintillometric surveys followed by detailed geological studies, first in South Greenland, later in East and West Greenland, and then back to South Greenland. This phase of exploration provided a lot of regional geological knowledge useful for mapping and research, and later for renewed mineral exploration. The uranium occurrence at Kvanefjeld was “officially” discovered in 1956 by radiometric surveys, and confirmed by drilling in 1958 (36 holes, 3.7 km). Intensive field work and analytical studies followed over many years, including an adit in 1962 (200 tons of “ore”), further drilling in 1969 (7 holes, 1.6 km) and 1977 (27 holes, 4.2 km), and completed with test mining in 1979–1980 (10.000 tons) (Sørensen et al. 1974; Nielsen 1981; Knudsen and Nielsen 2016). Risø developed instrumentation for airborne geophysics and new analytical methods and carried out complicated beneficiation tests as it is difficult to extract the uranium from the mineral stenstrupine.

As uranium was excluded in normal mineral exploration licenses, regional uranium exploration by GGU in collaboration with Risø could work parallel to other mineral exploration activities in South, East, and West Greenland through the latest 1960s and 1970s. This was followed by specific projects supported by the Danish Energy Research Program — partly with additional funding from the EEC. This included airborne geophysical surveys and research programs such as Syduran (1978 − 1982) and Sydex (1984 − 86) (Armour-Brown et al. 1983; Keulen et al. 2014). Parallel with these efforts — and including lots of international scientific collaboration, the University of Copenhagen continued geological and mineralogical studies of the Ilímaussaq intrusion for several decades (Sørensen 2001, 2006; Sørensen et al. 2011). Ilímaussaq contains more than 200 different mineral species; many of which were first described or are only known from there, or in a few similar intrusions on the Kola Peninsula in Russia.

The uranium era in Greenland exploration stopped with Denmark’s ultimate no to nuclear power on March 29, 1985, at the same time as Greenland left the European Union (at that time called EEC) by February 1, 1985. Since that no, there has been a strong movement against uranium among NGOs and politicians in both Greenland and Denmark. This has been emphasized recently, when the new Greenlandic Government in the spring of 2021 said no to mining activities with uranium as by-product at Kvanefjeld. The main driver in the Uranium exploration era was policy at a high level between Denmark and the USA, later between Denmark and the European Union (EU) — and for the same reasons with easy access to large scale funding for exploration and research. When the political agenda changed in Denmark and Greenland, funding also stopped rather abruptly. Despite complicated collaboration in the early years, the results of intense field work, drilling, and geophysical data created an extensive knowledge that later has been used for research, mapping, and mineral exploration. This has been particularly important for exploring other commodities in the Gardar province intrusions (REE, Nb, Ta, Zr) (Tukiainen 1988; Tukiainen et al. 1984; Sørensen et al. 2011). The airborne data were the main reason behind the discovery of the Sarfartoq carbonatite in 1975 that hosts significant resources of Nb and REE (Secher 1986). Some of these occurrences/deposits are still licensed today including Kvanefjeld, Kringlerne, the Motzfeldt alkaline center, and Sarfartoq (table SI1 in Supplementary material).

Denmark had significant costs preparing nuclear power as a major national source of energy and build a new research facility with several test reactors at Risø on Sjælland. The uranium exploration in Greenland was only a minor part of this ambitious program. The costs for local geological field work, local field and airborne radiometrics, drilling with gamma logging, and test mining at Kvanefjeld through AEK, Risø, and GGU are estimated to DKK ~ 45 mio. (1979 value, see Nielsen 1981) corresponding to a present value of approx. DKK 150 mio. Additional funding for energy research through the Danish Ministry of Commerce and the European Economic Communities corresponds to a present value of 40 mio. DKK. Adding internal laboratory and personnel cost in Denmark at the University of Copenhagen, GGU and Risø, and costs for regional airborne radiometric surveys, it is estimated that the total cost for this Uranium exploration era is > 0.5 billion DKK in present value.

Nordmine era

Nordisk Mineselskab A/S, commonly known as Nordmine, was established in 1952 and received a 50-year exclusive license covering large parts of East Greenland, from 7074° 30′ N, from 30° W to the coast, by Danish Law. The company stopped its exploration activities in 1984, gave up the exclusive license, and finally liquidated in 1991. 27.5% of the shares in Nordmine was owned by the Danish State, 27.5% by large Danish companies, including the shipping magnate Knud Lauritzen and Kryolitselskabet Øresund, and the remaining part by three mining companies from Sweden and Canada (Brinch  1969). According to law, at least 55% of the shares should be controlled from Denmark, and any changes should be approved by Danish Prime Minister. Nordmine grew out of the discovery of Pb at Blyklippen, Mesters Vig, and they operated the Blyklippen mine from 1952 until 1963, when the deposit was exhausted (Thomassen 2005). The mining did not give any direct profit for the owners, but indirectly through activities. The mining activities have later been strongly criticized as much of the infrastructure was left when the mine closed, and due to environmental concerns of Pb pollution in the nearby fiord.

Nordmine carried out large systematic exploration programs with field work, sampling of stream sediments for geochemical exploration, and drilling of several prospects. Together with AMAX, they jointly owned Arktisk Minekompani A/S that was established in 1962 to explore, develop, and exploit the Malmbjerg Mo deposit under a 50-year exclusive license. This exploration phase was very intensive with construction of three adits and drilling of more than 22 km cores to outline the ore body and make the first reserve estimates.

Up through the 1970s Nordmine received additional capital from shareholders to explore in large parts of East Greenland. Harpøth et al. (1986) provided a comprehensive review of all the mineral occurrences that were explored, discovered, or evaluated by Nordisk Mineselskab A/S over more than three decades of work. In addition to Blyklippen and Malmbjerget, exploration drilling also took place on other prospects, most importantly on Ymer Ø (W, Sb), in Oksedal (Ba), and Kap Simpson (Nb, Y, Be).

When the American oil company ARCO started their petroleum exploration in Jameson Land in the early 1980s, Nordmine (11.25%) was a minor carried partner together with the newly established national oil company NUNAOIL A/S (25%). This changed when Nordmine closed in 1984.

The main driver in the Nordmine exploration era was classical profit for the owners with focus on base metals, but also under some political influence to demonstrate activities in East Greenland, a region that had been disputed between Norway and Denmark for many years. This conflict ended in the International Court in den Haag and was solved to the benefit of Denmark in 1933.

Many of the mineral occurrences found and developed by Nordmine are still being licensed today (table SI1 in Supplementary material).

