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.

While not commonly thought of, the shortest route between Russia and America is by flying straight over the Arctic circle, and since this is the shortest distance between the two points, it is the same trajectory that ICBMs would follow in the event of a nuclear war. Today, we maintain our nuclear deterrents despite a drawdown between Russia and America, but fears remain that other nations like Iran or North Korea could one day launch ballistic missiles over the Arctic circle. There is also some limited commercial air traffic from North America to Asia which flies over the Arctic circle to cut down on travel distance.

Due to the extreme cold and austere environment, it is highly unlikely that there will ever be a conventional war in the Arctic, as the logistics and the ability to project force into the region is just too difficult. That said, there was some thought that, if a conventional or low-intensity war did break out in the Arctic region, then the United States would be able to establish forward operating bases out on the ice flows. Today, due to the ice melting, this is unlikely to happen, so new ways of projecting military power into the region have to be explored. With the icecap melting, the dynamics of the region are changing and forcing the military to adapt to the altered environmental circumstances.

New Ocean Equals New Headaches

The Arctic ice is not going to melt over night. Currently, it cannot be traversed during the winter months, but during the summer the ice melts and makes the Arctic route north of Russia much more manageable. Running ice breaker ships through also helps make the route navigable.

With limited infrastructure in the region, there is already a push underway to build the logistics capabilities that the private sector will need to project out into the Arctic and collect the natural resources which they are interested in bringing to market. Because of this, most of the traffic through the Arctic of a commercial nature in the next decade will consist mainly of ships bringing gas, oil, ore, and rare earth minerals out of the Arctic and transporting them south, as opposed to trans-Arctic traffic from Western Europe, passed the Northern shores of Russia, and then down through the Bering Straight.

Currently, Russia and China are doing a far better job at projecting into the Arctic than the United States is. China is eying oil and gas investments across the Arctic, and Russia is in the process of standing up Arctic warfare units. Motorized infantry units that specialize in Arctic warfare have already been stationed near the Norwegian border at Pechenga, and a brigade of paratroopers from an Arctic Spetsnaz unit may also be stationed there in the future.

The Russians also have 25 ice breaker ships, as opposed to America’s one functional icebreaker. Finland and Sweden have seven and Canada has six (Conley, 25). America may have the state of Alaska, but American culture is firmly rooted in the continental United States. The Russians, on the other hand, have a strong northern and Arctic culture as the bulk of their land mass brushes up against the Arctic circle. The same goes for smaller European nations such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland.

The Pic of the Day: Ice rescue training in the Arctic Ocean

Read Next: The Pic of the Day: Ice rescue training in the Arctic Ocean

America lags behind not just in cultural mindset, but also in logistical infrastructure. The Europeans have numerous airfields and railroads in the Arctic circle.  Our closest military bases to the Arctic are Ft. Greely and Ft. Clear in Alaska, and Thule air base in Greenland. It will be the Russians and Scandinavian nations that are first on the scene to exploit the new Arctic Ocean, rather than the United States. Likewise, future Arctic security postures will have to see the Europeans taking the lead. With the amount of permafrost on the North American side of the Arctic, it isn’t just a question of when we can orient ourselves towards the Arctic, but if we can even if we wanted to.

On top of all this, it appears that some species of fish are pushing farther into the Arctic ocean as they adapt to the warmer water temperatures and seek ecosystems that offer greater chances of survival. For this reason, it is expected that commercial fishing will also have a larger presence in the Arctic then in previous decades.

These new commercial, political, and military avenues are not going to open for exploitation immediately, but in the coming decades the ice will more than likely continue to melt. We may see the Arctic Ocean open wide up, bringing with it a host of new security dilemmas.

An Emerging Maritime Trade Route

The coming years will see the escalation of commercial trade in the Arctic as the private sector seeks to extract natural resources from the region. Once extracted, these resources will then need to be transported by commercial shipping to their next destination for processing. This will see the development of commercial infrastructure in the region, an infrastructure which will also come to serve an emerging trans-Arctic trade route which will be easily traversed once more of the ice melts. This route will run from the North Sea in Western Europe, along the northern shores of Russia, and then down through the Bering Straights. This is called the Northeast Passage, or the Northern Sea Route, by the Russians.

Globally, there are 7-10 strategic maritime choke points, depending on who is doing the counting. These include places like the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, Cape Horn, The Malacca Straights, and the Straights of Gibraltar. Each of these strategic choke points is controlled by a sovereign nation which has the ability to regulate traffic and conduct lawful inspections of cargo, including VBSS operations if required.

The emerging Arctic trade route gives bad actors a way to skirt around international maritime law and the law of the nations which control these choke points for purposes of smuggling drugs, fissile material, weapons, or to engage in human trafficking.

Sometime in the not-so-distant future, a ship loaded with cocaine could set sail from Colombia to South East Asia and take the Arctic route to avoid inspections at one or more of the choke points. Human traffickers in Bangladesh could smuggle girls up through the Bering Straights and into Western Europe. Gangsters could ship fissile material needed to construct nuclear weapons out of Russia to Burma, avoiding the harassment that they might encounter by using other maritime routes.

To that end, policy makers spoken to while researching this article were insistent that the Canadians should assert their national sovereignty, particularly when it comes to the Northwest Passage. Separate from the Northeast Passage, the Northwest Passage runs through northern Canadian and American waters. With both passages clearing of ice, the Arctic is opening up to complete circumnavigation.

Currently, unregulated maritime traffic through the Northwest Passage presents a problem for law enforcement agencies. Much of international maritime law is based upon the concept of “innocent passage,” and as long as there is no reasonable cause for stopping a vessel, law enforcement options are limited in international waters. If Canada takes responsibility for the Northwest Passage, then an enforcement mechanism can be brought into effect.

Stick around for part two which covers terrorism and piracy as well as potential solutions to Arctic security concerns.