The Arctic Threat That Must Not be Named

January 28, 2021

In May 2019, former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Finland to deliver remarks to the Arctic Council, using the occasion to do some serious saber rattling. “The region has become an arena for power and for competition,” he declared, calling out China and Russia as aggressors. Not once, however, did he mention the reason competition, “opportunity and abundance” in the Arctic were even on the table. As with other Trump-era declarations of Arctic intent, Pompeo referred only vaguely to “reductions in sea ice.”

Here’s what the previous administration was not saying with all that passive voice and mystery: It’s climate change. Climate change is melting the ice in the Arctic. Climate change is opening up a new polar transit route. Climate change is unlocking access to oil, gas, and critical minerals under the ice. In fact, Pompeo not only wouldn’t say the words, he reportedly refused to sign the communique the Arctic Council partners had worked out because it explicitly mentioned climate change. This is more than just eliding a term he found distasteful: Climate change is the variable that will drive all other calculations in the region, whether it’s the icebreaker gap or China’s pursuit of cryospheric real estate. Not taking climate fully into account risks higher opportunity costs at best, and poor preparation for a challenging future at worst. And there is no time to waste, with troubling signs that changes in the high north may actually be much worse than previously thought.



While there’s a new commander in chief in town who does not mince words when it comes to climate change, it is important for national security professionals to proactively reconcile the geopolitical with the geophysical in updating the Arctic defense posture. As Joshua Tallis recently wrote in War on the Rocks, that means the Defense Department’s civilian leadership needs to take charge of the resourcing decisions and profusion of service-specific strategic visions. Otherwise, the Biden Pentagon may find it has backed into spending money on the wrong things at a bad time.

To be sure, there are legitimate U.S. geostrategic and national interests that require attention in the Arctic. The new or expanding missions include search and rescue for increased tourist and commercial traffic in newly thawed seas; environmental cleanup; border safety, deterrence, and defense; protection of important infrastructure, such as undersea communications cables; and freedom of navigation through an increasingly open ocean. Moreover, Russia has taken an aggressive and occasionally provocative posture in the region, and China has declared itself a “near Arctic nation,” with its third heavy icebreaker under construction and land acquisition across the area. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has become increasingly ill-equipped to defend U.S. interests in this area, but rectifying that mistake has to happen in the context of climate change.

Climate change is a national security matter in its own right, in that it is a threat to the safety and well-being of the American people. According to the National Climate Assessment, which the Trump administration released in 2018, communities all over the United States are feeling the effects of climate change, which will damage “human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.” There are a variety of effects, including an increase in natural disasters. The United States hit a record 22 natural disasters that cost $1 billion or more in 2020, the sixth year in a row with more than 10 billion-dollar disasters.

The Arctic, as the National Climate Assessment puts it, is on the “front line” of this change. The region is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the globe, and possibly as much as seven times as fast, based on measurements Norway has taken at Svalbard Airport for the last 120 years. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Arctic has lost more than a million square miles of ice at its seasonally lowest point since the beginning of satellite records in 1979. That is an area more than twice the size of Alaska, the largest state in America. This is not a projection, it is not a mathematical model, and it is not disputed science. These are conditions that we can see and measure through satellite imagery and through physical observations from buoys and other devices.

While Arctic explorers have long looked for a sea route through the area, often with disastrous results, this is the first time in human history that a truly navigable ocean is opening up in the region. That new sea lane could cut two weeks off the transit time between Asia and Europe, one of the drivers for China’s interest. That thaw will also mean access to trillions of dollars of resources that were trapped under the ice before, including oil, gas, and rare earth elements, a lure for all the littoral countries and for China as well. Ironically, the great thaw will also likely mean an acceleration of global climate change, as the reflective ice disappears and methane trapped under the ice is released. That is likely to happen regardless of whether nations control greenhouse gas emissions, given that a certain amount of warming is already locked in.

Friction and Fisheries

There is another way climate change is a national security issue, beyond the effects on the lives and livelihoods of Americans, and that is as a catalyst for instability. Much of the international research on the instability risks has focused on states with a history of conflict, weak governments, and economic development challenges. In those circumstances, climate change can exacerbate bad governing decisions or complicated social and economic relationships, affecting access to resources. Or it may worsen natural disasters. All can lead to social unrest, forced migration, tension between people or countries, and even conflict. So, while climate change does not cause war, per se, it can agitate the underlying frictions that cause war.