The total cost of the mineral exploration in East Greenland by Nordmine and partners has been summarized by Harpøth et al. (1986) as 407 mio. DKK (1985 value), corresponding to a present value of ~ 0.85 billion DKK.

Greenex/Cominco era

In a Greenlandic context, Greenex and Cominco are best known for the Black Angel Mine at Maarmorilik in West Greenland in the 1970s and 1980s, but they also carried out interesting and significant exploration before and during the mining period, primarily in the Uummannaq area but also some regional exploration/prospecting in North, Northwest, West, and South Greenland. According to Lodberg (1990), Greenex used 30 mio. DKK for this exploration phase. The existence of Zn-Pb occurrences in the region had been known since the late 1930s. The Danish/Canadian prospector Niels Ægidius Andersen, who worked with Cominco already in the 1930s, facilitated contact between the Canadian company Cominco and the authorities in Denmark (Lodberg 1990). Greenex A/S was established in 1964, and 62.5% owned by Cominco through their subsidiary Vestgron Mines Ltd.

Greenex A/S received an exploitation license in 1971, and the mine opened in 1973 (Thomassen 2003). The exploration that led to the actual mining started in 1966. Prior to opening of the mine, the reserve estimate was 4.1 mio. tons of ore (15% Zn, 5% Pb, 28 ppm Ag). During continued exploration and mining activities, reserves tripled, and the total production ended at ~ 11.2 mio. tons of ore (12.6% Zn, 4.1% Pb, 29 ppm Ag). The complicated surface exploration was partly through the Inland Ice and included 17 drilling programs in a period of almost 20 years, 400 core holes with a total length of 160 km, at a cost of ~ 120 mio. DKK (Lodberg 1990; Thomassen 2003). The subsurface exploration program included construction of 15 km of tunnels and 190 km of drilling at a cost of ~ 190 mio. DKK (Lodberg 1990).

Due to fall in zinc price, Cominco decided to close the Canadian mine Pine Point in Northwest Territories and the Black Angel Mine in the mid-1980s. Cominco also reduced staff and eventually closed their office in Brussels that was responsible for their exploration activities in Africa and Europe including Greenland. After hectic negotiations, the Swedish company Boliden Mineral AB took over from Cominco in 1986. After a major reconstruction and significant reduction of operational costs and personnel, mining continued until 1990 (Thomassen 2003). Greenex A/S was liquidated in 1996. Many Danish and Scandinavian geologists have worked in the Black Angel mine, and the experience obtained was used on other Greenland projects, or internationally.

In 1970s, there was strong focus on environmental politics in Denmark with new laws and regulations. Previously, Greenland mining activities had been more or less environmentally unregulated (e.g. Iviituut and Mesters Vig). At Maarmorilik, there was the first real clash between companies and environmentalist/local hunters. This led to more inspection and environmental studies, especially on tailings and Pb pollution of organisms in the nearby fiord. This set a new norm for environmental regulation in Greenland.

The Black Angel was one of the few mining projects in Greenland with periods of high profit for the private owners (more than 700 mio. DKK), and for the Danish State and Greenland Home Rule as well through taxes and concession fees (more than 300 mio. DKK, ~ 900 mio. DKK in present value). The total costs of exploration recalculated to present value is ~ 0.9 billion DKK.

Despite the issues about environment and transportation through the ice-covered fiords, the mine was important for the society in Uumannaq, as many local Greenlanders worked in the mine. Several attempts to re-open the mine and take out ore from the pillars have been initiated, first by Platinova in 1997 − 1998, later from 2003 by Black Angel Mining that carried out a significant new drilling program, 8.6 km from 67 holes, and received an exploitation license in 2008. Despite reinstalling of the cable cars across the fiord and doing various technical studies, the license was relinquished in 2019 due to several years of inactivity. There is little doubt that several mio. tons of ore are left in pillars in the old mine, and with other and possibly larger occurrences towards east close to and beneath the Inland Ice, there could be a resource potential for future mining.

NUNAOIL/NunaMinerals era

NUNAOIL was established by the end of 1984 as a national oil company owned jointly between Denmark and Greenland. In addition to petroleum exploration in Jameson Land from 1984 to 1990 and project management of the so-called KANUMAS project in the period from 1989 to 1996 (Christiansen 2011, 2021), NUNAOIL also carried out mineral exploration in the years 1987 to 1998, primarily with the goal of being established as an active and visible Greenlandic company. NUNAOIL opened an office in Nuuk, Greenland, in April 1991. NUNAOIL held numerous licenses from 1990 (table SI1 Supplementary material).

Following a specific strategy to discover and develop gold occurrences in South Greenland, an in situ gold occurrence was discovered by NUNAOIL geologists in Kirkespirdalen in 1992 as a follow-up on earlier indications by GGU, MDI, and Greenex that gold was present in the region (Thaarup et al. 2020). NUNAOILS’s collaboration with and investments from firstly the American company Cyprus Minerals, later the Norwegian junior company Mindex ASA, and finally with Crew Development Corporation led to the establishment of the Nalunaq Mine but with loss of interest for first NUNAOIL and later diluted shares for NunaMinerals. The Nalunaq mine was in production from August 2004 to February 2008.

When the administration of mineral resources transferred from Denmark to Greenland in the summer of 1998, ownership of NUNAOIL A/S also changed. The Danish 50% part was taken over by the national Danish oil company DONG A/S that had little interest in mineral exploration but had strong ambitions to explore for oil outside the Danish North Sea Sector. As part of an internal agreement in Denmark, the price was set at 175 mio. DKK by the Danish Ministry of Finances. At the same time, the headquarter moved from Copenhagen to Nuuk in Greenland. With introduction of Self Governance in 2009, Greenland took over full ownership of NUNAOIL. Greenland paid 27 mio. DKK for the shares (50% of the equity by the end of 2007 plus investments the year after). Following massive relinquishments by large international oil companies within the last 5 years, NUNAOIL has been reduced in financial power and size, and the company is now dormant (Christiansen 2021).

NunaMinerals was established in late 1998, and from the beginning owned 100% by Greenland Home Rule. NunaMinerals was partly privatized from 2001, listed on Nasdaq OMX Copenhagen in the period 2008 − 2015, a period with a high level of exploration activities. Following several emissions, the Greenland ownership was reduced to 37.1% (table SI5 in Supplementary Material). In a period with relatively low commodity prices, NunaMinerals eventually ran out of money and went bankrupt in April 2015.

