Heating up in the High Arctic

The idea of global warming has physically manifested itself most clearly in the melting ice caps. Series of satellite images can quantitatively determine that polar ice is receding at an alarming rate. Most often the narrative goes towards saving polar bears and seals, but rarely do people’s minds jump to the thought of warships steaming through the iceless ocean. 

States and various actors within them have been altering their view of climate change rather drastically. Some U.S presidential candidates and state agencies are admitting the many risks that it poses to national security, with American military bases reporting increased climatic events hampering operations. The Green Party of Canada has also acknowledged the threat to Canada’s north. With that in mind, the Arctic seems like the next front between the world’s great powers. With melting ice caps, the Arctic becomes far more accessible for public and private entities. Scientists estimate that the Arctic’s undiscovered reserves potentially hold 90 billion barrels of oil and 1699 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Arctic will also become more navigable for trade ships, cutting days off trips. Northern communities will become more susceptible to disasters because of rising sea levels and melting permafrost. All these variables are compounded by the fact that gasses trapped in ice and permafrost will greatly accelerate warming, with higher latitudes in countries like Canada are warming up faster than other areas.

Freight ship anchored outside of Iqaluit, Nunuvut, July 2018. Kitikmeot W by Fiona Paton is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As the north continues to open up, nations are already circling around a dying arctic. Most recently at the Arctic Circle Assembly, China emphasized its desire for a “Polar Silk Road”, in reference to its landmark Belt and Road Initiative to increase the Chinese market and political influence on the world. China’s stated role in the arctic is that they “will not interfere” but that they will “not be absent”. They have also declared themselves a “Near Arctic State” and acquired observer status on the Arctic Council hoping to gain a seat at future arctic negotiations once the scramble begins. China’s ambitions in the arctic are not without reason. As its economy continues to grow, it will need to access the Arctic’s vast untapped energy resources and to invest in the infrastructure to channel those resources back to the Chinese mainland. China has also expressed plans to expand the Belt and Road Initiative to the northwest, encouraging infrastructure investment in Canada by Chinese firms (at least until the Huawei incident).

But China’s ambitions are more than just economic. The vast wealth of the arctic sits just within reach of its American rival. China would likely be seeking a foothold in the arctic for the sake of counterbalancing against the U.S. and its NATO Allies. Historically, the U.S. has had little ambition in the arctic, limiting itself to arctic maritime boundary and navigation disputes with Canada. However, despite the current U.S administration’s policy of climate denialism, they are becoming increasingly aware of the situation to their north.

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the 11th Arctic Circle Council by Jouni Porsanger / Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. Photo by Ulkoministeriö, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted the potential dangers of this new frontier and warned against taking “provocative actions” at the most recent Arctic Council meeting. Yet, he reversed course almost immediately, arguing that Canada’s claim to the Northwest Passage was “illegitimate”, as well as admitting that the U.S. itself was exploring naval operations in the area. While the Arctic resources have yet to become available for exploitation, the Northwest Passage is quickly becoming the first point of conflict of the melting Arctic. 

The Passage has been sought after ever since the arrival of Europeans in the continent as a potential sea route to Asia north of the Americas. Throughout the colonial period, various expeditions were launched in search of a route to the Pacific, with many ending in disaster. The lengths that mariners have gone through demonstrate the potential lucrativeness of this route. But for centuries, such a route was impossible due to the constant hazard of ice in the Canadian Arctic.

Potential route for Northwest Passage (red) shown with the historic extent of Arctic ice (Yellow) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, licensed under CC by 2.0

Now that iceless summers are becoming more frequent, interested nations are already legally and physically testing the Northwest Passage and the potential Northeast Passage north of Russia. Canada continues to demand that foreign vessels request permission to cross the passage, considering it to be internal waters that are regulated by its federal government. However, the U.S. refuses to notify Canada, claiming the passage to be an international strait like the Bosporus. 

Such a claim would imply that any nation has the right to send a merchant ship – as well as military ships with some restrictions – through the passage without respecting the sovereignty of the waters.

If the U.S. or other prospective states were to press such a claim militarily or with civilian ships, Canada must invest in infrastructure in the north to accommodate and protect vessels as they traverse the route. Canada would have to increase naval and coast guard activity to keep the route clear and to keep the peace. This would require deep-water ports with access to resources for replenishment and possible repair, investments placed on taxpayers shoulders

The free use of the northern routes can also harm local ecosystems without allocating any income toward mitigating environmental degradation. Most importantly, however, the enforcement of the claim would allow foreign military ships free rein to roam a potentially resource-rich territory. The stakes of this region are only getting higher. Russia has been rebuilding Soviet-era bases in the Arctic, launching “Weaponized Icebreakers” and ramping up arctic warfare training exercises. In response, Scandinavian countries have requested that NATO steps up its Arctic activity. In October 2018, Norway hosted NATO’s largest military exercise since the Cold War-era in Exercise Trident Juncture.

U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Pich Chhim prepares to go on patrol near Moen, Norway during Exercise White Claymore in February 2018. Photo by NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Canada, among others, is building up its Arctic naval capabilities. On top of its new line of frigates, Canada hopes to build eight Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) for its navy and coast guard. They are also joined by Norway and the U.S. in expanding their ice-capable fleet; however, their efforts pale in comparison to Russia’s 61 ice-ready ships.

The effectiveness of such exercises and military buildups is further challenged by increasing divisions within the NATO alliance. Most recently, Turkey’s position within the alliance has been questioned, and French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that the alliance was “brain-dead”. Such a diagnosis might prove damning for the alliance when combined with President Trump’s views on the alliance and his possible withdrawal entirely.

NATO has been slow to respond to the growing interest in the Arctic compared to its rivals. While China and Russia have prioritized much of their resources in building their claim on the Arctic, the NATO allies have yet to show a unified pivot toward the north. Instead, they have argued amongst themselves on issues of transit rights, as Arctic diplomatic forums, resources, trade routes, and all the infrastructure behind them become dominated by their rivals. And without any apparent cohesive response on climate change on the horizon, it seems that the power vacuum in the Arctic will keep on growing till a scramble ensues.

Featured Image Source: U.S. Coast Guard photo byPetty Officer 3rd Class Luke Clayton. Aug. 23, 2011. Licensed underthe United States Government Works

Edited by Albert G