greenland
The village of Kulusuk in Greenland. (Photo: Ville Miettinen/flickr/cc)

At a time when headlines were focused more on the heat wave in Europe, an event of great importance which should have received more attention was the melting of as much as 18 billion tons of ice sheets in just 3 days of mid-July in Greenland. Very frightening estimates have been presented of the extent of rise in sea level if melting on such a scale continues.

This was not the first instance of such massive ice melting within a short time, nor is it likely to be the last. This has also highlighted the need for a more protective future for Greenland. But it appears that some powerful persons have an entirely different view on the matter. This came to attention during the tenure of Trump as USA President.

It was reported that Donald Trump made an offer of a payment to Denmark to acquire control over Greenland. This was considered an atrocious offer by most people and for good reason was not even considered seriously by the Denmark government. This even led to the cancellation of a planned visit of President Trump to Denmark. Although Denmark controls the foreign policy and security of this vast island, Greenland has been steadily moving towards autonomy and self-government. This process of self-government is set to increase. Greenland took a decision (much before Brexit) to move out of European Union while Denmark remained in EU.

However it is not difficult to understand why the USA has been keen to acquire Greenland. In fact even President Truman made an offer in 1946 to purchase Greenland for 100 million dollars. This offer was refused, but Denmark later succumbed to USA pressure to set up military bases in Greenland, including a nuclear powered station Camp Century.

With its strategic location close to Russia as well as the USA, Greenland remains of great military interest to the USA. This is a factor which has acquired more importance recently with the accentuation of big power rivalries.

In addition Greenland is a source of precious mineral resources, including gold and rare earths. The opening up of these rare earth deposits to China is something which the western powers will like to stop, given the fact that China already has high levels of control over rare earths.

Greenland has a population of just 57000 people in its vast territory of 836330 sq. miles and has the lowest population density in the entire world. This Arctic region is highly sensitive from the ecological point of view, a sensitivity which has increased further in times of climate change. As the ice sheets which cover vast areas melt under the influence of global warming, buried carbon deposits will be released and sea levels will rise. The region’s unique biodiversity includes polar bears and seals will be badly threatened.

Hence there is a strong case for the entire Greenland to be administered by the United Nations as a zone of neutrality, peace and environment protection. Under such an arrangement, ecologically protective livelihoods and basic facilities will be  ensured by a UN administered program, which will treat the entire island as an area of ecological protection where any exploitation of natural resources will be strictly controlled and no military installation will be allowed. In addition there will be a very careful well-planned effort for undoing the damage already done.

As the snow melts with global warming, the remains of what was once a nuclear-powered military station (Camp Century) of the USA will open up, requiring a very careful clean-up effort. An even bigger danger exists in the form a nuclear weapon which was lost here in a bomber airplane accident in 1968. This was the peak of the cold war period when some USA bomber planes carrying nuclear weapons used to be in the air all the time and the Thule military base in Greenland was a special place for these operations due to the relative proximity of Russian targets from here. The airplane accident took place when the USA bomber containing nuclear weapons was approaching this military base in Greenland. The USA had obtained the permission of the Denmark government to set up this military base but it is not at all certain whether the Denmark government, let alone the local communities, had been informed about the transactions here involving the transport of nuclear weapons.

Actually the plane contained four nuclear weapons but three could be recovered. In the salvage operation in 1968 thousands of pieces of debris as well as  millions of tons of ice, suspected to contain radioactive debris, were collected. Still one weapon could not be found despite the huge research effort. Workers employed in the clean-up work suffered from cancer later and have been claiming compensations till recently.

It is by now widely accepted that in this accident as many as four nuclear weapons were endangered, three were recovered more or less intact  but one hydrogen bomb was never recovered. One aspect of a UN-administrated protective future should be to be on constant alert for any tell-tale signs of damage from this so that a potential catastrophic event can still be prevented.

The existing military installations particularly the Thule Military Base should also be dismantled as part of the efforts to establish Greenland as a zone of peace and neutrality. While the wider paradigm of future development should be based on ecological protection, protective livelihoods, peace and neutrality,  within this paradigm local people should have all the autonomy for highly decentralized governance. There should be a special program of  mental health and well being to bring down the high rate of suicides and substance abuse in the region.

Clearly there are several serious issues in Greenland which have to be sorted out. A big effort with continuity has to be made to ensure a more protective future for Greenland which is in fact crucial for the entire world

Bharat Dogra is Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Planet in Peril and Man over Machine. The writer is Coordinator, Campaign for Save the Earth Now and its SED Demand.


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