Although NunaMinerals held many different licenses all over Greenland, their focus was on gold, especially in the so-called Nuuk and Nanortalik Gold Provinces. In addition to being a minor partner in the Nalunaq mine until 2007 when they sold their shares to Crew Gold for 13 mio. DKK, NunaMinerals also explored the Storøen Au prospect in Godthåbsfjorden for several years, and just before they stopped, they were drilling the interesting Vagar Au prospect in South Greenland. Many of the prospects discovered or developed by NunaMinerals are licensed by other companies today, e.g., Storøen, and some of the gold occurrences in South Greenland. NunaMinerals was highly visible in the Greenlandic society and media when their activities peaked. NunaMinerals built a new large headquarter in Nuuk in 2006 and together with the Greenland authorities established certified laboratory facilities in 2006 in collaboration with Activation Laboratories Ltd. This facility stopped in 2014.

The main driver in the NUNAOIL/NunaMinerals exploration era was a combination of classical profit for owners/shareholders but mixed with a prominent and an ever-growing wish from the Greenland authorities to be directly involved in exploration and exploitation, a first attempt to build something on their own. One of the main philosophies behind national companies is to get local knowledge and experience through dedicated persons, and to have influence. NUNAOIL and NunaMinerals both had a rather small permanent staff, neither exceeding eight at any time. In contrast, the boards had a remarkable large number of persons over the years. NUNAOIL in total had 53 board members in 36 years — but only ~ 12 with direct experience from the exploration business; only 16 were on the board for more than 5 years, especially in the earliest history. NunaMinerals totally had 22 board members in 18 years, less than 10 with direct experience from the exploration business, only seven were sitting on the board for more than 5 years. This lack of continuity and experience from the exploration business has been criticized from many sources that also mention that the national companies spread their activities and exploration costs on too many large licenses which at the same time made it difficult for newcomers to apply.

It is estimated that this era had direct investments from Greenland of approximately 200 mio. DKK (table SI4 in Supplementary Material). The investments from the Danish State, DONG A/S (table SI5 in Supplementary Material), and private Danish investors cannot be presented in the same detailed way, as the trading between the Danish State and DONG was part of a large change of ownership in the Danish Energy business. It is, however, considered to be of a similar size. In addition to the public investments, NUNAOIL and NunaMinerals brought in significant capital from joint venture partners, shareholders, and through data sale.

The efforts in the NUNAOIL/NunaMinerals era led to the Nalunaq mine, which was sub-economic at the time but still yielded some value and experience for Greenland. Only a handful of active geologists today has direct knowledge and experience from this exploration phase that can be used in the future activities, so the key argument of using national companies in capacity-building failed.

Some further public investments in the mineral business have continued, but in a different way. Investments have been through Greenland Venture and in some cases jointly with the Danish investment foundation “Vækstfonden.” Recently, SISA, the Greenland Pension fund, has taken over some of the shares. The total investments in two mines and three possible mining projects, mainly as shares but also some loans, are approximately 120 mio. DKK (table SI7 in Supplementary Material), and it is expected that such investments are to be expanded when the projects develop further or if new projects reach a stage where major financing is required. This sort of co-financing seems to be important for the license holders as a signal towards other potential investors.

The Platinova era

The Platinova era appears one of the most successful periods of exploration in Greenland. Established in 1984, Platinova was a first mover, and one of the first junior companies to enter the Greenland exploration scene. Platinova clearly set a new norm for many companies exploring in the subsequent Canadian, Australian, and British era. The company was driven by its president Bob Gannicott, a knowledgeable geologist, who was later one of the key persons behind some of the successful diamond exploration and mining in Canada such as the Diavik mine.

Platinova made some important discoveries, developed some interesting projects, and came up with exploration models that many other companies have used later. Relatively little has been published about their corporate successes apart from some geological papers on specific discoveries such as the Citronen Fjord discovery in 1987 (van der Stijl and Mosher 1998), discovery of gold and PGE in the Platinova reef in the Skaergaard intrusion in late 1980s (Bird et al. 1991; Nielsen et al. 2005), and discovery of gold and PGE in the Kap Edward Holm intrusion in the early 1990s (Bird et al. 1995). Over the years, Platinova brought in several joint venture partners on their Greenland projects and some of their projects such as Citronen Fjord and Skaergaard were sold to or taken over by other companies.

When the diamond rush in West Greenland ceased out by the start of the new millennium, Platinova eventually ran out of money. Their assets and licenses were taken over by the controlling owner Scandinavian Gold A/S that eventually also went bankrupt and was dissolved in 2004. Initially, Platinova managed to stay out of the political game between Denmark and Greenland, and they pleased their Canadian investors with interesting prospects and new discoveries. Later on, Platinova had strong connections to the Greenland administration and participated in marketing trips already in 1992 (with the Greenland Premier at the time, Lars Emil Johansen). Some ideas about creating a Greenlandic exploration company started from the fall of 1990, and Platinova A/S opened an office in Nuuk in the spring of 1991. In this period, Platinova also introduced the idea of a zinc smelter in Nuuk using ore from Canada and cheap hydropower from Greenland.

In contrast to NUNAOIL/NunaMinerals, Platinova was less dependent on governmental funding from Denmark and/or Greenland. It should, however, be noted that the Greenland Home Rule invested 9.245 mio. DKK in Platinova shares in 1992 followed by additional 10 mio. DKK in 1997 (table SI4 in Supplementary Material). For a short initial period, Platinova was also partner in the grønArctic petroleum exploration license on Nuussuaq after making initial contacts to the petroleum business in Canada.

Canadian, Australian, and British era

In addition to Platinova, many other companies from the so-called Five Eyes, the English-speaking countries UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, have started exploration in Greenland within the last decades (see recent review by Menezes 2021). Historically, there have been surprisingly few US investments apart from AMAX, Marcona, and a couple of junior companies many decades back. Exploration activities have been by both large mining companies such as de Beers, Falconbridge, North American Nickel, BHP, Glencore (Table 4), and by many junior companies. The junior companies active in Greenland, and many of the involved key persons, often have a background from an exploration environment in western Australia (mainly headquartered in Perth), in Canada (mainly headquartered in Toronto or Vancouver), and more recently with broader international exploration background with headquarters close to potential investors in London. Some junior companies are private, but many of these junior companies are listed on stock markets in London, Toronto or in Sydney.

