Should we protect the North Pole as World Heritage?

september 20, 2019 • Af

What exactly is the North Pole? How are we to understand the North Pole’s significance to the world today? has all the mysticism and wonders which so enthralled the early explorers and their eager audiences now completely vanished, reduced to bland insignificance by icebreakers, flags, submarines, tourists and jets in thoughtless shuttle across the polar sky?

Gerardus Mercator’s famous map from 1606 depicts the North Pole as a big mountain in the middle of an ocean surrounded by four parts of a non-existent continent.

Or do we owe the North Pole our respect and recognition, perhaps even our protection, for its part in the build-up of our civilization and intellectual wealth, so urgently needed in an age of climate change and other challenges? Does the North Pole belong to our common cultural heritage as a phenomena we must cherish, even as more entrepreneurial agents zoom in on the pole’s potential for fish, oil, gas and minerals (potential which is, by the way, still undocumented)?

Three nations, Russia, Canada and Denmark — with Greenland — all argue that  the rights to the ressources at the North Pole and the seabed surrounding it belong to them. All three have invested substantial time, effort and finances in their quests to provide proof of ownership. Never before has any nation come this close to claiming ownership to the North Pole. Icebreakers, planes, submarines and scores of scientists have been mobilized, but throughout these campaigns the key question of how to understand the cultural, intellectual and historical value of the North Pole has been notably absent.

I know for sure that in Denmark, my own country, nobody at government level has so far aired any thinking on the subject, and I am still to learn of any such contemplation within official circles in Moscow and Ottawa. Should any reader know of such, I would be pleased to receive notice.

The beginning of time

Luckily, those interested in the intricate issues of the intellectual and historical value of the North Pole now have easy access to passionate and expert assistance. In a lucid new analysis of how the North Pole have inspired natural scientists, philosophers, cartographers and others from ancient Greece to our days, Michael Bravo, who is a scholar of the history of science and head of Circumpolar History and Public Policy Research at the Scott Polar Research Institute at University of Cambridge, lights a thrilling path in the dark.

In his recent book ”North Pole: Nature and Culture,” he deftly extinguishes any remaining doubts about the North Pole’s current cultural, historic and phenomenological significance:

“I offer the reader a way to understand why the North Pole truly matters to anyone who knows that our home, planet Earth, is a globe,” he writes. The North Pole, he finds, “has refracted our understanding of the planet on which we live and the quest to master or knowledge of who we are.”

“Spatially, when standing at the North Pole, every direction faces south. Temporally, the North Pole is timeless and has to this day no allocated longitude or time zone. This is no coincidence: The North Pole can be thought of as the origin of time because all lines of longitude, which define time zones, pass through North Pole. Emperors and philosophers through the centuries have recognized the North Pole’s special significance as a point that defines global time, but is not itself subject to it,” Bravo writes and as I talk to him on the phone from Cambridge, he continues:

“Every frontier is a moving boundary, that has two sides. So if economic national expansion is pushing on the northern frontier, what is it pushing against? That is a question for the present day, because the question of what pushes back against expansion, is also a question about the conditions on which we inhabit the Earth today,” he says.

“The North Pole and the Arctic is the temporal and spatial framework in which we understand our economic, geographical, cultural place in the world,” he says. ”So as nation states negotiate new national boundaries and rights to access resources, the North Pole reminds us that we live on a planet with limits. If we talk about going beyond the pole, it becomes a paradox, because you cannot go further than the North Pole.  The idea of travelling ’beyond the Pole’ implies a space where the world is transformed. It leads us to understand our human limits in rather different terms. The North Pole shows us the limits of the world we inhabit, but it also challenges us to ask how is it that the world is made whole? How is this an inhabitable world? The North Pole, this placeless place, has been and remains integral to our understanding of our human condition and the way we are bounded to the surface of this planet,” he says.

At the heart of cosmos

In his book, Bravo explains how “for Greek and Arab astronomers, poles were at the heart of the architecture of the entire cosmos.”

I wish I had known earlier. In 2012, I learned of an entirely different approach. I was at the North Pole covering the Danish-Greenlandic attempts to secure proof that the Arctic seabed is irrefutably connected to the bedrock of Greenland and that the rights to the resources on the bottom should therefore belong to Greenland and indirectly to Denmark, which still holds sovereignty over Greenland. Travelling for weeks on an icebreaker, I was told that the North Pole has essentially of no value or significance in our time and age. It is, I learned at that time, basically an irrelevant spot in a bucket of water.

A group shot from the North Pole taken in the summer 2012, shows everyone on board the icebreaker that brought the Danish-Greenlandic LOMROG III expedition to the Arctic Ocean for collection of scientific evidence as part of efforts to prove that the seabed is solidly connected to Greenland. (Björn Eriksson / Swedish Polar Research Secretariat)

I know now from Michael Bravo’s book that the learned and wise in ancient Persia, Egypt, India and Greece were all deeply preoccupied with understanding the North Pole. Or, more precisely, they were first and foremost preoccupied with the North Pole’s even more revered celestial sister, which they imagined as a fixed entity close to the pole star on the inner surface of the shell that encapsulated the universe. Our earth was the eternal and entirely still center of the universe; solidly positioned on the axis that ran from the celestial North Pole down through the North Pole of our planet.

“Any astrologer worth his salt was on the lookout for divine conjunctions of constellations and stars, and omens or portents of dangers ahead. Hence the importance of the geographical North Pole came about first because of the celestial North Pole and its pole star, and our knowledge of the Earth’s grid of latitude and longitude was a projection derived from mapping the celestial realm,“ Bravo writes.

A new view of the world

In the 15th and 16th centuries the North Pole again took on a lead role in the evolution of a new view of the world and in the development of our ability to navigate the globe.

“Without poles there could be no geography and crucially, no system of orientation for navigation,” Bravo writes.

The creation of new ways to understand the architecture of the globe spun around the North Pole, and facilitated new empires, colonization, trade routes and other features of early globalization.

“Thus the North Pole provided one of the main keys to help unlock the basic question of human orientation — to know where we are at any moment in time and to know on what course we are heading,” Bravo writes.

Renaissance artisans, mathematicians, cosmographers and cartographers, in Vienna and Venice not the least, created beautiful immaculate globes and maps on which the North Pole shone as the center of new illuminations of our divine connections. Suddenly Europeans were learning to see the world in an entirely new light. They were taught how to see themselves and the planet they inhabited from above; a completely new perspective, which was particularly helpful in an age where many struggled to comprehend the astonishing voyages of the likes of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan.

“These special polar maps conferred beauty and prestige on atlases in a unique way. These projections acquired an aesthetic significance and prominence that became synonymous with a new way of viewing the world, as though gazing down on the world from the celestial pole,” Bravo writes. In this way and with the North Pole very much in the center of things, cartographers like Peter Apian (1495-1552) and his successors helped much of Europe to an intellectual leap, long before any European had been anywhere close to the North Pole.

”For philosophers of the enlightenment like Kant, the human condition was one of being anchored to the Earth, like ants unable to escape the limitations of a field of vision placed very close to its surface,” Bravo writes. Cosmographers like Apian and his successors made the globe and its positioning in the universe easier to fathom and rulers and emperors like the Habsburgs in Austria and others with imperial visions readily adopted these tools for visualization of their ambitions. The North Pole’s significance grew and grew along a wide spectrum of sciences and the arts.

“It is the story about a wider circle of Europeans, mathematicians, cartographers, cosmographers not far removed from the contemporary circle of Renaissance artists and architects like Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci. The idea of looking on Earth from above is intimately connected to the story of the invention of linear perspective, which is much better known and celebrated in the world of art history of course,” Bravo tells me.

Paradise at the North Pole

In the 18th and 19th centuries much of the world followed with growing excitement how seafarers and explorers of many kinds travelled, at great peril, closer to the North Pole by ship, sledge, foot or balloon. Michael Bravo describes in detail how the narration of these endeavours, many of which did not achieve what they set out to do, became still more elaborate, and also how the idea that the North Pole was intimately connected to its celestial sister in Heaven continued to inspire more fantastic interpretations for a long time, including the one that Paradise was originally located at the North Pole.

“Safe from prying eyes, the Earth’s polar axis and poles possessed a strong appeal as places for locating narratives and symbols of absolute sacredness and purity,” Bravo writes. Even the colossal amounts of ice at the pole could be explained. With the fall of Eden, of course, man had called the freeze upon himself. The Boston University’s first president, William Warren (1833-1929), an esteemed professor of comparative religion, collected evidence from the new field of anthropology, from linguistics, archeology and from his own research into religious thought in Iran, China, Japan and elsewhere. He described in conclusion an antediluvian continent in the north with an unusually tall mountain centered at the North Pole. This he designated as the original site of Paradise and the very cradle of the human race.

In “Paradise Found” (1885) Warren explained how this antediluvian continent was first submerged by the biblical deluge and then by an ice sheet animated by an abrupt shift in the Earth’s polar axis and subsequent cooling. In Warren’s telling, refugees from these calamities fled south and soon established the first communities of white Aryans.

Today, Warren’s views would be subject to criticism because of his commitment to defending creationism against evolutionary theory. And even in his own time, his use of racial theory to explain historical migrations was controversial and widely contested. Michael Bravo, however, describes how North Pole variants of the history of Paradise penetrated far into a number of ethnonationalist movements in many countries, including strands of Hinduism in which a large Mount Meru at the North Pole plays a significant mythical role.

Powerful agents in Nazi Germany, such as Adolf Hitler’s close associate Rudolf Hess, also made use of North Pole Aryan mysticism in their Thule Gesellschafta influential private society that forged key elements of Nazi thinking.

“For National Socialism, the polar origins served as a repudiation of the traditional orientation of geography towards the sacred sites of the Judaic Mediterranean,” Bravo writes.

An American North Pole

He also uncovers how the polar projection of the North Pole emerged after World War II as though it were a surprising new projection:

“American writers in the 1940s began to write about polar projections and the view over the North Pole as though it were a new idea, adopting it to illustrate a new post-war vision of the world as a smaller connected global village.  America’s rethinking of its position in relationship to the whole globe made the North Pole important once again. Making the pole a symbol of American and Soviet foreign policy meant writing out its longer and more complex historical narratives,” he says.

Today, a few decades later, we talk more often about the North Pole as an object in the quests by Russia, Canada and Denmark/Greenland. The submissions by the three nations for the rights to the resources on the seabed of the Arctic Ocean are dealt with by the Commission on the Continental Shelf of the UN, and most observers expect the issue to be resolved peacefully within a decade or two, perhaps finally through direct negotiations between the three governments, since the commission is not mandated to solve the problem, if two or more nations have overlapping, valid claims.

In this elaborate diplomatic process, however, the more difficult question of the cultural value of the North Pole is not dealt with at all. The UN’s expert commission will not ask whether the dispute over potentially recognizing rights to the North Pole seabed as belonging to a single nation’s jurisdiction will somehow damage a phenomenon that is presently valuable to the whole of humanity. Will a precious gem of world heritage lose its thrill and value through this type of handling? Will whatever magic and substance that still remains be lost for future generations? Or is the cultural and historic value of the North Pole, now so thoroughly documented by Michael Bravo, perhaps immune to all we do today?

Wisely, Michael Bravo hardly comments on the current efforts or ambitions of the three states involved, and neither does he make suggestions as to whether a protective zone around the North Pole or the like would be desirable. His is the scholarly contribution, a rich and detailed account of the history and intellectual discovery of the pole, and we must then make up our own minds where this should all lead.

A view from Greenland

In the Danish Kingdom, only one key decisionmaker has ever made cohesive comment on the cultural value of the North Pole, namely the former Prime Minister of Greenland, Kuupik Kleist.