The Arctic is unusual in that climate change is agitating underlying frictions that are geopolitical in scope and involve some of the most advanced and well-armed societies in the world. While World War III is unlikely to start at the North Pole, there is a risk of miscalculation, which could lead to escalation. Moreover, the friction in the north between the United States, Russia, and China is part of a larger pattern. What happens in the Arctic reflects what is happening in the South China Sea and Ukraine, and vice versa. Climate change has the potential to light a fuse in a formerly frozen place, with impacts across the geopolitical landscape — or this formerly frozen place may be where a fuse lit elsewhere explodes. Admittedly, the latter is unlikely for now, given the truly challenging operating conditions. When it comes to Russia, though, the Trump administration did a lousy job of allocating resources to the risk. A good polar strategy should reflect the overall approach to the U.S. relationship with Russia. Deterrence in the north was never going to be especially productive when it was paired with impunity everywhere else.

The lead U.S. security agency in the Arctic is the Coast Guard, which should be explicitly incorporating climate security into its Arctic Strategic Outlook, a practical step that would enhance the document’s utility. One of the Coast Guard’s missions is to protect fisheries, for example, and that is going to be hard to do without understanding the effects of climate change. According to the National Climate Assessment, for example, warmer water is dramatically altering the fish populations off the coast of Alaska and in freshwater, as well. Rises in ocean acidification may be making ecosystem-level impacts that will affect all species in the region and may lead to consequential extinctions. This is also an issue of survival for the Arctic’s indigenous people, many of whom live in remote areas and depend on that ecosystem for food in a very immediate way. The U.S. government needs a good picture of these changes, where fish populations will be moving and in what time frame, in order to know what to protect and where, including for the benefit of the $5 billion per year Alaska fisheries. These considerations, including the need for better data collection and research, should be openly incorporated into the Coast Guard’s lines of effort, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, universities, and other civilian researchers.

Another pressing challenge for indigenous people and commercial interests across the region is thawing permafrost and flooding. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, 70 percent of Arctic infrastructure will be at risk from permafrost thaw and subsidence. One study of the economic impacts of climate change on Alaska anticipated $5.5 billion in costs of damaged public infrastructure by the end of the century. This is already a high maintenance cost for military bases in Alaska, including Fort Eielson, home to two F-35 squadrons. In planning for additional military bases in Alaska, the departments of Defense and Homeland Security will have to price in the need for construction that can adapt to permafrost thaw and high maintenance costs, as well as a better understanding of the projected pace and effects of such changes.

Permafrost Thaws, Relationships Cool

The great melt is also a direct concern for Russia, which has generally seen itself as a climate change winner, as inaccessible Arctic resources and sea lines of communication are increasingly available. That strictly positive view is starting to change. Russia adopted an adaptation plan and ratified the Paris climate agreement last year, though it is not meeting its voluntary commitments. The shift in attitude makes sense, given that permafrost covers about two-thirds of Russia, including the location of around 80 percent of Russia’s gas industry. One study estimates that permafrost melt will affect 20 percent of all infrastructure assets in Russia and more than 50 percent of all residential structures in the region in the next few decades, at a cost of over $100 billion, a complicating factor for Russia’s military ambitions in the Far North.

The summer of 2020 was an indicator of tough times ahead. Just as Russia was building a massive new runway at Nagurskoye air base, structures around the region were crumbling. At the end of May, an oil tank in Norilsk collapsed, sending 21,000 tons of oil cascading into the Ambarnaya River and polluting hundreds of thousands of square miles. The Russian government is asking for a $2 billion settlement from Norilsk Nickel for a cleanup that is expected to take a decade. That is likely to be a low estimate: Environmental remediation in the region is generally difficult, due to weather conditions, lack of road infrastructure, and lack of sites for disposal of contaminated waste. A couple of months after the tank rupture, in July 2020, an expedition to the Yamal Peninsula discovered a 164-foot crater, the 17th such crater found in the region since 2014. Scientists think these massive sinkholes are the result of subterranean methane gas bubbles, which may be tens or hundreds of thousands of years old, exploding in thawing permafrost, though no one is entirely sure. Meanwhile, on the surface, Siberia hit a record temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit this summer and had what NASA’s Earth Observatory called “intense” fires across the region, for the second year in a row. The 2020 fires in California and Colorado were alarming and tragic. The fires in Siberia truly are unprecedented.

At the same time, even as the U.S. relationship with Russia has deteriorated, cooperation has continued. That ranges from deconfliction of military and civilian movements in the region (though that obviously needs some work) to scientific and environmental collaboration. And that pragmatic approach is an important part of U.S. efforts to support a rules-based order. Addressing climate change could certainly be integrated into American cooperation with Russia, and with China, as well, and even has the potential to be a confidence-building measure, regardless of other developments in these relationships.

In fact, NATO should be one of the most important U.S. investments in the region. Four of the five Arctic coastal states are NATO members, Russia being the fifth. Iceland, just a squidge off the littoral, is a permanent member of the Arctic Council, and also a NATO founding member. The United States has close bilateral and multilateral relationships with these nations, and with the other Arctic Council member states, Sweden and Finland, as well. These alliances and partnerships are an asset as tangible as any platform, and far more powerful. All of these Arctic nations, including the United States, have pragmatic cooperative relationships with Russia and China, as well, but the behavior of both countries in recent years has given most Arctic nations pause and a reason for increased cooperation with each other. The Trump administration more or less squandered that opportunity, with its negative messaging from the top, but the Biden administration gets the benefit of a fresh start. All of these NATO and Nordic partners place great importance on dealing with climate change as well, and under Trump, U.S. unwillingness to engage with them more broadly on clean energy, climate change adaptation, or climate negotiations was a drag on those important relationships.