Table 4 Overview of activities by large international mining companies in Greenland

Some of the most visible and active companies were Falconbridge (1991 − 2000), Vismand Exploration (2002 − 2011), followed by Hudson Resources (West Greenland since 2002), London Mining (Isua 2005 − 2021), Tanbreez (Kringlerne since 2006), Greenland Minerals (Kvanefjeld since 2007), Ironbark (Citronen Fjord since 2007), and North American Nickel (Manitsoq area since 2007). The list of newcomers is long (table SI1 in Supplementary material), and in later years especially Blue Jay Mining has been very active and visible (Ti-sand, Mourissaq, North Greenland since 2015 — a project that has now obtained an exploitation licence; Ni-Cu-Co on Disko-Nuussuaq and other areas since 2016 with new joint venture partners).

The Canadian, Australian, and British era is a natural continuation of the exploration initiated by Platinova. It was further supported by the systematic marketing by the Greenland authorities already before they established their Minerals Office in 1994 and later took over the administration in 1998. All subsequent strategies on mineral exploration had a strong focus on marketing in especially Canada and Australia, and direct dialogue with industry. This era has so far led to several exploitation licenses but only one active mine (White Mountain) and an increasing likelihood that the ilmenite sand in North Greenland could be the next.

It seems that many of these new junior companies only have few geologists employed and that they are directly driven by investors using consultants for specific tasks. This gives a risk that new results, data, and ideas are poorly documented — or presented indirectly in promotion material and presentations only. Some of the more recent licenses look like areal reservations around license blocks of other companies with well-established targets.

Avannaa exploration era

Avannaa Exploration was an alternative junior company driven by academically strong geologists, and many of their exploration ideas relied on well-documented new research. The company was established in Denmark in November 2006, and partly taken over and sponsored by the oil company Cairn Energy from 2009. Following the dry wells offshore West Greenland in 2010 and 2011, all of Cairn’s petroleum licenses were relinquished in 2015 − 2016 (Christiansen 2021). Because of this, Cairn also stopped their investments in Avanna Resources that was forced to close their office in late 2015 and formally stopped in 2016.

Avannaa Resources had many greenfield licenses in West, East, and North Greenland, in some periods of time in joint venture with giant mining companies such as Anglo American and Boliden. As one of the few companies in recent mineral exploration history — and probably thanks to significant investments from Cairn Energy, Avannaa Resources carried out exploration in regions of Greenland that are logistically difficult and expensive to access.

Avannaa Resources made several new discoveries such as a large REE deposit north of Uummannaq (Mott et al. 2013), and a new diamond province in eastern Disko Bay (Bernstein et al. 2013) and developed other projects significantly by field work, geophysical data acquisition and large dedicated drilling programs. Some of their most promising prospects on Disko and Nuussuaq are presently licensed by Blue Jay and Anglo American.

Chinese era

The Chinese era in Greenland mineral exploration has created a lot of discussions — and a lot of political tension between Greenland, Denmark, and the US — but so far, it has not changed anything in terms of geological knowledge or evaluation of resources.

Despite the political alliance between the USA and Denmark, there is little doubt that the Greenland authorities in a period invited Chinese companies, both national and privately owned, to invest in mineral exploration and exploitation in Greenland. China was included in the marketing trips with many visits including both conferences and meetings with official state delegation and Chinese companies in 2011 − 2014 (see Minex 41–45), and Chinese companies were encouraged by the Greenland Government to invest in both mineral and infrastructure projects. Several Chinese companies, some of them directly controlled by the Chinese Government, have invested, or partnered in specific projects in Greenland (see table SI7 in Supplementary material), and in other cases tried to invest in various infrastructure projects. Eventually this was not tolerated by the Danish Government, possibly after pressure from the USA, and it stopped in 2018 when Denmark provided funding for new airports.

So far, there has only been one exploration project with a Chinese operator. In a joint venture, Jiangxi Zhongrun held a license in East Greenland including field work and core drilling (1.7 km in 2011 and 2012) with focus on Cu occurrences in the Triassic red bed sediments. Apparently, this ended rather abruptly as field equipment and cores were left in the field for several years.

With the complexity of the full value chain in mind, where China has near monopoly on the REE processing and refining of the different elements, and fabrication of magnets and solar panels, it is highly likely that China will be involved in the case of any future REE mining project in Greenland (Andersson et al. 2018; Kalvig and Lucht 2021; Kalvig 2021).

In some ways, the Chinese era ended before it really started, but with a high likelihood that China will be involved in parts of the value chain for REE in case such mining starts in Greenland. It is also likely that we will see new politically driven Chinese attempts to invest in Greenland, but depending on the political climate between Denmark, Greenland, and the USA at a given time.

Level of exploration activities and investments

Despite long periods without mining, mineral exploration has been continuous in Greenland through many periods with changes of commodity prices. In some periods of time, industry has benefitted from new strategies that focused on incentives for industry (see Thorup et al. 2020); in other periods, new tax-systems, fees, regulations, and procedures made it more difficult to operate.

The level of activities since 1985 is summarized in Fig. 2, using some simple parameters such as total number of exploration and exploitation licenses, licensed areas, drilled meters — and a summarized number of expenditures. Compared to an overview of mineral exploration expenditures in the Western World (adapted from MinEx Consulting 2019), some of the same trends are observed, especially the growth in the mid-1990s, the fall in the start of the new millennium and new growth and peaks from 2008 to 2012, and a new decline ever since. The number of licenses is a high but exploration costs have not followed this in recent years.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Figure showing number of exploration and exploitation licenses and exploration costs over time

The drilling activities are mainly related to a few companies trying to demonstrate further reserves on specific deposits such as Nalunaq, Citronen Fjord, Skaergaard, Kvanefjeld, and most recently Manitsoq rather than being exploration drilling on newly discovered occurrences. The total cost for exploration was more than 5.5 billion DKK in the period 1985 − 2020.

During the COVID crisis, the Greenland authorities decided to postpone all unfilled exploration obligations for 2020 and 2021, and the number of licenses and the licensed areas have grown significantly. It is, however, expected that several licenses will be relinquished or reduced in size from the second half of 2022, and especially early in 2023. The number of licenses is not a good measure for activities on its own. In the 1960s and 1970s, lots of important prospecting in large regions were carried out under a few prospecting licenses to companies like Kryolitselskabet, Nordmine, Cominco, and Greenex. The distribution of companies by countries is also remarkable. Although more than 200 companies have been active, many of these are associated in “families” including subsidiaries, common ownerships, joint ventures, connected in other ways, or using the same consultants and board members.

At a first glance, there seems to be a significant increase in exploration measured in number of licenses and license areas (see Fig. 2), but measured in level of activities by drilling seasons, activities were in fact higher in the 1970 − 1990s (see Table 5 and table SI1 in Supplementary Material). Many of the drilling seasons have been around mines and discoveries to increase documented reserves, and new exploration drilling on mineral occurrences has mainly been by companies such as Kryolitselskabet, Platinova, and NunaMinerals and at a lower level Nordmine and NUNAOIL, and some companies with one or two drill seasons only.