Not that the North Pole traditionally played any particular role in Greenland. Way back, the people of the very north of Greenland named the North Pole Qalasersuaq, the great navel. It lay far from the lands of humans, where only shamans could travel, and it was not a nice place, but rather a dangerous deep with no hunting to speak of. Since then, Qalasersuaq became a neutral, almost bland designation for the very point at 90 degrees North. As Michael Bravo explains in his book, the pole star was also never very significant as a means of navigation in the Arctic. This far north, the pole star shines too high in the sky to be very useful for laying a course.

Even so, Kuupik Kleist took a stand in Nuuk back in 2007: ”I believe that it is in the interest of Greenland that the North Pole and adjacent areas should not be given to any single state, but remain an area of common responsibility,” he wrote in a question to the Home Rule government in Nuuk.

In 2010, after taking office as Prime Minister in Greenland’s Self Rule government, his views became known in Copenhagen when I interviewed him for a book, and it was not much appreciated by the Danish government.  Nervousness arose that the delicate talks with Canada and Russia about the Arctic seabed might be disturbed, and within a day Kuupik Kleist explained to the public that his view was “private” and not that of Greenland’s government.

In May this year, however, he explained to me that he is still of the firm conviction that the North Pole and some section of its surrounding waters ought to be somehow protected for its cultural significance. “The North Pole is something special,” he said. But now he is no longer in politics and his view seems to have found no other real friends.

This text was first published on September 20  2019. It has been slightly edited for this blog.


Why President Trump’s idea to buy Greenland is not a joke in Denmark or Greenland

august 25, 2019 • Af on August 23:

Officials in Nuuk and Copenhagen are acutely aware of the delicate balance of interests between Greenland, Denmark and the United States.


General view of Upernavik in western Greenland, Denmark July 11, 2015. (Linda Kastrup / Ritzau Scanpix via Reuters)

For more than a week, journalists and commentators across the world have been regarding U.S. President Donald Trump’s remarks that he may consider buying Greenland, the world’s largest island, almost as a laughing matter.

Many elements in this spectacle fit the common picture of the president as a  leader who doesn’t forget his track record as a real estate broker, and a president with limited patience with conventions and a willingness to treat other nations with delicate disdain if he finds it in the interest of the U.S.

[Trump calls Danish PM’s rebuff of Greenland idea ‘nasty’ as trip cancellation stuns Danes]

It seems clear now, though, that the U.S. president may be dead serious. It is no longer possible to rule out that the idea of buying Greenland, including all its people and territory, may reflect a wish on the part of the president to take responsibility for a hardened U.S. analysis of Russian and Chinese intentions in the Arctic. The president’s idea to buy Greenland, even if it seems unimaginable, matches in many ways a series of other recent signs, in particular from agencies and institutions involved with U.S. security, of a rapid increase in U.S. interests in Greenland.

A real estate deal

For Denmark and Greenland, serious dilemmas could emerge if Trump is indeed aiming to alter the delicate balance of powers between these two nations and the U.S. in the Arctic. Since World War II, the division of power between Denmark, Greenland and the U.S. in Greenland has been more or less clear: The U.S. takes care of Greenland’s security and runs Thule Air Base in the far north of the island primarily in order to protect the U.S. itself against adversaries on the other side of the Arctic Ocean.

General view of Thule Air Base, Greenland, Denmark October 31, 2018. (Linda Kastrup / Ritzau Scanpix via Reuters)

Denmark guards Greenland’s outer borders, including those at sea, and handles Greenland’s internal affairs in close cooperation with Greenland’s own elected leaders, who are acting with ever more autonomy. So far, this arrangement has generally served to the satisfaction of all, including the U.S., but now, as the last few days have shown, Trump may possibly want to change this intricate pattern. This may, potentially, challenge the fabric of the Danish Kingdom and fragile economic and social developments in Greenland. The whole episode may still, of course, all be forgotten in a few months, but to still more observers here in Denmark this now seems unlikely.

Essentially a real estate deal

On Sunday, Trump confirmed that he is interested in buying Greenland.

“Denmark essentially owns it. We’re very good allies with Denmark, we protect Denmark like we protect large portions of the world. So the concept came up and I said, ‘Certainly I’d be interested.’ Strategically it’s interesting and we’d be interested but we’ll talk to them a little bit. It’s not No. 1 on the burner, I can tell you that,” he said.

“Well, a lot of things can be done,” he said. “Essentially it’s a large real estate deal.” He indicated that a U.S. takeover might relieve Denmark of a financial burden, talking most likely about the annual grant with which Denmark supports Greenland: “Its hurting Denmark very badly because they’re losing almost $700 million a year carrying it. So they carry it at a great loss and strategically for the United States it would be very nice and we’re a big ally of Denmark, we protect Denmark and we help Denmark and we will,” he said.

‘An absurd discussion’

By coincidence, the Danish prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, was in Nuuk at the time and her reaction indicated well how precarious the situation now suddenly was. With only 5.5 million inhabitants, Denmark is a small country which can hardly afford even the smallest rift in its relations with the U.S., its second most important trading partner and for more than seven decades its most indispensable NATO partner and military ally. On the other hand, there is no way the prime minister could accommodate even the basic premise of the president’s suggestion that Greenland and its people, who are all Danish citizens, can be treated as a saleable commodity.

In an interview with the Danish Broadcasting corporation she dismissed the whole concept: “This is an absurd discussion, and of course (Greenland Premier) Kim Kielsen has made it clear that Greenland is not for sale, and the discussion stops there”.

The day after, however, at a press conference with Kielsen in Nuuk, she was already at pains to tell Washington and everyone else how strongly Denmark remained committed to the preservation of good relations with the U.S. In particular, she made strenuous efforts to stress Denmark’s strong commitment to continued security cooperation with the U.S. in Greenland. She foresaw “even stronger strategic cooperation”, and she remained open to any American wish to increase the U.S. military presence in Greenland in light of the changing security landscape in the Arctic: “As to the military presence, we have to follow developments,” she said.

At this stage it must have been clear to most watchers in Washington that Denmark remains ready to discuss any U.S. wish to increase its military presence in Greenland or to increase its own military efforts in Greenland. Kielsen, head of Naalakkersuisut, Greenland’s Self Rule Government, also acknowledged Greenland’s growing significance to U.S. security. The first U.S. bases in Greenland were established during World War II and Greenland’s leaders have no problem with the current U.S. military presence as long as it is followed by a respectful dialogue and as long as a reasonable benefits — jobs, infrastructure and so forth — keep flowing Greenland’s way.

No longer a joke

Two days later, however, on Wednesday, Trump cancelled a formal state visit to Denmark, scheduled for September 2-3, on Twitter: “Denmark is a very special country with incredible people, but based on Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s comments, that she would have no interest in discussing the purchase of Greenland, I will be postponing our meeting scheduled in two weeks for another time,” he wrote. (Later, he clarified that he had taken offense also by Frederiksen’s use of the word “absurd”).

The cancellation was unprecedented.

On Sept. 2, Trump was to be received by Queen Margrethe of Denmark, prime minister Frederiksen, by leaders of industry and by Kielsen, but now all was cancelled.

A digital billboard displays a sign reading “TRUMP” in Copenhagen, Denmark, August 20, 2019. Picture taken August 20, 2019. (Nikolaj Skydsgaard / Reuters)

At this stage it is no longer possible to remain certain that the president’s thoughts of buying Greenland was a passing confusion, and again the reaction of prime minister Frederiksen illustrated the pressure the Danish government feels. In her response to a frenzy of global media attention, at a press conference in Copenhagen just hours after the president’s tweet, she spoke again of the close, warm and important relations with the U.S.:

“The U.S. is one of our absolutely most important allies,” she said. Again she focused on security: “Our desire for a more strategic and stronger cooperation with the US on the Arctic is completely untouched, and our invitation to the Americans regarding stronger cooperation remains standing,” she said. Only then did she repeat that Greenland is not for sale. Finally she said it all once again in English to make sure every syllable was legible to Washington.

The day after, on Thursday, official word was issued that Frederiksen and Trump had spoken by phone, on Mette Frederiksen’s initative. At the time of this writing, little information about the content of the call has been disclosed, but not long after their conversation, in taking to the media, the president called Mette Frederiksen “a wonderful woman”.

Greenland as part of America

Apparently, offi

cial peace between the two leaders have been restored, but the episode leaves behind strong indications that the U.S. president acts on an entirely different perception of Greenland than do the governments in Denmark and Greenland.

According to international law, Greenland is a part of the Kingdom of Denmark. In the views of the Danish government it has been so for at least the last 300 years, or — as many will have it here — since Vikings settled in the south of Greenland in 985. Relations go deep. Many Danish and Greenlandic families are intertwined and the common history plays an important part in the national identity of both Danes and Greenlanders. Danish missionaries translated the Bible into Greenlandic by the 18th century. Danish colonial rule over Greenland, which lasted until 1953, was certainly not without problems, abuse of power and mistakes, but there was no slavery, no systematic use of violence and Greenland today is a well-functioning democratic welfare society mirroring the Nordic countries. About half the population speak Danish as well as Greenlandic.

A woman and child hold hands as they walk on the street in the town of Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 15, 2018. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters File Photo)

Greenland enjoys self-rule and a great deal of autonomy, while security, foreign affairs, the royal house and a few other keys to power remain under Danish control. About two-thirds of the electorate in Greenland support the vision of independence from Denmark at some point in the future, but there is no deadline and relations with Denmark remain cordial, close and cooperative. One half of the public expenditure in Greenland is covered by the annual grant from Denmark. A fifth of all Greenlanders live in Denmark and few envisage that Greenland will sever all ties to Denmark, the royals, access to the Danish educational system and so forth, even if Greenland should one day formally become an independent state.

Thus, president Trump’s notion that Greenland, including all of its 57,000 inhabitants with their distinct language, unique culture, democratic institutions and the rest of it could be sold and bought as a simple piece of real estate collided head on with all current views in Denmark and Greenland of normality, the status of the kingdom, the value of history and respectful interchange between peoples as the foundation of the current order of our times.

The dilemma is, as we now have to assume, that to Trump and to those who first suggested the purchase to him, Greenland may mean something different — or at least something in addition to the above.

[Trump’s dream of a US Greenland purchase has a surprisingly long and complex history]

Since 1823, when the Monroe Doctrine was first conceived of in Washington, the U.S. has allowed no other powers to extend their sovereignty onto the American continent. In this sense, Greenland stands out. Trump explicitly recognizes that Greenland is a part of the Danish Kingdom — 99 percent of the Kingdom’s territory to be precise — but geographically and strategically Greenland’s 2.1 million square kilometers constitute part of the American continent. They form a crucial buffer-zone between the U.S. and several nations that are on its list of main adversaries: China, Russia and North Korea. During the Cold War, Greenland and the Arctic was heavily militarized, it was a buffer between the Soviet Union and the U.S., and the geography has not changed.

Also, we have to record that the president’s thoughts of buying Greenland is only the latest sign of rapidly increasing U.S. interests in Greenland. Washington is reopening its diplomatic office in Nuuk after 66 years of absence. The U.S. ambassador to Copenhagen, Carla Sands, is a frequent guest in Greenland; in July she studied uranium and rare earth minerals in the south of Greenland with representatives of the US State Department. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency under the U.S. Department of Defense is currently using satellites to map all ice free land in Greenland — an area the size of Sweden — in close cooperation with Denmark and Greenland. In September 2018, the U.S. Air Force let it be known that it is considering investing in new airport facilities in Greenland. Thule Air Base, including its large radar, crucial to American missile defense, is regularly upgraded.

Russia and China

Copenhagen and Nuuk are well aware that the U.S. is focused on Russian and Chinese activities in the Arctic.

