On the ice in Greenland
I recently returned from a short trip to Greenland with the U.S. Coast Guard. The Arctic excursion spanned several days and presented two equally important opportunities for learning more about what’s happening in the rapidly changing Arctic region on both the climate and security fronts — and how those developments impact us here in Maine and across America.
The first two days of the trip were quite extraordinary. On day one we flew in a helicopter for three hours over Greenland’s rugged terrain and ice sheet, and landed near the Jacobshavn Glacier, which is Greenland’s largest and fastest moving glacier. What we saw there — where the ice breaks off and falls into the fjord — was both amazing and scary. It was amazing because this glacier has moved as much in the last 10 years as it did in the previous one hundred. It was scary because the glacier is melting at an accelerated pace. Just last summer alone, it shed an estimated five square miles in a matter of two days. According to research, the glacier was pouring out ice at a speed of 150 feet per day in 2012 — which is nearly three times faster than it was in the 1990s. The second day of the trip reinforced this when we traveled on a Danish frigate to the edge of the Ilulissat Icefjord where the icebergs break free and head to the open sea.
Why does that matter you ask? Well, we had several climate experts on the trip to help us understand the scope and implications of this melting — including Dr. Robert Corell, who is a leading climate scientist and resident of Weld, Maine. Dr. Corell and oceanographer John Englander gave a stunning presentation about the implications of sea level rise. And of course, Maine is a coastal state. The question is, what are we going to have to invest in terms of infrastructure to be prepared for these inevitable increases in sea level. The discussion shouldn’t only be about whether or not this is happening — it should be about how we respond. That presentation really hammered home the point that even as we work to limit our reliance on fossil fuels and slow the warming, we must also be working together to deal with the sea level rise that is already inevitable.
Day three was spent in Greenland’s capital city of Nuuk and focused more on national security and how a changing Arctic affects our relationships with other countries. The region is increasingly important to the U.S. and our allies. Not only does it border several nations, including the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark (with which Greenland is affiliated), but the Arctic also has the potential to become a significant waterway that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As the ice continues to melt, more global shipping routes will open up – ushering in new economic opportunities while increasing the potential for competition between countries.
Greenland was an interesting place to have these security discussions because, though it has its own internal government, Greenland’s foreign affairs and security are managed by Denmark. The Danish government runs the Joint Arctic Command, which is responsible for ensuring the territorial sovereignty of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, among other tasks. I received a briefing from the head of Arctic Command, Major General Kim Jesper J√∏rgensen, on its operations and the security situation in the region. Part of that discussion was how the U.S. and Joint Arctic Command can increase our coordination, particularly when it comes to issues like search and rescue, and common security requirements. The Russians are becoming increasingly active in the Arctic, and right now they are largely cooperating with other countries in this region, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to continue to work with our partners to promote cooperation rather than conflict, while ensuring we have the capabilities required to protect our interests.
As the co-chair of the Senate Arctic Caucus, and with Maine poised to benefit from increased trade through the Arctic, it’s important for me to have a clear picture of what’s happening in the region. I’ve come to believe that one day of seeing is better than one year of reading, and those three days in Greenland with the head of the Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Zukunft, will prove invaluable as I work to tackle the issues of climate change and the protection our national security interests in the far north.