Table 5 Distribution of license holder headquarter by country (the place where the technical work is carried out), and clustering into “families of companies.” Details on companies and license numbers are found table SI1 in the Supplementary material

Seen from a Greenlandic perspective, it is worrisome that the many UK-based companies that have been granted licenses in the new millennium have had a rather low level of drilling activities compared to Danish and Canadian companies many decades back (Table 5).

In the new Millennium, approximately 5 billion DKK has been used for mineral exploration in Greenland, and approximately 5.8 billion DKK from the period in mid/late 1980s after the almost contemporary end of the Cryolite, Uranium, Nordmine and Greenex eras. The earlier costs are not documented by the authorities in the same systematic detail, see descriptions of different eras, but are probably in the order of 3 − 3.5 billion DKK. Most of these exploration costs have been used in Greenland to the direct benefit of local companies and society: helicopters, logistics, camps, vessels and barges, and local employees.

The total public income from the few successful mining projects was in the order of 5 billion DKK recalculated to present value. The investments in national companies, with a total investment of 400 mio. DKK from 1985 to 2015 — and even if recalculated to net present value — also seems rather small compared to the size of the block grant. With respect to research and public data acquisition (see below), funding has been very significant in Denmark, Greenland, and internationally, probably in the order of 1.5 bill DKK.

Political framework

The mineral exploration in Greenland has taken place under many different political systems with many legal changes, and introduction of new strategies as drivers for increased exploration (see Nielsen 1980; Nielsen and Larsen 1985; Poole et al. 1992; Sinding 1992; Rasmussen and Gjertsen 2018). Until 1979, it was administered by the Danish Government, jointly between Denmark and Greenland from 1979 to 2009 (after establishment of Home Rule, before that Greenland was a Danish County from 1953), and with administration in Denmark until 1998, thereafter administration in Greenland. Since 2009 Greenland has had full legislation and administration of mineral and petroleum resources, but not on immigration and foreign policy which potentially has an influence on some mining projects.

A first Danish Mining Act was extended also to cover Greenland in 1935, a new Mining Act was introduced on May 12, 1965, with later changes in 1969, 1978, and 1998, and a completely new Mining Act in Greenland in 2009 with several amendments in the following decades.

Based on a political agreement from November 14, 1994, between the Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen and the Greenland Prime Minister Lars Emil Johansen, Greenland established its first Minerals Office in 1995. This created basis for further political discussions and transfer of the administration (the former Mineral Resources Administration for Greenland) from Denmark to Greenland (the new Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum) in 1998, at the same time change of chairmanship of the political Joint Committee from Greenland (Lars Emil Johansen) to Denmark (Christian Mejdahl). This transfer took place in a period with many influential politicians from both Denmark and Greenland in the Joint Committee for Mineral Resources. One of the consequences was a much larger goodwill to find public money in both Denmark and Greenland for geophysical data acquisition and geological projects focusing on the mineral and petroleum potential than ever seen before, and never seen after. This financial support from Denmark ended rather abruptly when Greenland got Self Governance and the Joint Committee was disbanded.

Throughout the full history of the Joint Committee from 1980 to 2010, there was a high degree of consensus between the Danish and Greenlandic politicians (no voting ever). This created a good and long-lasting network between politicians from Greenland and Denmark. Many former Danish politicians have appreciated this period as an example of good collaboration between the countries and satisfaction about well-prepared memos for every single exploration and exploitation application (Christian Mejdahl, personal communication, July 2021; Kim Andersen, personal communication, July 2021; Frank Jensen, personal communication, August 2021; Poul Nielson, personal communication, August 2021). In general, Greenlandic politicians and administrators share this viewpoint, although they had more focus on environment and capacity-building than their Danish counterparts (Lars Emil Johansen, personal communication, September 2021). Already from the beginning of the 1990s, the Greenlandic politicians had a strong focus on taking over the full administration and building up exploration and service companies in Greenland, and they put pressure on the Mineral Resources Administration in Denmark to develop new strategies, support more activities, and allocate more money for specific projects.

One of the effects of the work in the Joint Committee, and the contact to the respective governments, was the enthusiasm about possibilities made it easier to find money for establishment of national companies. Another consequence was, however, that it created a tradition with political interaction in a business that many places in the world is dominated by private investors, and some private investors saw the national companies as competitors.

When Greenland got Self Governance in 2009 and took over legislation and full administration for mineral resources immediately after, the political agenda changed, and many Danish politicians lost their interest in Greenland and its mineral and petroleum resources. The fact that Denmark pays almost 4000 mio. DKK in yearly block grant to Greenland make many politicians reluctant to find any further funding for specific purposes like resource exploration. Denmark is still responsible for foreign and immigration policy, and in the period from 2010 to 2018, there was growing tension between Denmark and Greenland in relation to Chinese investments, possible large-scale projects with immigration of thousands of Chinese workers, uranium export in relation to international laws and conventions, and need for strategic minerals such as REE.

Throughout these intense political discussions, there seems to have been consensus between the governing parties in Denmark — in particular “Socialdemokratiet” and “Venstre,” whereas the only two parties that have had the Premier in Greenland, Siumut (Labor Party with increasing focus on growth and business), and Inuit Ataqatigiit (Classic Left-Wing Party with an increasingly green profile), disagree on several important issues about uranium, labor policy, environment, and most recently petroleum exploration.

Strategic tools driving exploration

In addition to standard economical tools such as tax reductions, various tools have been used to develop and attract including direct governmental funding for companies, data acquisition, and research — but with varying degree of success. Compared with the overall industry costs for exploration, these investments have been rather high as demonstrated below.

Direct political influence through national companies and investments

Although following different paths of political decisions and investments, Greenland has seen a rather similar development of their national companies in petroleum and mineral exploration, eventually with the result that NUNAOIL was reduced in size and influence, and is now dormant, and a NunaMinerals that was partly privatized but went bankrupt. In both cases, this was to a high degree a result of political-administrative decisions, and in periods of time with politically appointed board members with little experience from the exploration industry. The goal of capacity building was never fully reached, and the long-term effect is already gone.

Based on these experiences, it is not likely that Greenland will try to establish new national companies in the exploration business.

Direct public investments are now restricted to some projects through the Danish “Vækstfonden” and Greenland Venture. By principle, there is an arm-length between these investment foundations and the political system, and it is required that procedures and criteria are fully transparent and that the foundations use all relevant knowledge in their choice of investments and insert persons with required skills and experience on the boards.