Russia is re-militarizing its Arctic regions. New bases have been established along Russia’s Arctic coast and old bases have been reopened, including on Franz Josef Land, a group of islands some 900 kilometers from the North Pole. From here, theoretically, Russian fighter jets could reach Thule Air Base with conventional weapons and disable a central component of America’s missile defense — the radar at Thule — without igniting a nuclear Armageddon.

U.S. strategists are also focused on China’s push for more influence in the Arctic, access to natural resources and the Arctic sea lanes. China calls itself a “near-Arctic” state and has invested heavily in oil and gas in the Russian Arctic. For a time, China’s largest construction company, China Communications Construction Company, was among those bidding to build two large new airports in Greenland, potentially with Chinese state funding. Chinese involvement was thwarted in 2018 only after after consultations between Denmark and the U.S.

[How a dispute over China and Greenland’s airports worked its way toward a solution]

Several signals from the U.S. indicate that it aims to push back strongly against these Russian and Chinese developments in the Arctic. The U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo made a hardline speech in Finland in May to this effect, followed by a June 2019 Arctic Strategy paper from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Now, the governments in Copenhagen and Nuuk are reading Trump’s interest in Greenland in this security context and they remember that this is not the first U.S. offer to buy Greenland.

As an answer to Danish suggestions that the U.S. should vacate its bases in Greenland after World War II, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes in a 1946 meeting with his Danish counterpart suggested exactly the same — that the U.S. should buy Greenland — and he was dead serious.

It was then that the Danish government understood that the US is not likely to leave Greenland ever. Denmark refused the sale, but in the following years the model we know today emerged. Denmark became a member of NATO, and in 1951 an accord, which still stands today as the key binding agreement on Greenland, was reached between Denmark and the U.S. Today, this accord provides the U.S. with rich opportunities for increasing its military presence in Greenland. Thule Air Base can be upgraded as new needs are identified, and new bases can be established as long as Denmark and Greenland agrees. Which — as Denmark’s prime minister and Greenland’s premier has clearly indicated — they are very likely to do.

Open for business

Looking at the bright side, the administration in Nuuk will no doubt celebrate how media from all over the world are suddenly asking what Greenland wants. Greenland is on a permanent hunt for foreign investors; a diplomatic office was opened in Washington in 2014 for this reason, and when the Wall Street Journal first broke the story of Donald Trump’s desire to perhaps buy Greenland, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Nuuk send out the following tweet:

Greenland MFA 🇬🇱@GreenlandMFA

is rich in valuable resources such as minerals, the purest water and ice, fish stocks, seafood, renewable energy and is a new frontier for adventure tourism. We’re open for business, not for sale❄️🗻🐳🦐🇬🇱 learn more about Greenland on:

This blogpost was copied from and updated on Sunday August 25th to reflect the telephone conversation between Mette Frederiksen and Donald Trump on Thursday 22. August. 



Michael Pompeo split the Arctic Council – so how is it that Arctic cooperation continues?

maj 10, 2019 • Af

US secretary of state Micheal Pompeo caused a lasting storm at the Arctic Council this week, but behind the scenes an important accommodation evolved. It escaped much of the media coverage, which rightly focussed on Pompeo’s attacks on China and Russia, but it remains crucial to Arctic cooperation.

US secretary of State Michael Pompeo (right) and Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting 7. May in Rovaniemi

On Tuesday 7. May 2019 the foreign ministers of the eight Arctic states, who met in Finland for a key Arctic Council meeting, failed to reach consensus on a joint declaration that was to guide the Council for the next two years.

This was historical.

The US-delegation, led by foreign secretary Michael Pompeo, did not allow any mention of climate change in the proposed declaration, a position that proved unacceptable to the other seven nations at the table.

Less than 48 hours before the meeting, on Sunday, the US reportedly presented with no prior warning its own suggestion for a joint text, but to little avail. The ministerial meeting came and went without a full consensus, and we now know that the Arctic states are fully unable to agree on how to address climate change, even if this is one the most pressing issues for many who live in the Arctic. Instead, the ministers signed a meagre one-page joint-ministerial statement devoid of any mention of climate change and just strong enough to allow the Council to continue its work.

As the dust settled, however, I began to understand why the diplomats still seemed so surprisingly calm and how the lack of a joint declaration was somewhat tempered by a swift move by the Finnish chairmanship — details to follow.

At first, a number of observers in Rovaniemi reacted to the missing declaration with forecasts of doom and looming havoc to much Arctic cooperation. I was happy when, a few hours after the dramatic finale, Laura Meller, an Arctic advisor to the Nordic branch of Greenpeace, offered me another perspective:

“I think it is actually encouraging that the other seven governments put climate change first instead of finding the lowest common denominator with the US no matter how little that was. If we could solve climate change by signing declarations, we would be in quite a nice spot, but we know that what really matters is how fast we can move away from the age of fossil fuels“, she said.

Which is a helping hand really, because, let me guess, most readers are probably still, like me, trying to figure out how to meaningfully interpret the avalanche of events that rolled over Rovaniemi, the main town in Finland’s Arctic region, where the meeting took place.

This was the first ever full fledged formal gathering of the foreign ministers of the Arctic to come to an end without a joint declaration. At no other stage since the 1996 birth of the Arctic Council has such division emerged; the Council by default cannot make decisions without consensus. Thus, it seems clear that the Rovaniemi ministerial calls for a re-think of current conditions for Arctic cooperation, even if Laura Meller insists on not losing perspective.

The Arctic foreign ministers meet only every second year, and it is by no means a small matter. Besides Michael Pompeo, also Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was there. These events are scrupulously prepared by scores of specialised diplomats and negotiations on the intended outcome this time around began more than two months in advance – some say they began at the previous ministerial in Fairbanks in 2017.

The Arctic foreign ministers and represenatives of the Arctic peoples, Rovaniemi, May 2019. Foto: Martin Breum

The ministerial meetings also bring together representatives of all the Arctic indigenous peoples, the so-called permanent participants, without whom no key decisions are made. Also, the observers states of the Arctic Council are there, which means literally scores of officials from Beijing, Tokyo, New Delhi, Bruxelles, Singapore and other capitals. Also, there are people from observer-organisations like the World Wildlife Foundation, the World Meteorological Organisation, from the six scientific working groups of the Arctic Council, its task forces plus the media. In total, we were probably more than two hundred people, not counting security, gathered in Lappi Areena in Rovaniemi, which on many other days serves as an ice-hockey stadium.

Not only did this meeting fail to produce the important joint declaration. It also entirely missed another target; that of a longer term Arctic Council strategy. The work on such a strategy was set in motion at the previous ministerial – in part by efforts by the USA. This strategy was for long negotiated among the Arctic nations as something that could possibly be adopted in Rovaniemi as a tool to sharpen the focus of the Arctic Council and provide ground for new initiatives and ambitions. The whole idea was put on hold, though, some time prior to Rovaniemi when it became clear just how adamant the US was that no recognition of climate change and its impacts in the Arctic, nor any joint efforts to counter the challenge would meet Washington’s approval.

Such internal division is of course remarkable. But perhaps even more telling was how the Rovaniemi meeting got framed by an unexpectedly confrontational speech made by Michael Pompeo on Monday afternoon. The secretary’s address was announced just days prior to Rovaniemi and it was not formally a part of the ministerial meeting. But it was made at Lappi Areena, the same location used for the ministerial, in front of tv-cameras from all over the world and only hours before the ministers were to meet for their formal dinner and subsequent talks.

Michael Pompeo’s speech came to be, so to speak, part of the assembled package and like the absence of a joint declaration it spelled out in a language quite foreign to the consensus-oriented Arctic Council how the world view and policies of President Donald Trump’s administration is now making a real difference in the Arctic.

Outi Snellman in particular made me aware of this. Outi Snellman is vice-president and head of the Rovaniemi-based international secretariat of the University of the Arctic, or UArctic, a collaborative organisation embracing some 203 universities all over the world. Outi Snellman has been instrumental to Arctic cooperation from the very beginning in the early 1990’s as it all started — in Rovaniemi.

Building on a historic 1987 speech in Murmansk by then leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, who asked for the Arctic to be transformed into a zone of peace, science and cooperation as the Cold War was ending, representatives of the Arctic states, including the Soviet Union, crafted the so-called Rovaniemi Declaration and kick-started a process of joint efforts on environmental protection, science and other collaboration in the Arctic. This was dubbed the Rovaniemi-process and later evolved into the Arctic Council.

Fast forward to Michael Pompeo’s speech in May 2019. Somini Sengupta of the New York Times wrote an account from Lappi Areena aptly headlined “United States Rattles Arctic Talks With a Sharp Warning to China and Russia”. The following are excerpts:

“Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday sharply warned China and Russia against “aggressive” actions in the Arctic, while resisting a diplomatic push by other countries in the region to avert the worst effects of climate change.

“This is America’s moment to stand up as an Arctic nation,” Mr. Pompeo said. “The region has become an arena of global power and competition.”

Mr. Pompeo was particularly pointed in his remarks on China, which has observer status at the Arctic Council, warning that Beijing’s efforts to build infrastructure in the region and partner with Russia on new sea routes could risk turning the Arctic into another area of competing territorial claims, like the South China Sea. “China’s pattern of aggressive behavior elsewhere will inform how it treats the Arctic,” he said.

The speech was strong on warnings against China’s rising presence in the Arctic and against Russia’s military build-up in the region, and on Tuesday afternoon, Outi Spellman was still bewildered:

“I think the governments will have to chew on this for a while,” she said.

“Gorbachev’s speech laid the foundation for this region as a region of peace and collaboration. It has served as a strong guarantee for peace. This is the first time that the language Pompeo voiced has entered the discussion of the Arctic Council. Pompeo did not focus on the possibilities for fruitful collaboration but on possible conflict,” she found. She reminded me how the Arctic Council was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize only some 15 months ago; something which is now unlikely to happen again soon.  

Another veteran of Arctic cooperation, Timo Koivurova, director of the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, told me that he did not expect the lack of consensus on climate change to cause much impact in the short term to the practical work of the Arctic Council.

“It is the long term impact that I am worried about,” he said only minutes after the end of the ministers’ meeting.

“If Trump is re-elected in 2020 and this administration just keeps on going, I think we will have serious challenge within the Arctic Council. So much of the work of the Arctic Council stems from climate change and its consequences, and if that is a no-go area… now that’s what I am worried about,” he told me.

However, like other experts Koivurova also stressed the importance of a document that emerged as a result of very last minute behind-the-doors dealings. This document was put forward by the head of the ministerial meeting, Finnish foreign minister Timo Soini, simply as a Statement from the Chair. This is not a format commonly part of the outcome of an Arctic Council ministerial but the document nonetheless soon appeared on the Arctic Council’s website very much as a result of the meeting.

And here is point: The Statement from the Chair contains everything that most would have expected from a formal declaration from the Rovaniemi meeting. Here are long and heavy paragraphs on the challenges that climate change brings to the Arctic. Here are recommendations on biodiversity, black carbon emissions, sustainable development, science cooperation, preservation of wetlands and scores of other subjects key to the work of the Arctic Council. One paragraph shows how the disagreement on climate change was handled:

“A majority of us regarded climate change as a fundamental challenge facing the Arctic and acknowledged the urgent need to take mitigation and adaptation actions and to strengthen resilience and welcomed the outcomes of the UNFCCC COP24 in Katowice, including the Paris agreement work programme,” it reads.

The document also spells out how the eight Arctic nations agreed on a new mechanism to coordinate work within the Arctic states on marine issues. Things are moving forward.

The statement was signed only by Timo Soini, Finland’s foreign minister, the chair of the meeting, not by the rest of the ministers. But it would obviously not have passed as a formal part of the outcome of the ministerial without the consent also of the US delegation and secretary Pompeo.

