Whether one’s environmental belief system maintains that the disappearance of the ice sheet of the Arctic Ocean is a normal cyclical occurrence in our planet’s extraordinarily complex weather patterns, or is due to the sun’s influence, or whether one believes the warming in the Arctic is being caused by human-generated carbon that inexorably leads to “climate change” or “global warming,” or both, the stark fact is that Arctic ice is disappearing at a rate far faster than even the most pessimistic observers predicted.

The resulting summertime openings of the North West Passage in 2007 and 2008 have suddenly transformed the Arctic Ocean into a political, military and diplomatic football for Canada and all the other “Arctic powers.” Stories and opinions about the Arctic, once rare, are becoming increasingly common in the media. Cruise ships and smaller private vessels are beginning to transit the Passage. Advertisements for tourist “expeditions” through the Passage are routinely being carried in Canadian newspapers. -Brian Flemming, Canada-U.S. Relations in the Arctic: A Neighbourly Proposal

It isn’t often that the world gets a new ocean. Explorers like Christopher Columbus opened up the Atlantic Ocean and Magellan began charting the Pacific Ocean after that. Oceans and terrain both remain generally static throughout history. Oceans, mountains, jungles, and deserts are more or less the same as they were hundreds of years ago. The Afghanistan that our soldiers are fighting in today features nearly the exact same geography that Alexander the Great’s Army faced when they marched through the country thousands of years prior.

However, there is one overlooked region where the terrain truly is changing, and with it, altering the geo-political landscape. The Arctic may be the world’s final frontier. The Arctic region encompasses not just the frozen ice found at the northern most part of the globe, but also stretches across a number of different nations including Canada, the United States (Alaska), Russia, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Sweden and Finland. These countries are also members of the Arctic Council, which provides an international body for each member state to cooperate and coordinate on commercial and environmental issues, but does not deal with security matters aside from search and rescue efforts.

The Arctic Circle
(Credit: bakervailmaps.com)

Up until recently, the frozen icecap that covered the Arctic circle made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for ships to navigate much of its waters. Today, climate change is drastically altering the dynamics of Arctic politics.

“The polar ice cap today is 40 percent smaller than it was in 1979” (Conley, 1) and the Arctic could be devoid of ice as soon as 2030, according to some predictions. With the ice receding, these waters are increasingly available to both commercial shipping and naval patrols. As one Russian official is said to have remarked, the protective cloak of ice that used to surround North America has receded, leaving our shores naked and exposed.

For our purposes we will not engage in debate about the causes of climate change. The science will be left to others while we address what is actually happening in the Arctic today, and the directions in which Arctic security will take in the coming decades as the ice continues to melt. As we will see, our new Arctic Ocean is going to change paradigms, not just in terms of security, but also for commercial exploitation.

The matter of Arctic security has been a concern since at least the 1930s, when defense planners saw that the Arctic could be used as a potential invasion route. During the Second World War, America had a fairly good relationship with Russia, but relations deteriorated with the emergence of the Cold War, leading to a military stand-off in the Arctic. By this point, the Arctic was not so much seen as an invasion route, but rather a corridor through which the Russians could fire ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads over the Arctic circle to strike targets in America.