Governmental data acquisition as a driver

Strategically, geophysical data acquisition has been important for both petroleum and mineral exploration in Greenland and often following a close dialogue between authorities and industry. For mineral exploration, most of the large regional airborne surveys have been funded by the public, in the beginning directly through the Danish State or Danish Energy Research Program, later by the Danish and Greenlandic Government jointly for much broader mapping and exploration purposes, and in a few cases by Greenland alone (see overview by Rasmussen et al. 2013; Thorning et al. 2020). In some cases, the EU and the USA has co-funded data acquisition.

In the “Uranium Era,” the Aeroradiometric Surveys in 1972 − 1974 (Central East Greenland), 1975–1976 (Central West Greenland), and 1979–1981 (South Greenland) were financed by either the Danish State through Risø or later partly financed by the Energy Research Program (EFP) in collaboration with the European Union. In addition to a better regional knowledge, these data lead to the discovery of the Motzfeldt alkaline center in South Greenland (discovered in 1980, Tukiainen et al. 1984) and the Sarfartoq carbonatite complex in West Greenland (discovered in 1976, Secher 1986).

Up through the 1990s, there was focus on mineral resources; and most of the so-called Aeromag Surveys in 1992, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2012, and 2013 were financed jointly and gave a good regional coverage over large areas in southern and western Greenland, and the final survey also covering parts of Southeast Greenland (see maps in Rasmussen et al. 2013). Totally, these aeromagnetic data cover approximately half of Greenland.

The AEM Surveys in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, and 1998 that focused on smaller areas in Inglefield Land, Washington Land, and parts of Jameson Land and central West Greenland with specific possibilities for mineral occurrences were financed by Greenland or later jointly together with Denmark.

The Hyperspectral Surveys in 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2012 focus on even more detail, and have so far mainly been tested on areas with specific mineral occurrences in East Greenland and central West Greenland (see overview and maps in Rasmussen et al. (2013). Use of such data is promising, but application in mineral exploration still experimental. Most recently, the USA has co-funded acquisition of hyperspectral data in South Greenland in 2019 (data not available yet).

Governmental funding of data acquisition was quite significant in 1990s and in the start of the new millennium. Public funding of data acquisition and research has been reduced drastically within later years. This is probably caused by political changes, as Greenland got Self-Governance in 2009 and took over the full legislation and administration for mineral resources. After that time, there has been little support in the Danish Parliament to support such activities in Greenland, and the Greenland Government has only had limited resources for this despite a political ambition to support exploration and mining investments.

Greenland may have missed a unique possibility to obtain new funding from the EU in the period 2012 − 2013 when Vice President Antonio Tajani showed interest for Greenland resources and signed a letter of intent for cooperation, but the, and eventually the initiative died out and no data were acquired.

Research as a driver

The impact of research and mapping on mineral exploration has been different compared to petroleum (Christiansen 2011, 2021) where new data and results were driving exploration and marketing. In some cases, research results were completely missing as mineral deposits were found by traditional prospecting or even by chance many decades back. Early observations from reconnaissance and regional mapping, however, led to a better understanding of geological terrains and structural trends, and in some cases also regional metallogenic provinces.

There was, however, surprisingly little focus on mineral occurrences in the early mapping programs by GGU; this did not change until the early 1980s. Most mineral showings and occurrences were found by traditional prospecting; field observations combined with searching rock floats, going up-stream or up-scree combined with panning of heavy minerals, and/or geochemistry of creek-sediment were important for finding indications or occurrences. Complex research-driven mineralization models were introduced relatively late in Greenland mineral exploration. This is especially the cases on Ni-Cu-Co in volcanic provinces, diamonds in kimberlites, PGE and gold in layered intrusions, and more generally REEs and specialty metals in alkaline and carbonatite intrusions.

It is complicated to calculate the investment in general mapping and research of relevance for mineral occurrences in Greenland. This main reason is that relevance is difficult to define in detail, that activities took place over a long period, and that the research in addition to GGU/GEUS activities involves lots of field work participation and subsequent research by Danish and international universities, either in collaboration with GGU or on their own. Especially in the early history of GGU, numerous university affiliated geologists participated in field work and studied sample material subsequently.

Prior to the merger forming GEUS, GGU typically spent 40 − 50 mio. DKK per year, sometimes with large additional funding for specific mapping or geophysical programs. It is not possible to distinguish in detail between money used for mapping, mineral studies, petroleum studies, climate/glaciology, and data management, but estimates based on number of scientists involved in the period 1985 − 1995 on research and mapping relevant for mineral exploration sum up to more than 250 mio. DKK. After the merger in 1995, and more specifically after the introduction of Greenland Self-Governance in 2009, GEUS had an obligation to use ~ 35 mio. DKK for basic work from the Danish Finance bill and with additional co-funding of projects and advisory tasks from Greenland, and significant co-funding from research foundations and income from industry and data sale.

It is estimated that 1.100 mio. DKK has been used in the period 1996 − 2020 on research and mapping relevant for mineral exploration. It is estimated that more than 350 mio. DKK have been used by other researchers than GEUS in the full period from 1985 to 2020 for regional research relevant for mineral exploration, in this case from many different sources.

Changes with new Greenlandic administration

Since Greenland took over the legislation and closed the Joint Committee, there has been less political consensus on minerals. The parliamentary committee in Greenland has had little running influence on the mineral resources policy in the last 13 years, and there is no broad consensus on neither mineral nor petroleum policy. Changes of the political agenda have mainly been driven by the many new ministers (table SI8 in Supplementary Material, see further discussion in Thorup et al. 2020; Christiansen 2021). This lack of network, continuity, and consistency together with the many changes in ministers — and with ministers from many different parties and in some cases lower in the party hierarchy, makes it difficult for investors to navigate.

Hence, like with petroleum, Greenland may have missed some opportunities for investments due to several controversial decisions within the last 13 years after introduction of Self Governance. In contrast to the period with the Joint Committee and broad political consensus between parties — and between Greenland and Denmark, several critical decisions were taken rather quickly by a few Greenlandic politicians.

Some of most controversial decisions include the introduction of a complex royalty scheme in 2014 following the election and change of government in 2013. This has been strongly criticized by many companies as it gives a higher and earlier taxation that can be showstopper for start of mining. Greenland introduced a scheme with different percentages for different commodities. In cases with multi-element mining or where the main added value for industry come from processing outside Greenland (REE and gemstones), it is very complicated to implement royalties.