The US in Rovaniemi demonstrated its refusal to take part in any real climate change work in the Arctic, just as it has opted out elsewhere — for instance by refusing to take part in negotiations prior to the UN climate summit in New York in September and by dislodging from the Paris accords.

But a level of accomodation, something close to a compromise, was established as the US implicitly recognized basically everything else that goes on  within the Arctic Council.

“The US was very much alone in this,” Timo Koivurova surmised afterwards.

“The lack of a declaration is very unfortunate, very symbolic. But we still have the Joint Ministerial Statement and the Statement from the Chair. There you will find all that is needed to continue the work of the Arctic Council”, he said.

This arcticle is a re-write of a version that first appeared 09. May on 


Nye kort over Grønland – i samarbejde med USA

marts 19, 2019 • Af

Siden nytår har jeg arbejdet på en artikel til Weekendavisen om den såkaldte nykortlægning af samtlige isfrie områder i Grønland. Det er det mest ambitiøse kortlægning af Grønland nogensinde. For den tilfældigt forbipasserende kan det måske synes hverdagsagtigt, men projektet eksemplificerer på fineste vis både styrker og svagheder i rigsfællesskabet, og så illustrerer det samtidig intensiteten i Danmarks samarbejde med USA. Det amerikanske forsvar bidrager med satellitfoto af samtlige isfrie områder i Grønland – et område, der svarer til to tredjedele af Afghanistan. Samarbejdet om kortlægning er blevet konsolideret i Afghanistan, Libyen og andre konfliktområder og udstrækkes nu til Grønland.

Selve artiklen i Weekendavisen kan læses her 

Mange kort i Grønland er stadig baseret på flyfoto optaget fra sådanne Heinkel-maskiner i 1930’erne. – men nu er nye digitale kort på vej.

Undervejs besøgte jeg de ansvarlige for projektet i Styrelsen for Dataforsyning og Effektivisering og i Forsvarets Materiel- og Indkøbstyrelse i Ballerup. Jeg talte med de ansvarlige i Grønland, både i Asiaq – Greenland Survey og med Vittus Qujaukitsoq, naalakkersuisoq for finanser i Nuuk. Endelig fik jeg en glad bruger i røret: Lederen af Arktisk Kommandos operationer, Jakob Rousøe.

Her er lidt af, hvad jeg fandt ud af:

Det er den danske stats ansvar at sikre kortlægningen af hele riget, men i Grønland er indsatsen i årtier foregået i lavt tempo. Borgerne i Grønland og andre, der har brug for et kort over det åbne land, må ofte lade sig nøje med landkort baseret på luftfoto fra 1930’erne eller i lidt bedre fald flyfoto fra 1970’erne og 1980’erne.

Sådanne kort er ikke meget bevendte. De korresponderer f.eks. ikke med almindelig GPS-teknologi, og problemerne rækker fra de seriøse, hvor redningsindsatser bliver svækket og kystnær sejlads bringes i fare, til det bizarre. Når lovlydige borgere indberetter korrekt GPS-position af nyoprettede hytter på den grønlandske kyst, er det ikke usædvanligt, at Nuuk-myndighedernes gamle og upræcise kort viser, at hytterne tilsyneladende er opført et godt stykke ude i havet.

Situationen har længe været prekær, også for forsvarets opgaver i Grønland, men nu sker der noget. Den hidtil mest omfattende kortlægning af de isfrie områder i Grønland er i de seneste måneder sat i værk i et fintvævet samarbejde mellem de professionelle kortlæggere i Styrelsen for Dataforsyning og Effektivitet, Naalakkersuisut, det grønlandske landsstyre, og Forsvarets Materiel- og Indkøbsstyrelse i Ballerup, der trækker på et mangeårigt samarbejde med det amerikanske forsvar.

Nye digitale kort, komplette med tusinder af korrekt placerede grønlandske stednavne, præcist markerede veje, søer, elve, vandrestier og talrige andre faste objekter produceres nu i både civil og militær udgave.

“En egentlig, samlet kortlægning af hele det isfrie område i Grønland er ikke sket i mange år. I mellemtiden er Grønland blevet geopolitisk rigtig interessant, og der er stort behov i de grønlandske forvaltninger i forbindelse med råstofudvinding og anden erhvervsudvikling. Den enkelte borger i Grønland har brug for kort, og hele klimadagsordenen tilsiger også, at vi skal kortlægge Grønland på ny,” siger kontorchef Thomas Damsgaard i Styrelsen for Dataforsyning og Effektivisering.

I de seneste næsten tre år har han sammen med projektleder, landinspektør Lola Bahl i et pilotprojekt finansieret af A.P. Møller Fonden produceret moderne, digitale kort over de første 80.000 kvadratkilometer i Grønland. Her undersøgte de sammen med kolleger fra Asiaq-Greenland Survey, det grønlandske selvstyres geodatavirksomhed i Nuuk, hvordan nye digitale geodata bedst tilpasses lokale grønlandske behov, og de konstaterede ikke mindst, at flyfoto ikke længere er nødvendige.

Højtopløselige satellitfoto viste sig at være fuldt tilstrækkelige som grundlag for den visualisering og bearbejdning af data, der i dag ligger til grund for moderne kort i høj kvalitet.

Sidste efterår faldt finansieringen i Danmark på plads, 60 millioner i alt, inklusive 11 millioner fra forsvaret og 15 fra A.P. Møller Fonden. Energi-, forsynings- og klimaminister Lars Christian Lilleholt mødtes med Vittus Qujaukitsoq, finansansvarlig i Naalakkersuisut, Grønlands landsstyre, og Grønland bidrager nu med ajourføring af stednavne, brugerinvolvering i Grønland, lokalkendskab og to millioner kroner.

“Det første sted, hvor kortene virkelig vil gøre gavn, er i redningsarbejdet. Ved tsunamien i Karratfjorden i 2017 var vores kort nærmest ikke-anvendelige, så vi måtte lave noget fra alternative kilder,” forklarer direktøren for Asiaq-Greenland Survey, Bo Naamansen, over telefon fra Nuuk. Et fjeldskred udløste en tsunami, som dræbte fire, bygden Nuugaatsiaq måtte rømmes for altid, og i Grønland frygter man nu, at ændringerne i klimaet vil udløse flere fjeldskred og tsunamier.

Kortmanglen har også frustreret byggeri af vandkraftværker, højspændingsledninger, havne, turisme-erhvervet, forskningsprojekter og beskyttelsen af fortidsminder. Grønland har selv overtaget ansvaret for at kortlægge byer og bygder, men regeringen i København har fortsat ansvaret for både søkort og kortlægning af det åbne land i Grønland, og trægheden har skabt  ærgrelse på begge områder.

Søkortene, der sorterer under Geodatastyrelsen i Aalborg, er særligt forsinkede. Rigsrevisionen har rykket siden 2012, fordi den mangel på søkort, der hersker for store dele af de grønlandske farvande, er til fare for den voksende skibstrafik i Grønland, men Geodatastyrelsen mistede 13 af 14 involverede medarbejdere ved udflytningen fra København i 2016, så mere mærkbare fremskridt skal man på land for at finde.

De eksisterende kort over landmasserne udenfor byerne, hvoraf mange som nævnt er baseret på gamle flyfoto, findes ofte kun i formatet 1:100.000 eller 1:250.000, hvor en kvadratkilometer er bare fire millimeter på hver led. De nye digitale kort over de isfrie områder produceres i formatet 1:50.000, hvor en kvadratkilometer bliver 25 gange større. Præcise højdekurver vil give ny klarhed over landets vertikale beskaffenhed, mens den centrale opgave med korrekt placering af de grønlandske stednavne sikres via samarbejdet med Asiaq-Greenland Survey og Grønlands Sprogsekretariat. Endelig implementeres hele den digitale infrastruktur, så de omfattende data bliver integrerbare både i Grønlands egne IT-systemer og i forsvarets systemer.

“Det er rigtigt positivt, at det hele endelig er på plads. Jeg husker frustrationen over ventetiden helt tilbage fra mit første job i Asiaq i 1995,” siger Bo Naamansen.

Vittus Qujaukitsoq, den ansvarlige fra Grønlands landsstyre, er ivrig tilhænger af Grønlands løsrivelse, men han er glad for nykortlægningen, og landsstyret har engageret sig i projektet og udbredelsen af de nye kort i Grønland:

“Vi har presset på i en del år, men nu, hvor vi er i gang, kan jeg kun være glad for den samarbejdsvilje, der er vist fra den danske regering,” siger Qujaukitsoq. Jeg spørger, om kortlægningen måske kan være med til at forlænge rigsfællesskabets levetid, men sådan ser han det ikke:

“Projektet viser, at rigsfællesskabet fungerer. Klimaforandringerne bringer stadig nye opdagelser, når isen forsvinder — nye landskaber og øer — og vi skal øge sikkerheden for sejladsen. Men den træghed og de hindringer, vi er stødt på undervejs, er en lærebog i, hvordan viljen nok er til stede, men at ressourcerne og kapaciteten ikke nødvendigvis følger med. Grønland er uomtvisteligt på vej til selvstændighed. Det er ikke Danmarks gode viljer, der afgør, hvornår selvstændigheden kommer,” siger han.

De nye kort produceres i en tid, hvor den sikkerhedspolitiske interesse for Grønland vokser, og det amerikanske forsvar bidrager til det ny kortlægningsprojekt med satellitbilleder af hele Grønlands kyst; et område på 450.000 kvadratkilometer – cirka ti gange Jylland, Fyn og Øerne eller to tredjedele af Afghanistan. Optagelsen af satellitbillederne skal hele vejen rundt langs kysten og optages som en lang bane, så der dannes et sammenhængende billede; det gør processen mere kompliceret end optagelse af enkeltbilleder.

De amerikanske satellitbilleder anvendes til produktionen af både civile og militære kort. Satellitbillederne må dog ikke offentliggøres og kan derfor ikke stilles frit tilgængelig som en del af den samlede civile kortlægning. Derfor er der stadig behov for at købe andre satellitbilleder, der kan offentliggøres, men de amerikanske billeder har høj opløsningsgrad og hjælper de danske kortlæggeres kvalitetskontrol.

Samarbejdet med USA er forankret i Multinational Geospacial Co-production Programme, MGCP, hvor mere end 30 vestlige nationer i fællesskab producerer militære kort. Kontakten varetages i det daglige af militærgeograf, chefkonsulent Marlene Meyer fra Forsvarets Materiel- og Indkøbsstyrelse (FMI), der i de seneste ti år blandt andet har koordineret Danmarks bidrag til den internationale digitale kortlægning af Afghanistan, Syrien og andre krigsskuepladser. Danmark har i dag status som “lead nation” i MGCP, og i forsvaret opfattes det amerikanske bidrag til kortlægningen i Grønland som et godt eksempel på udbyttet af det internationale forsvarssamarbejde.

En analyse fra FMI viste allerede i 2012, at kortlægningen i Grønland var forældet. På det tidspunkt var samarbejdet med USA og Danmarks andre allierede om kortlægningen af Afghanistan og andre krigszoner veletableret, og da de danske samarbejdspartnere foreslog en ny kortlægning af Grønland, blev det vel modtaget.

Partneren i USA er det amerikanske forsvars National Geospacial Intelligence Agency, NGA, der på nettet præsenterer sig som “en unik kombination af efterretningsvæsen og kampstøttecenter.” Det er NGA, der leder det internationale samarbejde i Multinational Geospacial Co-production Programme, og den danske produktion udstrækkes nu til Grønland. Forsvaret kan anvende det eksisterende produktions-mønster som model for kontrakter, specifikationer og kvalitetssikring og efterfølgende bliver datamaterialet stillet til rådighed både for Danmarks allierede og det civile samfund i Grønland.

