In May 2016, the average area of sea ice atop the Arctic Ocean was a mere 12 million square kilometers (4.63 million square miles). This is the smallest amount of ice ever recorded by satellites for the month of May, smashing the record set last year by 580,000 square kilometers (224,000 square miles) and 1.39 million square kilometers (537,000 square miles) below the 1981-2010 long term average (1). To put these numbers into perspective, ice coverage amounting to three times the size of California has disappeared from 1981-2010 (2). These disturbing numbers come after a January which saw the smallest maximum ice coverage ever for a second consecutive year (3). In fact, all 13 of the smallest ice coverage maxima have occurred in the past 13 years (3). As we near September, the month in which the yearly minimum is usually recorded, many scientist predict that this could be the smallest amount of ice ever recorded by satellites. With this comes a fear that we are entering a dangerous positive feedback loop. As melting sea ice exposes more ocean surface to space, more heat is absorbed by the earth and more ice melts, continuing the cycle (4).
Though only 4 million people live in the Arctic, the situation unfolding there is one that affects the entire world (5). As the Arctic continues to change, new issues will continue to emerge that will force the United States and the other Arctic states to broaden their definitions of security and increase their cooperation with one another. Furthermore, the United States must continue to take an active leadership role, both at home and internationally, while also investing in necessary infrastructure, in order to keep the Arctic a safe and secure place.
One of the most immediate and drastic effects that is coming from high latitude climate change is a shift in how world trade operates. As more sea ice melts and warmer temperatures reduce ice coverage for longer periods each year, new trade routes are opening up. Currently Russia has capitalized the most on these changes. Its Siberian region is no longer being developed east-to-west by means of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, but instead south-to-north via three massive river systems: the Lena, the Tense and the Ob (6). These rivers connect to Northern Sea Route (NSR) and Siberia to the global economy; as ice continues to melt, the route becomes more accessible to different types of ships for longer periods of time. Russia expects that by 2020 there will be a 30 fold increase in the number of vessels using the NSR (7). The route, which can get a ship from Shanghai to Hamburg in 5,200 miles less than the Trans-Siberian Railroad (6), is also getting a lot of attention from China, with 15% of its foreign trade predicted to use this new route by the end of the decade (8). Scientists predict that by 2030, both the North West Passage (NWP) and the NSR will remain open for 110 days a year (6).
This economic development does have a lot of potential to benefit communities in the region, but only if the United States and its Arctic partners are aware of the potential risks and collaborate to manage them. They must be able to respond to new disease vectors, invasive species, loss of culture, and burdens on infrastructure. This anticipated economic growth will only be successful if it is combined with large purposeful investments in education and social capital in the region, protection of fragile high latitude environmental services, and preservation of local cultures (6).
For the United States in particular, this will require serious overhauls of Arctic infrastructure. Currently Alaska lacks any deep water ports on its north or west coasts, which has led to growing concerns from the Coast Guard and other federal agencies about responding to vessels in distress, as well as addressing industrial activities and oil spills (9). Ship casualties in Arctic waters, ranging from structural damage to complete destruction, have jumped from just three in 2004 to 55 in 2014 (10). A report by the US Coast Guard insists that if the United States wishes to have an adequate presence in the Arctic, it needs at least three heavy and three medium polar icebreakers (11). The country currently only has a 39 year old heavy icebreaker, which is used largely to aid researchers and is expected to end service between 2019 and 2022 (10). Following his trip to Alaska, Obama announced that he would jumpstart the production of a heavy icebreaker by two years to FY 2020; with an estimated completion date of 2024-2025, there will be a period of two to six years in which the United States will have no operational heavy polar icebreakers (12). It seems counterintuitive that as the ice melts, there is a higher demand for icebreakers, but the melting ice causes massive blocks to break off and float away from the ice cap, which pose a great danger for ships.