Over the last 10 years, there has been much stronger focus on environmental and socio-economic issues, in some cases with introduction of new regulations, extensive and complex hearing processes that require lots of paperwork by operators. This is particularly difficult to handle for junior companies, even for some larger companies. It also gives investors a picture of a divided government where some politicians and administrators fight hard to attract investors during extensive marketing arrangements whereas others act as showstoppers by setting up new regulations and protracted turn-around time.

Finally, there has been a lack of will or skills to argue for further governmentally funded data acquisition, probably because focus was on recruiting own geologists rather than acquiring new data. Some funding or collaboration opportunities with EU funding did not happen. Most recently, Greenland received funding for data projects from the former US administration, but results have yet to be demonstrated. In these cases, there has been a clear lack of transparency.

Most recently, discussion about uranium as a by-product during mining has played an important role in the election campaign in the spring of 2021. It was probably one of the main reasons behind the change in ruling parties. With a narrow majority, the new coalition passed a bill that has a very low and an arbitrarily selected limit of 100 ppm uranium in the “total resource” with possibilities for similar administratively decided ban on thorium. This is a complete showstopper for the Kvanefjeld project, but probably also for other exploration projects, especially REE, Nb, Ta, and Zr occurrences in carbonatites, alkaline intrusions, and some types of placer deposits — and potentially a risk for some more common Cu, Au, and Fe types of occurrences. Despite many negative comments in a hearing process from industry and organizations with strong legal and geological experience, the Greenland Government passed the legislation through the Parliament on Nov. 9, 2021. The license holder of Kvanefjeld, Greenland Minerals, has in February 2022 announced that they will bring the Greenland Government, and surprisingly also the Danish Government, into arbitration or alternatively a legal case. They forwarded the formal, and very detailed, request on March 22, 2022. In July 2022 the Greenland Government took the decision not to grant an exploitation license. This looks like an escalation of the conflict and could lead to an expensive and time-consuming legal case. If this happens, it could have a serious impact on other investments in mineral exploration and it could also cost Greenland reputation and not least a large sum in compensation.

Future challenges for exploration in Greenland

Compared with other countries with a more well-established mining industry, Greenland faces some specific challenges about lacking infrastructure, high operational costs, and junior companies that seems to be dependent on fluctuations of commodity prices. Furthermore, there is a change in demography in Greenland with a political tendency against large mining projects, especially if they are close to towns, tourist attractions or national parks.

Complicated infrastructure and high costs

Infrastructure and environmental concerns are a serious limitation for mineral exploration and exploitation in Greenland. Logistics for mining is expensive, as most of Greenland is uninhabited with steep mountainous landscapes, few roads and airstrips, lack of electricity, and communications lines combined with a challenging Arctic climate (Thaarup et al. 2020). Apart from some easily accessible coastal regions in South and West Greenland, only very large deposits with high ore grades are likely to be mined in the remaining parts of Greenland. Several of the deposits in Greenland have a relatively low ore-grade, which requires a lot of energy and with high costs during mining, separation, and refining. It is quite characteristic that the economically successfully mines Ivittuut and Black Angel fulfilled simple criteria of logistics, size, and ore grade, even though at the time Black Angel was only accessible about half of the year due to sea ice in the fiords.

To be in a more competitive situation for investments, Greenland has — as part of their mineral strategies — benchmarked various parameters with other mining countries on corporate taxes, fees, royalties but authorities have not found a way to handle and compensate for the higher costs, lack of trained work force and logistical problems. Lack of infrastructure and the high costs of operating in Greenland come as a surprise for many companies when they start exploration and make economical scenarios for exploitation.

Dependency of commodity prices

Due to the high infrastructure costs in Greenland, fluctuations in commodity prices are sensitive for many of the potential Greenlandic projects, especially projects owned by junior companies. Changes in the many different commodity prices are complicated to understand or predict, and some of the minor commodities are not even freely traded but rely on long-term individual contracts. Prices of some commodities are mainly dependent on growth and infrastructure (base metals in a broad sense); others are mainly dependent on developments on the energy market for either petroleum (PGE), nuclear (U, Th, Cg), wind and solar (especially REEs), and transport/storage of energy (materials for batteries such as Li, Co, Zn, Mn, Ni, V, Cg, Pb, Cu for wires and grids). A few commodities are safe haven investments in periods with political crises (precious metals, especially gold, some gemstones). Finally, some of the less traded commodities are dependent on opening/closing of individual mines or distribution of by-products in single mines.

Some basic observation can be made about changing commodity prices and their influence on Greenland exploration. Zn peaked in early 2007, dropped strongly in late 2007 and 2008, but with a more recent upward trend. Pb follows the same trend. This is promising for the Citronen Fjord deposit and for a possible re-opening of the Black Angel Mine. Cu peaked in 2006–2008, took a drop in late 2008, but rebounded partly over the following years and with a new growing tendency in the last couple of years. This could be a driver for future Cu exploration in sedimentary basins in East and North Greenland. Fe prices dropped steadily from a high in 2011 − 2012 to a low in 2016. Prices gradually increased in the following years and with a stronger tendency in the last couple of years. This is still a problem for the Isua project. Ni peaked in early 2007, dropped drastically in late 2007 and 2008, and never reached a high level again, but, with some increase in the last couple of years, and a strong increase after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This makes the future for the Manitsoq and Disko-Nuussuaq Ni project more positive. Mo prices were high until late in 2008 when they dropped drastically. They have been low ever since but with an upward trend within the last year. This was problematic for the Malmbjerget project but with better hope for the future. Pt peaked in early 2008, then dropped dramatically, rebounded partly in 2010–2012 before falling back again but with a slight increase recently. Pa has been rather stable for many years but with a drastic increase in price since 2017 having an all-time-high today. This is potentially good news for the Skaergaard project. REEs have a complex price structure without an open market. Price of Nd peaked in 2012, 2017, and with a strong increase 2021. This still makes Kvanefjeld and Kringlerne economically interesting projects. Au prices have been steadily increasing in the new millennium and peaked in 2012. After a fall in 2013, prices rebounded with a new peak in 2020–2022. This is promising for re-opening of the Nalunaq Mine and other interesting Au projects in South Greenland.

