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Greenland’s Primary Airport is to become the latest victim of climate change

Kangerlussuaq Airport saw 11,000 movements last year but Greenland's primary airport is to end civilian flights within five years due to climate change, as the melting of permafrost is cracking the runway. Permafrost, the layer of soil usually frozen solid, is shrinking as temperatures rise. For airport workers, ridding the runway of the snow and ice has become a constant struggle. As a result, authorities will start building a new facility from scratch.

Above: Kangerlussuaq (Greta Howard)

"They are constructing a new airport in Nuuk and in the north…and the Danish Airforce will take over responsibility for this airport," said airport manager Peter Høgh.

Greenland is the world's largest island roughly and around 80 per cent of the surface is covered in ice sheet. But global warming is drastically reshaping Greenland, causing the ice sheet to melt at a faster rate than previously thought, according to recent research. The airport's situation shows how the built environment, and not just the natural environment, is being hit by climate change.

Above: Air Greenland's Airbus A330 operates the regular service from Copenhagen (Erick Again)

Kangerlussuaq, alongside Narsarsuaq Airport, is one of only two civilian airports in Greenland large enough to handle large longer-range airliners and is the international hub for Air Greenland. Many passengers transfer from the carriers Airbus A330 to smaller Dash-7s for an onward journey as the area is very remote, with a population of only around 500 people. The airport was built by the US and became quite well-known as Sondre Stromfjord Air Base and in the mid-1950s transatlantic civilian flights began using it for a refuelling stop. In 1956, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) flew their Polar route service with three flights a week operated by Douglas DC-6B aircraft from Copenhagen via Sondre Stromfjord and on to Winnipeg and Los Angeles. Although air travel to Greenland rose as a result, it subsequently declined in the 1960s as aircraft gained greater range but the base then became the hub of Greenland air traffic and was later handed over to civilian Greenlandic control in 1992.

Arriving from Denmark (Valtameri)

Flights from Copenhagen are the principal method for transporting mail and goods, including fresh food, to Greenland. Because of the lack of an adequate port at Kangerlussuaq however, most is then transported by air to other destinations. Goods that don't need such quick transport are often freighted by air to Nuuk and then by ship to other places around Greenland. A road to Sisimiut at the coast is planned with this freight in mind but in general, there are concerns over rising costs and the uncertainty over the future of Kangerlussuaq airport.

In 2011, plans to move the main Greenland intercontinental air hub away from Kangerlussuaq were developed; three 1,199-metre (3,934 ft) airstrips were required: a new airport at Qaqortoq, as well as runway extensions at Nuuk and Ilulissat. Alongside Kangerlussuaq, the airports at Narsarsuaq and Kulusuk will also be closed.

Above: The US Air base on the southern side of the runway - the civil terminal, known as the North Apron, is opposite and out of sight behind the hill on the right (Valtameri)

Then in November 2018, Arctic Today reported that Greenland’s national assembly, Inatsisartut, finally voted to spend 2.1 billion kroner ($250 million) to fund improvements at the two existing airports and construction of the third mentioned above. The plan is expected to cost 3.6 billion kroner in all, making it the country’s largest infrastructure investment ever. It could get larger: The government itself has suggested the final price tag might be 4.4 billion kroner and economists and opponents fear the cost will be higher still. There are also concerns that lower airfares, easier travel and increased number of visitors may never materialise. In addition to Greenland’s contribution, Denmark has pledged to secure investments totalling 1.6 billion kroner. Should additional funding be required, the legislation passed today authorises Kalaallit Airports (the operating company set up in 2016 to oversee construction at the three airports and to run them once work is completed) to borrow the money.

The vote put an end to decades of discussion on replacing Greenland’s current international gateway, the reliable but remote Kangerlussuaq Airport (situated in a settlement with a scant 500 residents), with new facilities in Nuuk and Ilulissat, the final destinations of the vast majority of people visiting Greenland. In addition to extending the runways at Nuuk and Ilulissat, making it possible for intercontinental jets to land there, the plan also calls for construction of a new airport in Qaqortoq, the final destination for over half of people travelling to southern Greenland.

Work at all three airports is expected to be completed by 2023.

Current flights:

Air Greenland: Aasiaat, Copenhagen, Ilulissat, Maniitsoq, Narsarsuaq, Nerlerit Inaat, Nuuk, Reykjavík–Keflavík, Sisimiut

Air Iceland Connect (Seasonal): Ilulissat, Reykjavík–Keflavík

Above: Artist’s rendering of the improved Ilulissat airport. (Kalaallit Airports)

With thanks to Euronews and Arctic Today

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