Adapting Together

These conditions for the United States, Russia, and other Arctic nations may seem insurmountable, but both the National Climate Assessment and the United Nations note that adaptation measures could reduce the costs of permafrost melt and flooding. Such techniques as permafrost mapping help target infrastructure for improvements. Those improvements can range from placing gravel under the paving on roads to improve drainage to a whole range of specialized foundations under buildings. More drastic measures, such as the relocation of villages, also need to be carefully planned, given the emotional and financial costs involved.

And yet there is no evidence that the U.S. Coast Guard or other U.S. government agency is incorporating the effectiveness of adaptation and challenges of relocation into its work, other than research and development.

Cooperative fora in the region — organizations, agreements, and events — help coordinate everything from collective search and rescue to scientific and environmental research to military operations, and all should acknowledge the role of climate change. Even under Trump, the U.S. government continued to take part in these cooperative fora, such as the Arctic Council, Arctic Coast Guard Forum, and the International Maritime Organization. And while the U.S. participation was not always helpful, new policies such as the International Maritime Organization’s Marine Litter Action Plan, and new agreements on fisheries and scientific cooperation did move forward.

In addition to relying on its friends and allies, the United States should ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The failure to do so has long been a self-inflicted wound. The United States does honor the convention in practice, and that is important, but it is not sufficient to defend its claims in the Arctic, promote freedom of navigation through the region, and enhance cooperation on search and rescue. China has shown it has a selective embrace of the convention, particularly in the South China Sea, but the United States is not in a strong position to criticize if it does not ratify the agreement. China also is well positioned to compete for the concessions of ocean minerals in international waters, which the law of the sea oversees, while the United States cannot without being a party to it. Nor can it ensure the environmental protection of those resources, and China’s record in that arena does not exactly inspire confidence. Responsible critical mineral recovery and processing will be an important part of the 21st-century energy transition, and the United States should play a major role in environmentally sound mining, processing, and trade in those resources. This is especially true for Alaska, where irresponsible mining could damage important natural resources.

Collaboration with allies, partners, and even competitors in the Arctic is necessary, as it will be expensive and difficult to operate in the high north for many decades to come. This is not something the United States can afford to do alone, from the icebreakers to the undersea cables to the satellites to the bases. Consider that the planned port for Nome, Alaska, recently approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, alone will cost nearly $1 billion.

By midcentury (or sooner), when the ice has melted sufficiently that the Arctic Ocean is more navigable, there will be even bigger challenges that are harder to face alone: Because an ice-free Arctic means that the worst effects of climate change are upon us, such as more catastrophic storms and sea level rise. It will mean a dramatically changing and likely unstable landscape in the Arctic. A case in point is the recent discovery that the Barry Glacier in south-central Alaska is leaving behind the makings of a truly massive rockslide and tsunami as it retreats. And those are just the changes that are already locked in, regardless of any cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, changes in the Arctic will presage and feed changes all over the world. The polar region plays an important part in regulating the global climate, so changes there may be shifting weather patterns across the United States and around the world, including a rise in extreme weather events. A fleet of icebreakers (which cost around a billion dollars a pop) will not be of much help for floods and fires in the lower 48.

In a recent conversation, a scientist in Alaska told me she is unsure if the dramatic shifts we are seeing now are variability along a trend, one we can still turn around if the world cuts greenhouse gas emissions, or if this is an acceleration of changes. A recent article by scientists with the National Center for Atmospheric Research found evidence “that the Arctic is currently experiencing an abrupt climate change event, and that climate models underestimate this ongoing warming.” Think of how drastic those changes have been already, and consider what it means if the conditions are actually going to change even faster. The United States and all nations with Arctic territory or aspirations should approach their plans for the region with considerable humility, given how much uncertainty there still is, how enormous the unfolding consequences appear to be, and how much worse it could all get.

This is not to discount the new security challenges in the Arctic. The United States needs to be tough in the Arctic, to be sure, but it also needs to be smart. There is an icebreaker gap the U.S. government needs to take seriously, but as Paul Avey has written, even that is overhyped, relative to other strategic investments the United States should be making. The Arctic has the potential to be a gigantic money pit, and if American policymakers do not take climate change into account, they may find they have spent money on the wrong things at a time when the opportunity costs are brutally high.



Sharon Burke is the director of the Resource Security program at New America. She is a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense.

Image: Enrico Blasutto

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