Changes in demography may change views on mineral exploration

Greenland sees large demographic changes these years, and the traditional political parties in Greenland are also modifying their views on business, climate, and environment, and on a process leading to independence. Like many other countries, there is a strong path of urbanization, where especially younger people move to Nuuk, whereas many elderly people that want better social services move to Denmark. The main income to Greenland, apart from the Danish block grant, is, however, from local fishery along the west coast of Greenland. Many other towns and settlement are losing inhabitants. This development takes place rather quickly and may lead to a different political agenda in the coming years and a drastic change not only in jobs but also with the traditional Greenlandic hunting and fishing culture. Like in many other countries such as Denmark, there is a segment of younger political drivers with a strong agenda that is critical against industry and any activity that could affect environment locally. If a similar trend of “not in my backyard” activities hit Greenland even harder than today, it may be even more difficult to attract investors for future exploration.

Next era?

Based on the many contractionary trends in resources policy in Greenland and internationally, it is difficult to predict in any sort of detail, what Greenland mineral exploration looks like in 10 − 20 years’ time. Internationally, it is very likely that there will be a continued focus on critical minerals and both the EU (EU 2020; Goodenough et al. 2016), the Nordic countries (Eilu et al. 2021), and the USA (US Geological Survey 2017, 2021; Humphries 2019) continue their assessments that have been ongoing for several decades. We will probably see a trend with critical supply of commodities used in wind and solar energy production, energy transportation and storage. This could give further focus on exploration and mining of elements like Be, REE, PGE, Cg and some metals like Al, Ti, Ni, V, and Cu (Stengaard et al. 2016). The assessments by the EU and USA do not necessarily bring in commercial investors to Greenland, but it may have an impact on research and public data acquisition with additional funding from either the EU or the USA.

The exploration history is important in this context, both due to previous successes and failures. Greenland has indeed had some periods with successful mining and exploration but also periods with low activities and lack of serious investments (Fig. 3). The geology, the climatic conditions, and the long distances to markets cannot be changed, but the understanding of these important issues can be improved greatly. What is important in Greenland is further exploration in areas with simple logistics close to natural harbors with year-around access by large vessels, local energy, and communication systems, but based on expected increasing political pressure with some distance from towns and settlements. Maybe the best way to handle these conflicts of interest is to have well-defined zones with a dedicated fast-track administration by changing the present zoning system (Rasmussen and Gjertsen 2018). Sustainable transport may be a critical issue in the future with increasing focus on CO2 emissions and transport. It is not likely that bulk transport of large loads of rather unexpensive cargo such as raw materials for construction can be made from Greenland in neither an economical nor a sustainable way (Kalvig and Keiding 2020). High-grade primary ore or high-grade concentrate after local crushing and separation is a necessity to make projects economical feasible.

Fig. 3
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Summary of mining and exploration history of Greenland decade-by-decade in relation to companies, administration, and politics

Especially for petrologically complex deposits in the Skaergaard intrusion, in the Gardar alkaline intrusions, and in the volcanic provinces in West and East Greenland, research plays a key role; this is also the case for geochemical exploration based on large datasets. There is a high risk of loss of knowledge over the coming years. Many key scientists are at the end of their career, many changed their careers earlier on, and there is a trend towards less geoscience and more investment-driven policy within both companies and authorities. There is still a strong need for research to pave the way for successful exploration but with focus on modern geological mapping and geophysical data acquisition hand in hand. You do not discover mineral deposits working in an office in Copenhagen, Nuuk, or London — one needs booths on the ground, and eventually, drilling is needed to test exploration models, targets, outline deposits, and document their reserves. Understanding, reprocessing, remodeling, and 3D visualization of airborne geophysical data are important steps for planning of such new activities, followed by new airborne surveys and eventually drilling programs.

Conclusions and recommendations

Based on the analysis in the present paper, it is obvious that the mineral exploration industry that has been active in Greenland is heterogeneous, and especially, junior companies are dependent on the complex and short-term changes of different commodity prices. Kryolitselskabet and partly Nordmine and Greenex together with governmental uranium exploration and geophysical data acquisition created the backbone of understanding of metallogenic provinces. Since then, Greenland has not seen several decades-long periods of exploration by the single companies. Large and superlarge mining companies have only been involved in sporadic and shorter periods in the mineral exploration history of Greenland, and in most cases, only when specific deposits have reached a mature stage in exploration where resources were well-documented.

Only a few exploration and mining activities have been of international importance in Greenland. Cryolite was a unique and important commodity just before and after World War 2, so was uranium exploration in a period in the 1950s to late 1970s. It is remarkable that most of the large and interesting mineral deposits in Greenland were found decades ago. Surprisingly, few discoveries have been made within the new millennium, and worse, only little “real” knowledge from drilling and analyses has been added to the different prospects.

The complex relationship between the different ministries and department in Greenland has created uncertainty within industry. It is notable that some politicians/administrators have used a lot of effort and resources trying to bring in companies and investors through dedicated marketing, whereas other politicians/administrators and their advisors scare away investors by bringing up new environmental regulations that cause increasing costs and taxes for companies. Such breaches of good faith have a serious negative effect on investors. Some of the examples could even legally be considered as expropriation. The Greenland exploration strategies have always been part of a political agenda seeking financial independence from Denmark, trying to build up own companies and institutions — so far unsuccessful, and in some periods trying to find alternative political investors to challenge the political system in Denmark and the USA — also unsuccessful so far.

Looking into the future, Greenland is a remote and challenging place to invest in mineral exploration.

Based on geological knowledge, the potential and the possibilities are indeed high. Based on history and observations, exploitation is, however, only realistic in areas with simple infrastructure and low costs of operations, or in a few rare cases where world class-size deposits with high ore grade can be documented.

If Greenland should come an increasingly attractive place to invest, the mineral authorities should consider abandoning royalties completely and reduce taxes and other “government takes” significantly — and not only with a purpose to look nice in a benchmark against well-established mining countries, but with a goal to compensate for the high operational costs and issues with lack of qualified labor force in Greenland. Being partners in associated infrastructure facilities such as energy supply, harbors, and roads could be useful for both industry and Greenland.

There is a need to make the system more transparent, reduce the time for administrative matters, and probably most importantly to send a precise political signal that both government and opposition really appreciate future mining activities throughout Greenland. The mining industry should be treated like any other industry in Greenland in terms of regulations and taxes and with consistency in policy. The marketing hype has a back side, and it seems important to demonstrate political consensus. Many investors, and probably also some politicians, remember the “good old days” when the Joint Committee was a guarantee for stability, consensus, and well-prepared solutions. A similar sort of forum could be a useful and stabilizing factor for attracting industry. In this context, future long-term funding for data acquisition, mapping, and research is of outmost importance, and not only with a local perspective of building up new institutions but with an ambition to create data and results that can be drivers to revitalize exploration.