A race to save the climate

Foreground | In a country famous for its lack of roads, cars are taking centre stage

The road away from perdition (📸 Extreme E / Zak Mauger)

Kevin McGwin

The name Kangerlussuaq will ring familiar to car buffs of a certain age. Between 1996 and 2004, the combination of an international airport, bone-chilling weather and a remote location far, far away from competitors’ eyes made it the ideal place for Volkswagen to test its models, at times by driving them on the ice cap.

This weekend, Kangerlussuaq will again find itself an ideal place for the auto industry to push the boundaries of car technology when the drivers of the Extreme E electric-car racing series compete in the Arctic X-Prix there.

Currently in its inaugural season, Extreme E pits two-person (one driver must be a man, the other a woman) driving teams racing specially made electric off-road vehicles against their competitors, the elements and the environment. The thrill of victory is the main draw, of course, but highlighting the agony of a deteriorating climate is the underlying objective of the series.

Each race’s extreme location is specially chosen. First and foremost for their challenging terrain, but also because each location illustrates in some way or another the effects that ever-rising temperatures have on specific environments. The first race in the series, for example, brought racers to Saudi Arabia, to draw attention to desertification and unsustainable water use. The second, in Lac Retba, Senegal, focused on the plight of the oceans. Other races were to be held in the mountains of Nepal, the jungles of Brazil and southern Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego but were cancelled due to Covid.

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The goal of the Arctic X-Prix is to direct attention to receding glaciers and plummeting sea-ice levels. To accomplish this, it has allied itself with Peter Wadhams, a respected ocean physicist who has consistently warned of the impending loss of year-round sea-ice. During appearances in connection with the race, Mr Wadhams will discuss the chain of global events that a warming Arctic is giving rise to.

Yet, where the outside world will have its attention directed to the gloom and doom of global warming, officials with Qeqqata council, of which Kangerlussuaq and its 500 residents are a part, hope that the auto industry will catch glimpse of the traits that attracted Volkswagen.

Its hope is that it can restart its relationship with the industry and do its part to diversify a national economy that, despite efforts to promote mining and tourism, is still almost solely based on fishing.

“Greenland,” the council wrote after being selected as the site of Arctic X-Prix, “needs to develop industries other than fishing. Kangerlussuaq offers excellent opportunities for research and car testing.”

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For the local economy, a return of car testing could ease what is expected to be an economic shock when the airport, currently Greenland’s international gateway, and its 400 employees are made redundant by improvements at two other airports.

Car testing could create 100 jobs. Some of those would be filled by foreign specialists, but the knock-on effects, including continued activity at the airport could keep still others employed.

Why the industry suddenly departed Kangerlussuaq in 2006 remains unexplained, but, should it return, it would find the roads built for Volkswagen, which includes Greenland’s longest, at 150km, still intact. Crucially, though, it would find that another is being added. Last year, saw the start of construction of the first stage of a long-planned road between Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut, Greenland’s first linking two settlements. When completed, it would expand the potential test area and allow automakers the option to have their cars shipped by sea to Sisimiut and driven or trucked to Kangerlussuaq, rather than flown in.

Also on Kangerlussuaq’s side is the rise of the electric car, which it had had brief flirt with in 2014, when BMW tested its hybrid models there. In the meantime, persistent concerns about how cold weather affects batteries have meant business is booming for Sweden’s winter-test tracks.

That has made Swedish Lapland the leader when it comes to cold-climate testing, but the arrival of Extreme E suggests Kangerlussuaq may be able to get itself back in the race.

Published in collaboration with Polar Journal.

Foreground articles offer a preview of events related to the Arctic.

If you have a topic you think ought to be profiled in a coming week, please e-mail kevin@rasmussen.is.

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