Reflections from the Arctic

/ Thursday, 10 August 2017 / Published in Blog

The Space, Science & Technology Committee (SST) and the Energy and Commerce Committee (E&C) recently sponsored  Congressional Delegations (CODELs) to the Arctic to perform due diligence on federally funded science within the committee jurisdiction and to learn about policies and activities that are related to issue areas of jurisdiction.

During the first CODEL with the Science Committee, our first location visit was to Barrow Artic Research Center (BARC). This is a capable HQ that provides the support services for much or all science in Barrow. This location had scientists and administrators. They laid out their scope of activities and walked us through some lab work at the facility.

Next, we toured Ilisagvik College where many locals get technical training to do scientific research and support services. They also promote STEM education. We met one professor (it was break so not many were around) who had spent much of his career counting Bowhead Whales. His research showed the Bowhead population was much bigger than initial estimates because some Bowhead migrate under the ice. This is important because the local community depends economically and culturally on Bowhead Whale hunting.

After that, we moved onto the Barrow Observatory. Dr. Russ Schnell from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration gave a presentation on their work capturing atmospheric data to part per trillion accuracy. This data is precise enough to be used in monitoring the Russian economy. Atmospheric carbon, atmospheric methane and other chemicals. The data is highly useful in scientific and defense.

We also toured the Department of Energy Atmospheric Radiation Measurements Climate Research Facility, which keeps track of radioactive materials in the atmosphere – needed for national defense and other purposes – in addition to the Department of Energy Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment at Barrow Environmental Observatory.

Our next stop was Fairbanks, where we intended to visit the Toolik Research Station but bad weather prevented the trip. We were able to meet Secretary of State Tillerson, who had a planned visit to Fairbanks to participate in the turnover of the Arctic Council, which consists of the 8 Artic Countries. The council has a 2 year chair and the US is completing its term and will hand-up the chair to Finland.

On this trip, the evidence of climate change was all around us. In Barrow, the ice was receding toward the Pole which meant the storms brought more surges, high water and erosion. Mosquitoes, which had not been around in TooliK 15 years ago, are now a big pest. And Fairbanks is experiencing more forest fires. The data shows exponentially rising levels of carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse gas, which parallelsthe warming experienced in the Artic and elsewhere.

On the Energy and Commerce Committee Arctic CODEL, our first destination was Iceland. We first went to the American Embassy to meet the diplomatic staff for a country briefing. After a short meeting, we went to meet Icelandic officials about their security and energy situations.

Iceland has significant geothermal energy. In the 1970’s, Iceland decided to go geothermal and began to develop the resources. Pipes had to be laid to every city and building, and buildings retrofitted to hot water heating, which took about 15 to 20 years. On our visit, we toured the power plant and met the individual most responsible for the change, Albert Albertsson, the Visionary of Iceland.

The next leg of the trip was to Svalbard, Norway. The purpose of the visit to Svalbard was to see the KSAT antenna array that provides information from weather satellites that circle the globe.

After the stop at Svalbard, we went to Oslo, where we visited the new American Embassy and then had briefings from Norwegian officials concerning their security concerns and energy profile. Like Iceland, Norway creates all their electricity from green domestic sources.  Norway is a very strong ally of the U.S. and remain very concerned about recent aggressive Russian behavior.

Stockholm was the next stop. Our first briefing was really a round table with the American Chamber of Commerce in Sweden, a group of American companies with operations in that country. Their message was that there are serious cyber threats from a whole spectrum of actors and all pose threats of differing intensity.

Additionally, American diplomatic staff led a discussion about the cyber threats, and about the Swedish government, its officials and its dispositions toward the United States on defense and foreign affairs.

The defense minister continued the discussion by telling us about Sweden’s security situation and concerns. Sweden’s foreign minister met with us separately and spoke extensively about trade and immigration. The last formal meeting was with the assistant Prime Minister. Sweden is very favorable to trade, and they are concerned about TPIP, a trade agreement not yet under serious negotiations that would remove trade barriers between Europe and the United States. They worry that the Trump Administration will not enter serious negotiations.

Next we flew to Eielson AFB outside Fairbanks, Alaska where we met with Colonel Robbins, deputy commander of the 354th Fighter Wing Command and F-16 pilot, and with Kevin Blanchard. The briefing had two areas of focus. First, the mission of the Fighter Wing, and second, the planned addition of fighter jets to the command.

On the last day, we flew to Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to learn about oil production there. We visited BP’s headquarters, the well sights, the pumping station for the very beginning of the Trans Alaska Pipeline (TAP), and the Central Compressor Plant.

In conclusion, we learned a significant amount about U.S. government science research, domestic and foreign energy production, and our national defense on these trips. I want to thank Committee staffs of both parties for their hard work in planning the CODELs, our hosts and military liaisons, and the other members in attendance who, in the spirit of bipartisan cooperation, have opened doors to new discussions on our future work in Congress.

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