Kommandørkaptajn Jakob Rousøe, operativ chef ved Arktisk Kommando i Nuuk, forklarer, at forsvaret i Grønland ikke bare ser frem til de nye korts øgede præcision, men også til at kunne udveksle digitale kortudsnit mellem skibe, fly og kommandocentral og med udenlandske partnere. Kortene vil fungere som sømløse digitale kort, hvor forsvarets medarbejdere kan zoome og scrolle uanset, hvilken del af Grønland, de færdes i.

“Bare det, at alle fremover kan referere til samme internationalt anerkendte kort, er en kæmpe værdi,” siger han. De præcise højdekurver på de militære kort vil eksempelvis gøre det sikrere at flyve i Grønland med de amerikansk producerede F35-jagerfly, som både Danmark og US Air Force fremover skal arbejde med. Kortene vil hjælpe, hvis helikopterne skal undsætte nødstedte krydstogtpassagerer på kysten, og de vil være nyttige under sejlads ved kysten i tåge, eller når nødpakker skal kastes ned til fangere eller turister i vanskeligheder i fjeldet.

Endelig skal kortene udruste forsvaret til fremtidens militære opgaver. Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste viser i sin seneste risikovurdering fra december, at jagerfly fra Ruslands nye baser på øerne i Det Arktiske Ocean nu kan nå de amerikanske installationer på Thule-basen langt hurtigere end før.

“Efterretningsfolkene taler mere om den russiske og kinesiske aktivitet i Arktis end tidligere. Det er gået hurtigere, end de fleste forudså. Det er en slags paradigmeskifte,” siger Rousøe, der er tidligere militærattaché i Washington og nøje følger USAs interesse for Grønland.

En topembedsmand fra USAs forsvarsministerium, John Rood, overraskede i september, da han under besøg på Thule-basen kundgjorde, at USA overvejer nye investeringer i lufthavne i Grønland. Amerikanske fly opererer hyppigere end før fra Island i jagten på russiske ubåde, og den amerikanske flåde har genetableret sin Second Fleet, der fra Nordatlanten forsvarer USAs østkyst.

“Det er altid svært at læse, hvad der styrer de sikkerhedspolitiske interesser i USA, men det er næppe forkert at sige, at Grønland spiller en mere relevant rolle i dag end for bare få år siden,” siger Jakob Rousøe.

Den ny kortlægning ventes afsluttet i 2022.



Plastic pollution increasing at the top of the Earth

januar 26, 2019 • Af

Increasing amounts of plastic pollution is being detected in Europe’s most northern Arctic regions. This week in Tromsø, I learned how scientists are registering high concentrations of microplastic particles not only in Arctic waters but also in the Arctic ice and snow. Indications are that plastic pollution has reached the still ice-encapsulated North Pole, thousand of kilometers from human habitation.

“Our latest knowledge indicates that plastics really are everywhere now. It is difficult to find anywhere in the Arctic that is not affected, and there is no way to remove microplastics from neither the ocean, the ice or the snow,” senior researcher Dorte Herzke from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research told me.

More than 30 plastic bags were found in the stomach of a beached Cuvier’s beaked
whale in Norway in 2017. Scientists blamed the garbage for the whales death. Photo:
Christoph Noever / University of Bergen

New scientific evidence of plastic litter in the Arctic was presented earlier this week in Tromsø, the main city of Norway’s Arctic north.

Frustration in the sparsely populated Arctic is growing as the overwhelming majority of the plastic litter stems from other parts of the world:

“The debate changed completely two years ago, when we had a whale that came ashore, its belly full of plastic bags. Everyone realized that this was something the whale had gotten into its stomach on its long travels. It brought to our attention that many of the countries that are most affected by marine litter do not produce that litter themselves,” Norway’s foreign minister, Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide, said. Søreide and several other government officials attended this years so-called Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø designed to bring science and politics together.

Marine plastic pollution, much of it garbage from the Asia-Pacific region but also from Europe, is pushed into the Arctic seas by global ocean currents, but scientists are also increasingly detecting microscopic plastic particles brought to the Arctic by long-range winds. Falling snow washes these microscopic plastic fragments into the ocean or deposits them on the ice-cover on the oceans.

We can basically follow this concentration of plastic from the atmosphere down through the ice, through the water column and to the sediments on the ocean floor. And don’t forget this is in the Arctic which is already under threat from significant climate change,“ Dr. Ilka Peeken told med. She is a sea-ice ecologist of the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany.

During cruises with Polarstern, a research vessel of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Peeken and her colleagues drilled cores from ice-floes, some originating as far north as the Makarov Basin in the central part of the Arctic Ocean close to the North Pole. These cores contained “an extremely high number” of microplastic particles, she said.

She now worries that plastic will affect the fragile eco-system in the Arctic: “My own theory is that the sea-ice itself further fragments the plastic into even smaller particles. Because sea-ice is so cold, the so-called brine channels in the ice gets very salty, and the salt may further fragments the plastic“ she said.

If proven, this may present a new layer of environmental dilemmas:

“The problem is that the smaller the particles get, the more damage they may do. Today, we talk of nano-plastics where the particles are so small that they can penetrate cells, and there are studies to suggest that they might cause cell damage” Peeken said.    

Norway’s Special Representative for the Oceans, Vidar Helgesen, pointed to the EU as a significant ally:

“The EU’s plastic strategy and its circular economy package is very important. Norway is part of the single market and we welcome common European approaches. The EU-ban on single-use plastics will have a tremendous effect, because the EU is such a big market,” he told me. 

The European Parliament’s Environment Committee this week approved new EU rules on plastic pollution proposed by the EU Comission, including a complete ban on some single-use plastic products often found on European beaches.

As for saving the Arctic against more plastics, Vidar Helgesen, who formerly served as Norway’s Minister for EU Affairs, was only cautiously optimistic:

“I am not sure that in ten years we will have less plastics in the oceans than we have today, but the flow of plastics into the oceans will be smaller. The attention to the issue among the electorate and at the highest political level is a good sign, but sadly we will see for a number of years increased plastic in the oceans before new measures will take effect. You have a number of countries particularly in the Asia-Pacific where it is critically important to get waste management systems into place and where it will take time,” he said.

Scientists stress that studies of plastics in the Arctic are still few and that they still have more questions than answers. A new scientific research project in Tromsø will aim particularly at plastic pollution and Norway is stepping up diplomatic efforts to stem the global tide of plastic litter; an initiative closely linked to Norway’s plans to increase exploitation of marine resources including oil and gas, subsea minerals, fisheries, aquaculture, shipping and tourism.   

“If we are to succeed at creating the jobs of the future and solve the global challenges we have no other choice than to release the enormous potentials of the ocean,” Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg wrote in an op-ed on just prior to this week’s Arctic Frontiers conference.

A total of five government ministers insisted in Tromsø that increased exploitation of the seas, including more oil drillings in Norway’s Arctic seas, can be done sustainably — an argument hotly disputed by environmentalists and some scientists.     

Prime Minister Erna Solberg last year launched a global High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy Panel, which includes (as the only member from an EU country) Portugal’s Prime Minister António Costa as well as leaders from Australia, Chile, Fiji, Japan and other countries. Erna Solberg’s stated objective is three-pronged – to “produce, protect and prosper”.

Dette indlæg blev først bragt på 25. januar 2019. 


Her er den egentlige forskel på dansk og grønlandsk syn på fremtiden

januar 18, 2019 • Af

En ny undersøgelse af grønlændernes holdning til løsrivelse fra Danmark afdækker en afgrundsdyb forskel på, hvad danske politikere forestiller sig, og det som en tredjedel af vælgerne i Grønland forventer af Grønlands eventuelle løsrivelse. Mens danske politikere gerne fortæller, hvordan Grønland vil opleve et dramatisk drop i velfærden, hvis løsrivelsen skulle blive en realitet, er en stor del af den grønlandske befolkning overbevist om, at løsrivelsen vil gavne den grønlandske økonomi og dermed deres egne livsbetingelser.

På vej til fremtiden – store dele af grønlænderne mener, at løsrivelse vil være godt for økonomien. Foto: Martin Breum

Undersøgelsen, der er lavet under kyndig vejledning af professorerne Minik Rosing og David Dreyer Lassen på Københavns Universitet, dokumenterer først, at 67,7 procent af alle voksne bosat i Grønland ønsker, at Grønland på et eller andet tidspunkt i fremtiden bliver en uafhængig stat løsrevet fra Danmark.

Den del af undersøgelsen vil næppe overraske mange på Christiansborg. To gange tidligere har et lille analysefirma i Nuuk, H.S. Analyse, vist tilsvarende opbakning til visionen om løsrivelse. Det nye i undersøgelsen er, at den viser, hvordan 43,5 procent af de grønlandske tilhængere af løsrivelse mener, at en afslutning på rigsfællesskabet, som vi kender det, vil have “positiv” eller endog “meget positiv” indvirkning på Grønlands økonomi. 62,3 procent af dem, der siger at de ville stemme ja til løsrivelse, selvom løsrivelsen skulle finde sted straks, mener, at løsrivelsen ville medføre forbedringer af økonomien. 

Det har vi ikke før haft dokumentation for, og man kan hurtigt opregne flere grunde til, hvorfor danske politikere formentlig kan have glæde af at spekulere lidt videre over den nyhed.

For de grønlandske politikere er det formentlig tankevækkende, at der er så stor forskel på forventningerne til løsrivelsen i Grønland. Blandt modstanderne af løsrivelsen mener 79 procent nemlig, at løsrivelsen vil have “negative” eller “meget negative” konsekvenser.

Der er med andre ord og uanset, hvad man selv mener, en oplagt risiko for at splitte den grønlandske befolkning i to grupper med meget forskellige fremtidsopfattelser. Man behøver blot at tænke på Brexit og den lammelse, der har ramt Storbritannien, for at ane, hvor destruktivt en sådan kløft kan udvikle sig.

For den videre dansk-grønlandske diskussion kan vi konstatere, at 43,5 procent af alle tilhængerne af løsrivelse i Grønland er meget langt fra at være enige i den analyse af løsrivelsens potentielle konsekvenser, der ofte lægges til grund i Danmark.

Statsminister Lars Løkke Rasmussen og andre har fra folketingets talerstol gerne gjort opmærksom på, hvordan 52 procent af de offentlige udgifter i Grønland fortsat finansieres af det årlige bloktilskud fra Danmark. Og så føjer de gerne til, at Grønlands søgrænser, politivæsen, fiskerikontrol og redningstjeneste fortsat opretholdes uden mange omkostninger for Grønland blandt andet i kraft af det danske forsvars Arktiske kommando og de tilhørende fly, skibe og det specialiserede mandskab. Denne faktaboks bruges af danske politikere i mange forskellige aftapninger; den kan uddybes i detaljer om plejehjem, skoler, børneomsorg og andre velfærdsgoder, som angiveligt vil mangle, hvis bloktilskuddet engang skulle blive blokeret, fordi grønlænderne vælger at løsrive sig.

På samme måde — omend med mindre direkte politisk fortolkning – leverer  Grønlands Økonomiske Råd, ofte repræsenteret ved Rådets formand, den tidligere overvismand i Danmark, Torben M. Andersen, løbende analyser og kommentarer, der viser, hvordan Grønlands økonomi skal forbedres markant, hvis det hele skal hænge sammen på lidt længere sigt; senest præsenterede Torben M. Andersen analysen på den årlige Grønlands-konference i DI.

Torben M. Andersen afholder sig som professionel økonom selvfølgelig fra at mene noget om, hvorvidt Grønland skal løsrive sig eller ej, men Rådets analyser følger samme logik som de danske politikeres. Logikken lyder, at der er så mange udfordringer for langtidsholdbarheden af den grønlandske velfærd, at det selvsagt ikke nytter at rokke for meget ved båden — for slet ikke at tale om at løsrive Grønland fra det åndedrætsopholdende bloktilskud fra den danske statskasse.

Problemet for dialogen mellem Danmark og Grønland er altså ikke —  ved vi nu fra den nye undersøgelse — er at mere end 40 procent af løsrivelsestilhængere i Grønland ikke har fæstet nogen lid til den analyse, der er den gængse i Danmark. De ønsker ikke bare løsrivelse i en eller anden paradoksal trods af den analyse, der dominerer i Danmark; de simpelthen dybt uenige i selve analysens substans.

Graferne i den nye videnskabelige undersøgelse taler deres eget, tydelige sprog: Blandt de 38,4 procent af vælgerne, som ville stemme ja til løsrivelse straks, mener 27,7 procent, at løsrivelse vil have “meget positiv” indvirkning på den grønlandske økonomi, mens 34,6 mener, at effekten vil være “positiv”. Jeg tillader mig at gætte, at en væsentlig del af de samme mennesker faktisk mener, at tilhørsforholdet til Danmark ligefrem er en byrde for den grønlandske økonomi. Det er ikke præcist det, tallene viser, men forestillingen om, at det dansk-grønlandske forhold i økonomisk forstand er til dansk fordel (og i øvrigt længe har været det), har man kunne møde i Grønland længe, og den forestilling har den danske, politiske retorik altså tilsyneladende ikke rokket ved.

Det efterlader en afgørende kløft i dialogen, som ingen hidtil har anvist nogen umiddelbart farbar vej over.

Vi ved ikke, hvordan respondenterne når frem til analysen af de forventede, økonomiske konsekvenser af løsrivelsen. Men undersøgelsen hjælper til at forstå, hvorfor partier, der argumenterer for løsrivelse, lige siden de politiske partiers historie begyndte i Grønland, har høstet den overvejende del af stemmerne, når der er valg i Grønland.

Tallene viser en lidt større opbakning til visionen om løsrivelse i bygderne langs kysten end i de lidt større grønlandske byer. De viser også, at opbakningen er lidt større blandt de grønlændere, der opfatter sig selv som mindre velstående, end blandt dem, der mener, at de i økonomisk forstand har det lidt bedre. Det er ikke store forskelle, men de svarer nogenlunde til den almindelige antagelse, der har været gældende i Grønland i nogle år, nemlig at de løsrivelsesivrige partier har lidt større opbakning blandt vælgerne i de mindre kystsamfund, hvor der er mange fiskere og fangere, end i byerne, hvor der er relativt flere lønmodtagere og folk med formel uddannelse.

Ligesom deres vælgere, synes heller ingen af de toneangivende aktører i grønlandsk politik at dele den økonomiske analyse af løsrivelsens potentielle konsekvenser, der oftes lægges til grund i Danmark.

Der er ingen af de ledende politikere i Grønland, der argumenterer for, at befolkningen i Grønland bør acceptere en nedgang i levestandarden til gengæld for hurtige skridt mod løsrivelse. Velfærdssamfundets vedligeholdelse er i Grønland såvel som i Danmark blevet en fast del af al politiks mål, og det rokker visionen om løsrivelse ikke ved. Politikerne fastholder i stedet mere eller mindre implicit, at løsrivelsen vil styrke Grønland, frisætte flere kræfter, skabe initiativ, nyt mod og fornyet innovation både i det private og i det offentlige, herunder til omlægning af den ganske store, offentlige administration i Grønland, der sluger en pæn bid af det offentlige budget, og som i mange politikeres øjne er en noget klodset klon af den danske centraladministration.

På samme måde kan man også møde det argument, at  løsrivelse vil gøre det nemmere at inddrage de svageste mere aktivt i samfundslivet, fordi de efter løsrivelsen i højere grad vil føle sig anerkendt, blive set og hørt — også selvom de ikke taler dansk.

Den nuværende finansansvarlige i Naalakkersuisut, det grønlandske landsråd, Vittus Qujaukitsoq, gjorde under seneste valgkamp i det tidlige 2018 klart, at han var parat til at acceptere en vis nedgang i levestandarden i Grønland, hvis det var nødvendigt for at fremskynde løsrivelsen, men det var en enlig svale. Han fulgte det ikke op med detaljer, og det var ikke et udsagn, der vakte større furore. Opstanden over denne fravigelse fra hovedreglen udeblev, muligvis fordi Qujaukitsoqs overraskende melding lå fjernt fra den gængse politiske logik i Grønland, som også Vittus Qujaukitsoq som mangeårigt medlem af Siumut, det gamle regeringbærende parti i Grønland, længe har repræsenteret. Qujaukitsoq stiftede fort før valget i april sit eget parti, Nunatta Qitornai, men han opererer i tæt koalitions-symbiose med formanden for Naalakkersuisut, Kim Kielsen, der også er formand for Siumut, og i den alliance har tanken om at give køb på skoler, plejehjem og børneomsorg til gengæld for et hurtigt ryk mod løsrivelsen ingen plads. Løsrivelsen ses snarere som et værktøj til større eller i hvert fald vedligeholdt velfærd, ikke det modsatte. Der findes endnu ingen offentliggjorte, teknisk-økonomiske analyser, der dokumenterer, at løsrivelse ville styrke økonomien, men vi ved nu, at den antagelse har godt fat i vælgerkorpset.

Den nye holdningsanalyse blev offentliggjort i Nuuk i begyndelsen af december. Den  gennemføres af de to ph.d.-studerende: Kelton Ray Minor, der forsker ved Kraks Fond Byforskning og Centre for Social Data Science (SODAS) på Københavns Universitet, og Gustav Agneman fra Økonomisk Institut i Købehavn. De to og fire forskningsassistenter fra Ilisimatusarfik, Grønlands Universitet, opsøgte over to måneder i sommer 606 voksne i 13 byer og bygder fra nord til syd i Grønland, og bad dem udfylde et spørgeskema. Alle respondenter var nøje udvalgt af Grønlands Statistik, der sikrede et repræsentativt udvalg af unge, gamle, by- og bygdeboere. Undersøgelsen viser også, hvordan grønlænderne oplever klimaforandringerne, fiskeriet og udsigterne til minedrift i Grønland. En større rapport med flere tal og analyser ventes til februar. Undersøgelsen er en del af forskningssamarbejdet Greenland Perspective mellem Ilisimatusarfik, universitetet i Nuuk, og Københavns Universitet.

Dette blogindlæg blev i sin oprindelige version bragt som nyhedsanalyse på Altinget:Arktis 9. januar 2019. Den oprindelige tekst indeholdt en unøjagtig fremstilling af flere tal. Både tekst og tal er siden blevet korrigeret. 

Skulle du have lyst til at se, hvordan de første resultater af den nye meningsmåling blev lanceret i Nuuk, ligger hele begivenheden på Youtube. De resultater, der er omtalt ovenfor, præsenteres i den sidste del af seancen:


Did anyone talk about the Arctic at COP24?

januar 2, 2019 • Af


Teenage activist Greta Thunberg is seen inside the venue of the COP24 U.N. Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland. (Kacper Pempel / Reuters)

I keep wondering if anyone really talked about the Arctic in Poland at COP24, the great international climate meet that recently ended? This was for a brief moment the world’s most important arena for the battle against climate change, designed to get the Paris Accords from December 2015 on track — but where was the Arctic?

Looking back at two weeks of intense global media coverage, I wonder where were the heads of states from the Arctic countries blasting away about the effects of climate change in the Arctic?

Where were the key ministers from the eight Arctic governments banging fists against podiums to fuel important speeches about the challenges to the Arctic peoples, the villages ravaged by coastal erosion, the threats to biodiversity, the decimated herds of reindeer, the melt of Greenland’s ice sheet and of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, the buckling infrastructure, the heating oceans, the melting permafrost and how the changes in the Arctic will affect the entire globe?

And indeed, where was the Arctic Council? The body that the Arctic governments so often praise as their common platform, our successful melting pot of good intentions, strategic diplomacy and inclusive Arctic governance? How many times have the Arctic Council issued statements on the need for action against climate change? So why did the new Secretary General of the Arctic Council not stand up in an epic moment, devoid of all falsehood and pretense, to face the cameras and tell the world how the eight Arctic governments had asked her to first of all ask for two minutes of silence — and then go on to declare, on behalf of the eight nations and all the indigenous Arctic peoples, that as from this moment all political activity in these eight Arctic states —  including Russia and the USA —  would be drastically re-designed and focused singularly on the prevention of further, catastrophic heating of the planet — and richly inspired, of course, by the consistent work of the five scientific working groups of the Arctic Council, encompassing hundreds of the most dedicated scientists of this world, who have already long ago documented how urgent action is sorely needed. And excuse us, by the way, for not doing this long ago.

‘No talk about climate’

Sometimes it is good to allow oneself a bit of wanderings like this.

I know of the limits to the mandate of the Secretary General of the Arctic Council and, more importantly, the absence of wider commitments to climate efforts in capitals like Moscow and Washington.

But the absence of newsworthy Arctic interventions from political leaders of USA, Russia or other Arctic states at COP24 in Poland reminds us how climate change in the Arctic does not seem to be what drives the agenda for many key political leaders in the Arctic capitals.

The governments of the Arctic are concerned about sustainable development, which is something quite different. Indeed, few know exactly what the term means, but the governments mostly agree that it does not compel them to focus more seriously on climate change, even if the problem is certainly there in the statements of intent.

The Moscow government has recently announced yet another larger-than-life 5.5 billion-ruble investment plan for the Russian Arctic. A colleague from The Independent Barents Observer in Norway travelled with Russian prime minister Medvedev to the booming oil and gas-center in Sabetta in Russia’s far north Yamal Province to report how the new plan covers “investments in regional infrastructure and natural resource development, including railway construction, new sea ports and development of hydrocarbon and coal fields….There was no talk about the aggravating and potentially devastating climate changes that are unfolding in the Arctic. The meeting headed by Medvedev had its focus not on nature protection, but on exploitation.”

In Alaska, on the U.S. side of the Bering Strait latest news is the revitalizing of plans for a new 200-mile highway to copper fields in the far north — and a rush to drill for more oil in more places on the North Slope, including a long-fought-over wildlife refuge; probably to no-one’s surprise. Economic development has been for years on the top of the agenda of many Arctic communities, and the governments of the Arctic countries have been quick to incorporate this natural desire of the peoples of the Arctic into comprehensive, national strategies for future growth.

Teenager steals the attention

The governments of the Arctic states are home to the most glaring evidence of climate change available on the planet. They are rich in economic resources, in technology and knowledge; they have financed for almost three decades substantial science into just about any aspect of climate science in the Arctic, including science conducted by the Arctic Council’s productive scientific working groups. Hundreds of scientific articles, reports and carefully calibrated suggestions for action have been crafted by scores of conscientious experts from across the Arctic — and yet no-one from the governments of the Arctic really stood up to present all this in Poland. The science by the working groups is of course carefully integrated into IPCC’s reports, but is is not boosted in very visible ways by political leaders.

The Arctic Council, to be fair, was certainly not absent in Poland. The Arctic Council and the government of Finland, which is presently chairing the Arctic Council, co-hosted a 90-minute side event for all interested parties to attend on the heady effects of black carbon in the Arctic. An obvious item for the global audience at COP24. Black carbon, which is basically soot from industries, power-plants, gas-production, cars and households in Europe, the U.S. and Asia, is darkening ice and snow in the Arctic, so that the Arctic absorbs more of the sun’s warmth than before. At the event, starred by the environmental ministers from both Finland and Poland, experts told the audience how this heavy source of climate change could fairly easily be extinguished using existing technologies, and a representative from the Climate and Clean Air Coalition told of worldwide efforts to curb black carbon emission.

Meanwhile, 15 year old Greta Thunberg from Sweden stole much of the media attention at COP24 with a three-minute speech. In carefully braided pigtails she faced the global gathering of ministers, diplomats and negotiators of all hues and gave them all she had: “You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared to be unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess,” she said.

I understand that diplomacy is about finding compromise in the real world. I know that it will most probably never happen, but quietly, I allow myself to wonder if any key political representative of a key Arctic government will ever speak about the Arctic with similar nerve.


This blog was first published on  26. December 2018


Film festival in Murmansk shows why dialogue with Russia is necessary — and tough

december 21, 2018 • Af


The male choir of Russia’s Northern Fleet performs at the award ceremony at the Northern Character film and television festival in Murmansk. (Lars-Petter Kalkenberg)

We drive from Kirkenes at the very top of Norway to the Russian border and across the tundra for four hours to Murmansk, the biggest city in the Arctic, with a population of about 300,000. The windshield wipers on our minibus battle snow most of the way. I have been asked to sit on the jury of Northern Character, a film and television festival in Murmansk about everything in the north. It is not one of the biggest film festivals in Russia, but well organized by people from the local television station TV21 in collaboration with colleagues from Norway, Sweden and Finland.

I am about to experience just how hard it is to level with Russians when the chips are down. A valuable lesson if one wants to understand why Arctic cooperation with Russia is so crucial — and so tough.

We drive through one the most militarized regions of the world. It is here in the northernmost part of northwest Russia that Russia’s mighty Northern Fleet keeps its stealthy submarines, its nuclear warheads, battle-ready warships, fighter jets, garrisons and so forth. To its neighbors, Russia is a constant source of nervous jitters and the Northern Character festival, now in its 11th year, is one of the many civil society projects designed to keep confidence building people-to-people conversations going across the borders.

Common history

For the festival, 174 film and TV productions in all genres have been selected. Hard-nosed unfiltered critique of those in power is not in vogue here, but the festival’s ambition reflects Russia’s long tradition of quality films and a newer trend, dating back at least 15 years, of cooperating with the neighboring Nordic countries.

Northwestern Russia, northern Finland and northern Norway share a long and complex history. For many centuries tradespeople from northern Russia brought  flour and meat to the poor fishermen in northern Norway. Today many Russians go shopping in Kirkenes where many street signs are bilingual, people in the border region do not need visas and many of residents of Kirkenes are Russian.

In the winter darkness we pass the memorial for those who died at the front close to Litsa River. In the Second World War some 40,000 Russian soldiers died here fighting German troops who, like us, came from the West.

From 1941 the Germans pressed forward in a fatal attempt to take Murmansk. In this part of Arctic Russia the harbors are ice-free year round and allied convoys from Great Britain and the United States used the harbor in Murmansk to deliver food, ammunition, and thousands of tanks, vehicles and fighter planes to the Red Army. The Germans were stopped at Litsa River, where a hellish battle raged for three years. The Germans died from the cold and Russian perseverance. In October 1944 the Red Army freed northern Norway. Kirkenes was the first city in Norway to be liberated from Nazi occupation, and the neighborly relations between Russian and Norway took on new depths.

The jury is split

War is also with us at the festival and one documentary, “Overdrive, return point” by Russia’s Natalia Gugueva causes us particular difficulties. The film is about Crimea, or more precisely about an airbase close to the town of Saky north of Sebastopol in the southern part of the Crimean peninsula.

In 1992 at the break-up of the Soviet Union, the airbase at Saky is Soviet, but it is now to be handed over to independent Ukraine along with the rest of Crimea. The Russian pilots are given a choice: You can continue to serve Russia, but only if you move to Severomorsk-3, an airbase near Murmansk in Russia’s Arctic. Or you can swear a new oath of allegiance to Ukraine and keep flying in the sun over Crimea.

The film, which is supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture, follows the pilots who go north; they refuse to pledge allegiance to anything but Russia. Through Guguevas skillful instruction and because of Eugen Kuznetsov, a charismatic Russian jet pilot and the main character of the film, Gugueva’s documentary is in many ways a deeply moving drama about patriotism, sacrifice and existential doubt. It is Gugueva’s third film about the pilots. She expertly uses older and brilliant new footage, and we are taken right into the fateful days in 2014, where Russian troops take over Crimea. Everyone fears that a war will break out between Ukraine and Russia, and the Russian pilots at Severomorsk-3 are forced to weigh whether they will be able to shoot at and potentially kill those of their old colleagues who chose to stay in Saky.

I would have rated this documentary among the very best at the festival, if it wasn’t for one unforgivable fault. About midway it constructs a grossly generalized, spiteful, manipulated and derogatory image of the entire Ukrainian people, which renders any praise of the film impossible.

After hours of discussion over two days of deliberations our jury is split in two. It is the Russians against us from the West. Without any prior contact between us, the four of us from the Nordic countries have all reached the same conclusion: We cannot give this particular documentary any of the many prizes of the festival.

Our professional conversation about films is about to disintegrate into personal attacks. One of our Russian jury members asks me whether I have ever served in the military, as if this has bearing on my ability to have an opinion on films. My Norwegian colleague is similarly treated. At no stage do our Russian friends acknowledge our key argument that such wildly generalizing and outright hateful statements about an entire people has no place in this world. In stead they suggest that we lack knowledge of Russia’s history or that our critique is caused by the film’s poor English subtitles. For reasons never shared with us, it is obviously not an option that the festival can end without praise to this film.

The president of the festival has to be summoned to break the deadlock and finally it is agreed that the jury will not award any prize to Gugueva’s film. It is also agreed, however, that the Russian president of the jury, acclaimed filmmaker Yusup Razykov, can award the film a “special mention” in his own name.

Nobody is really happy. But at least the four of us from the Nordic countries stood our ground and at the award ceremony in Murmansk our jury president dutifully tells the audience about the split.

I learned an important lesson. If you want to talk to Russian colleagues about matters close to their core persuasions, come well prepared. Be aware that you will not necessarily win the argument and that it may be worthwhile to prepare a Plan B that at least allows for continued dialogue.

The rest of the festival was loads of fun, loads of film — some good, some  bad. We had sincere and very useful, neighborly talks about journalism, art, our common history, the nature of peace and how we can work together. And in the jury we agreed when it came to the Grand Prix, the most prestigious of the prizes awarded. We gave this to “24 Snows,” a 90-minute documentary by Mikhail Barynin. A portrait rich in detail of Sergey, a horse breeder and reindeer herder in Yakutia in the Siberian forest. Barynin avoids the overly romantic while unfolding a disappearing way of life and the splendors of the natural world. The narrative of this Russian documentary is not be the sharpest, but our Russian colleagues argued convincingly why it is important that these marginal Arctic communities are brought forward in contemporary Russia. The footage of “24 Snows” is brilliant and the film is also awarded a prize for “best camera.”

Finally, at the peak of the award ceremony we are once again reminded of the permeating presence of Russia’s defense forces in this region. The large and almost all-male choir of Russia’s Northern Fleet treats us to a spectacular hour-long dance and song concert. A smooth baritone in black uniform sings “Strangers in the night” with the finest of Russian accents.

Martin Breum is a Danish journalist specializing in the Arctic. His participation at the Northern Character festival was organized by the Nordic Journalist Center in Denmark.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at)


Why people matter when we talk about Arctic climate change

november 12, 2018 • Af

It is very difficult to have a conversation with an ice-floe. You may select a floe with an intriguing personal history; perhaps a past way up in the Arctic Ocean or a recent history of nerve-wrecking encounters with menacing icebergs. Even so, I would assume that your conversation will be short and shallow, devoid of any new hope, love or inspiration, based almost exclusively on your own muddy thoughts and mounting fears of climate change which your local news most likely refueled once again last night.

We talked about this at the recent Arctic Circle conference in Iceland among the more than 2000 people attending from all over the Arctic, and we talked about it in Finland a few weeks earlier among the 400 people at the great congress of CAFF, the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Arctic Council working group.

The question is, how do we talk sensefully about climate change? How do we configure the heady effects of climate change in the Arctic without herding ourselves and the rest of the world into a shivering abyss of fear and apathy?

Scientists, environmentalists, writers, filmmakers and politicians all around the Arctic are scratching their heads to find a way to shake the rest of the world into actually caring about climate change in the Arctic. I was intrigued to report in this space a few weeks ago how the World Wildlife Foundation is even turning away from the story of the soon-to-be-extinct polar bear; realizing after years of campaigning how it certainly generates much caring for bears but not really the kind of action on climate change that the WWF is looking for.

Thankfully, bright people are providing new food for thought. Look for instance to the Swedish professor of environmental history Sverker Sörlin, and you will learn why it may be worth remembering that ice-floes do not make great conversation or why stories of struggling polar bears or thawing permafrost in Siberia are unlikely to cut it alone.


In a new wide-reaching book “Competing Arctic Futures”, Sverker Sörlin in the concluding chapter warns us of the many projections of the future of the Arctic based on simplistic or reductionist perspectives, as he calls them. Our current visions of the future of the Arctic, Sverker argues, are “science informed projections of waning sea ice and irreversible warming”. As climate change accelerates, natural science and its preoccupation with ice, snow, permafrost and other natural phenomena quite sensibly becomes more dominating in our thoughts on the future, but we must not forget that in the end it is us — people — who decide how to react.

“Once you introduce societies and their complexities, contrasts, and creativities, there will always be a healthy balance between the necessity to simplify and predict on the one hand and the necessity to doubt and point to alternatives on the other. Above all, it will be necessary to allow for democratic and collective, indeed political agency which is another word for freedom,” Sverker writes. He is calling here primarily on scholars in the humanities, but the rest of us are invited, too, I believe.

Hurricanes have long been given names like Katrina or William, but you cannot talk sense to them, plan for the future or fall in love with them. One of Sörlin’s colleagues, Nina Wormbs from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, argues in the same book how the two most dominating features in current predictions of the future of the Arctic – climate change and resource extraction – seems to be pushing all other alternatives aside.

“The possibility to choose between different futures by the way of our own actions seems virtually absent”, she writes. “Determinism has increased with the forcefulness of climate change, to many invisible but nonetheless perceived as unstoppable. This narrative has consequences for the possibility of action in the present. It certainly provides opportunities for some, but for others it offers mostly constraints, if not decay,” she writes. The book is a great scholarly journey with entries also from several Russian scholars through our urge to predict and shape the future of the Arctic, but it begins and ends, perhaps unintentionally, with a timely warning.

“We must not conflate how climate responds to human action (…) with how humans can respond to the changing climate,” as Nina Wormbs puts it.

Many in the Arctic have been concerned for long how indigenous – or just Arctic –  voices are often missing from the global picture of the Arctic. In “Chasing Ice”, for instance, the prize-winning documentary film of retreating glaciers by US photographer James Balog, only one person from the Arctic, an unspeaking inuit sled handler, appears for a few seconds. In journalism we hail those like Elizabeth Arnold, a former U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent, who told us at the Arctic Circle conference of her project “Combatting Arctic Climate Change Fatigue by Bringing Indigenous People and Resilience into the Story”. Other concerned journalists in Norway, Russia, Finland and Sweden are doing the same.

In science climatologists and oceanographers struggle to incorporate indigenous knowledge and experiences in their work. In Arctic politics Arctic peoples are Permanents Participants within the Arctic Council and elsewhere present under other nominators, but in the global, grander picture of Arctic development their role is often limited.

Chinese scientists in action; China is rapidly becoming a major player in the Arctic Photo: Xinhua

Also in this regard climate change is adding to the challenge. In 2015 we learned in “Contesting the Arctic” (Steinberg, Tasch and Gerhardt; I.B.Tauris) how at least seven different schools of thought compete for dominance in current thinking on the Arctic. There are those who fathom the Arctic primarily as a terra nullius, unclaimed and up for grabs, others imagine the Arctic principally as a resource frontiers waiting for eager patrons of industry and still others see the Arctic mostly as a pristine gem of nature that we should all rever and protect.

Most of these imaginations allow only limited space for the indigenous and climate change is squeezing this room even further. As researcher Eric Paglia from the Swedish Defence University investigates in “Competing Arctic Futures” the current understanding of the Arctic is increasingly incorporating countries and actors who are not in any usual sense of the word even Arctic at all.

After the cold war journalists, scholars and politicians talked increasingly of the Arctic as a region of nations and peoples with comparable interests and living nicely within a somewhat defined common geography. Those were the days when the Inuit Circumpolar Congress, the Arctic Council and other regional bodies came to life.

But climate change and the explosion of global interest in the Arctic is changing the story once again. Paglia scrutinizes otherwise confidential documents from China, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the UK and other non-Arctic nations to find out how they assert their claim to the Arctic. He recounts how the Arctic as it is increasingly presented now also encompasses Chinese interests, Singaporean suggestions, inputs from the EU, India and South Korea. Symptomatically, as I write this, preparations for an Arctic Circle pop-up conference in Seoul this December is underway. Climate change, climate science, shipping and commerce is connecting the Arctic to the rest of the world. All of which will further narrow, most likely, the space offered to Arctic indigenous voices and perspectives in stories about the Arctic in international newspapers, in news items on tv, in films and other renderings.

Chinese world map – used by some Chinese authorities at least since 2014

Perhaps the Arctic is indeed even moving to a whole new location. As New Zealand’s  famous China scholar Anne Marie Brady brings to attention in her book “China as a Polar Great Power”, the Chinese authorities are increasingly advocating the use of a new world map. In this world image the Arctic no longer lie far away at the cold top of the Earth. Rather, the Arctic and the Arctic Ocean is, at least on this map of a China-centered world, located much close to the central line of action; not in the global periphery.

Obviously, we need to talk about all this. And as we are now reminded, conversations with ice-floes, polar bears or thawing permafrost are unlikely to suffice.

“Competing Arctic Futures – Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” (ed. Nina Wormbs), Palgrave Macmillan 2018.



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The USA and China both have designs for Greenland – but both talk only little about them

oktober 17, 2018 • Af

Two seemingly unrelated messages, reaching us only a few days apart, recently revealed how Greenland occupies an increasingly strategic place in today’s geopolitics. One of the messages might mean that the U.S. will soon send more troops, planes and other military equipment to Greenland; the other means that China’s growing and apparently semi-secret Arctic ambitions should probably be scrutinized in a new light.

Thule Air Base – a new statement of intent may lead to increase US military presence in Greenland

First, a message came from Thule Air Base far up in the western parts of Northern Greenland. The US Air Force has run this base since the 1950’s and it is still a crucial facility in the defence of the American heartland, in particular since it provides early-warning of potential nuclear missiles from Russia, North Korea and China and because of its impressing array of antennas that pick up intelligence from military satellites and forward it to the US. I spent some days there last year and left with a clear sense that I had for long been deceived by the remoteness. The remoteness does not make the base less important, on the contrary. It is precisely the proximity of the base to the countries on the other side of the Arctic Ocean that gives the base its significance. 

On September 16, while visiting Thule Air Base, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, John Rood signed a declaration of intent to invest in dual-use military and civilian infrastructure that was swiftly disseminated to the public via Facebook by the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen. “In light of world events, the US acknowledges the increasing importance of the Arctic,” the message read. “This Statement of Intent lays out the principles for investments in Greenland to enhance US military operational flexibility and situational awareness…the US Department of Defence intends to pursue potential strategic investments vigorously….for example…in projects related to the airport infrastructure in Greenland that may have dual civil and military benefits. These investments would seek to enhance US and NATO capabilities in the North Atlantic region…”

It was a seemingly concrete, but really very opaque message, raising more questions than it answered. It was impossible for ordinary mortals to know if it meant, for instance, that the U.S. Air Force will soon expand far beyond Thule Air Base and build more airports for fighter jets and bombers in Greenland. It could be read in that way, but for the uninitiated the wording left everything in the air. Is the U.S. Air Force concerned over Greenland’s own plans for new airports? Or was the message really to say that the U.S. does not tolerate any Chinese involvement in Greenland?

John Rood’s declaration of intent was made public at a supremely sensitive moment. Denmark and Greenland are currently embroiled in a controversy over new airports in Greenland. Naalakkersuisut, the Self-Rule government in Nuuk, wants to enlarge the airports in Nuuk, the capital, and in Ilulissat, the main tourist attraction in Greenland and to build a new airport in the south.

A Chinese company, China Communications Construction Company, is among the five companies pre-qualified for the construction. Denmark worries that China’s involvement could potentially land Greenland in a painful debt-trap and compromise its security. To keep China from becoming involved, Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen has offered to invest some $100 million and to secure low-interest loans that would greatly ease Greenland’s financial burden and make Chinese funds (and probably also CCCC’s entrepreneurial skills) irrelevant. This offer led go the collapse of the ruling coalition in Nuuk, since one of the coalition’s parties feared renewed Danish influence in Greenland. John Rood’s message came right in the middle of all this, and most press reports linked it to this very current, Danish-Greenlandic discussion.

Then, finally, one of Denmark’s leading security analysts, Henrik Breitenbauch, head of the Center for Military Studies at the University of Copenhagen, offered a more scholarly interpretation of John Rood’s message. Writing in Weekendavisen he explained that in his analysis the U.S. declaration had less to do with the local discussion, even if the U.S. would certainly share Denmark’s distaste of Chinese involvement in Greenland. The U.S. message, rather, should be read as a reflection of a very real shift in American military priorities. The U.S. is focusing its military still more on the defense of the North American continent. It is a shift of direction in the entire international engagement of the U.S. Breitenbauch laid out how this shift will mean “less focus on the fight against terror in North Africa and the Middle East and more focus on the Atlantic and the Pacific, and in addition on Russia, China and other nations with the capacity to directly harm the U.S., such as Iran and North Korea.”

This means, Breitenbauch explained, that the northern part of the Danish realm — Greenland in particular — will once again become highly relevant in a global security perspective. “Decision makers in Copenhagen and Nuuk should keep their eyes peeled and follow events very closely,” he wrote.  He reminded us how the U.S. Navy has revived its Second Fleet, which was superbly important during the Second World War but taken out of service in 2011. This Second Fleet has recently been brought back to life and given responsibility for the defense of the northeastern part of the U.S. and all waters to the North Pole.

In extension, Breitenbauch predicted, the U.S. Air Force may very well chose soon to strengthen its monitoring of Russian subs in the North Atlantic and its defense of Thule Air Base. This is how we should understand John Rood’s message, he argued. It could lead, he wrote, to “massive increase of American military — in particular airborne — capacities in Greenland. Because of the extreme conditions and enormous distances even temporary deployment of limited numbers of advanced fighter planes will demand very large operative and logistical support structures with men and material on the ground. It would be at a level we have not seen since the Cold War.”

A few days after John Rood’s message, Anne Marie Brady visited Denmark and lectured at Copenhagen Business School. Anne Marie Brady is a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and one of the world’s most prominent China scholars. She has studied for 30 years the Chinese party state system and, for the last 10, China’s polar ambitions. In 2017 she published the immensely detailed and well documented “China as a Polar Great Nation,” the first book ever to comprehensively investigate in one go China’s Arctic and Antarctic strategies, public statements, hidden policies, polar budgets and investments, concrete polar expeditions and activities.

Chinese scientists in action; China is rapidly becoming a major player in the Arctic Photo: Xinhua

In Anne Marie Brady’s analysis, China sees the polar regions as it does the great oceans and outer space: As strategic frontiers decisive for the future of the world and for world dominance.

“China has studied other great powers. John F. Kennedy talked about how a great power will be able to be dominant in outer space, in the high seas, and China has added the polar regions and the cyber domain as new strategic territories that are owned by no one. China is expanding into areas of the world where there is room to move, and where it really is a question of whether you have got the capacity, the human resource and the financial resources to expand into them,” she told me.

She stressed repeatedly how China’s formal statements and document, published in English and aimed at a foreign audience, would often reveal only the benign, while China’s real intentions, its underlying strategies and priorities would remain either hidden or only accessible to those mastering Chinese. “Within the party state system information management is a very important tool. So if countries like Denmark and Greenland want to have a sound China policy they need to look beyond what they are told in English and into the Chinese discourse. There will be a very selective message targeted to foreigners about China’s policy, especially on a sensitive and emerging policy areas as the Arctic is, and a very different discourse in the Chinese language when China explains to its own population, why it is putting so much money into a territory outside China,” she said.

Chinese polar endeavors, she explains also in her book, really pursue three overriding priorities: China’s national security, including its economic and military security; natural resources necessary for China’s continued growth and stability; and science and technology needed for China’s quest to become a leading world power.  

So when China is rapidly establishing science stations in the Antarctic and in the Arctic, it is certainly to conduct climate and other natural science, but also to prepare for resource extraction and advance China’s defense capabilities — including its satellite based Beidou-system; a Chinese equivalent to the GPS-network of the US. China does not want to be dependent on a system that the U.S. controls; instead it now has ground receiving facilities for its own in Sweden’s Arctic, in Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic and more are on the way. China and Iceland will open a joint research station in northern Iceland on October 22 and China’s has plans also for a ground receiving station in central Greenland and for a large research station elsewhere in Greenland. As Anne Marie Brady explains in her book, China needs all this for climate science but also for other purposes, some military: The Beidou-system will help it navigate in the polar regions with ships, planes and submarines. The U.S. and Russia both have nuclear missiles aimed at China. In a worst-case scenario many of these would traverse the Arctic on their way to China, and China is busy expanding its satellite-based tracking  and monitoring capacity.

“Greenland is important and interesting to China because it is in the Arctic, because it has strategic resources and because it is increasingly autonomous. China is always interested in soon-to-be independent states. Greenland is strategically significant as other great powers have known; the US has had bases there for a long while, and it would be useful for China to have a satellite station there for the Beidou-system. So there are many elements that makes Greenland interesting to China as part of its overall Arctic agenda,” Brady told me.

In Greenland, there is still very little Chinese presence on the ground. Long-standing Greenlandic efforts to lure Chinese investors have so far come to only little — even if China may have many future designs. Large Chinese corporations have invested in perhaps-to-be mining operations, but that is about it.

Perhaps this was part of the reason that John Rood’s message was given such a warm welcome by Naalakkersuisut, the Self-Rule government.

“We welcome the American Statement of Intent, and look forward to discuss details of possible US airport investments in Greenland. The Greenland Government is prepared to put great emphasis in a dialogue securing mutual benefits. In this respect, we see the United States Department of Defense statement as a positive initiative”, said Greenland’s then Minister for Education, Culture, Church and Foreign Affairs, Vivian Motzfeldt — a few days before the ruling coalition collapsed.

Greenland often confirms its firm place in the NATO alliance and only wants to make sure that it benefits tangibly from any new U.S. activity in Greenland.

Denmark made it clear that it is also in full support of whatever lies behind Rood’s statement:

“Looking ahead, increasing civil and military activity in the Arctic will call for expanded presence and surveillance. With the Danish Government’s Defense Agreement running until 2023, we will continue the strengthening of our presence in the Arctic. And we appreciate the close cooperation with the U.S. on Arctic Affairs, including improving operational capabilities,” said Danish Minister of Defense, Claus Hjort Frederiksen.

This blog was first published on on October 17. 2018