The increase of activity in high latitudes is also changing how states must think of national security in the Arctic region. Traditionally, when national security is mentioned, people’s minds go directly to military security, domain awareness and keeping a close eye on the actions of one’s neighbor. Though these are still components of it, according to Ambassador Mark F. Brzezinski, Executive Director of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, national security in the Arctic needs to be defined more broadly. National security “involves food security for subsistence communities in the Arctic and access to clean water and sanitation, one of the central organizing challenges in rural Alaska” (13). This means that in addition to infrastructure, an adequate amount of resources need to be invested into human capital; “There are millions of people—native and tribal people, and Americans, Scandinavians, Russians—who live in the Arctic area whose context is changing dramatically because of the impact of climate change,” (13) added Ambassador Brzezinski in a panel on the Arctic hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this month.
The effects of climate change are of particular severity to the subsistence communities in Arctic. Warmer climates are affecting the migration pattern of large game like moose and caribou, as well as fish. If a society is nomadic, they can move with these changing patterns, but for subsistence communities that are anchored by an airstrip or a school, that is not an option (13). Many of these Arctic communities are also extremely affected by energy insecurities. Arctic communities in Alaska have some of the highest costs of fuel in the country, which in some places are as high as $9 a gallon. “That’s significant when you are anywhere, much less when you live in a subsistence economy where resources are limited,” (13) said Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Not having access to food and fuel would be a problem anywhere in America, but it’s an even graver situation when it is affecting communities in some of the harshest environments on Earth.
The need to re-define US national security in the Arctic context extends to the international political sphere as well. If the United States wishes to adequately address the situation in the Arctic and provide the greatest amount of security it can to its citizens, then it needs to be able to adjust whom it considers an ally or an enemy. U.S-Russian relations are, to put it kindly, extremely complicated and nuanced in the international view. However, if one looks only at the two states’ collaboration on work in the Arctic, the relationship takes on a whole new light. The Nordic states, Canada, 6 organizations representing indigenous people of the Arctic, the United States and Russia make up the Arctic Council. This intergovernmental forum promotes cooperation, coordination and interaction among the members, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the region. The organization also looks at national security through broader issues of security: economic, environmental, energy and food.
The reality is that the US and Russia share the same challenges in the Arctic and can help each other, and help their citizens, through cooperation and collaboration. In the Arctic Council, the US and Russia have worked together to lead negotiations among all Arctic states to adopt binding agreements on search and rescue and oil spill preparedness and response and also enjoy a pragmatic relationship managing the security of the Bering Strait (6). Most recently, the two spearheaded the passing of a marine science and cooperation agreement amongst the other members of the Arctic Council (6); at the same time, the US government placed sanctions on the Russian Federation for its actions in the Ukraine. This administration has proven that one can stand on principle and also do the right thing, as both President Obama and Secretary Kerry insist that amidst the tensions elsewhere, the Arctic needs to be a region of peace and stability (6). The reality is Russia surrounds 170º of the Artic, including 80% of the land and the vast majority of its resources (6), and their adherence to the consensus structure and rule-based system of the Arctic Council is a testament to their commitment for a safe and stable Arctic.
The cooperation amongst countries is extremely beneficial, but equally essential, if not more so, is the cooperation with governments and local indigenous people. Perhaps an even more vital and at risk resource than ice is the knowledge held by the indigenous communities throughout the Arctic. “Their life depends on understanding ice,” explains Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), “understanding ice, reading the colors, looking at the consistency, because if they get it wrong, they die” (13). She goes on to express the value of conversations with these people and the benefits of peer-to-peer learning. There is also something to be said about the injustice of climate change, and how those least responsible for the degradation of the planet end up being the most affected.
In 2017, the US will step down as chair of the Arctic Council at the same time that our newly elected president will take office. Thanks to a forward thinking, climate-oriented president, the gravity of the situation in the Arctic gained attention and some positive steps forward were made. With the changes of next year however, it is essential that the United States does not forget that it is in fact an Arctic state, and has a responsibility to act as one. Furthermore, “the looming crisis in the Arctic is a tangible preview of the looming crisis of the global condition” (13). What is happening in the Arctic is a foreshadow of what will soon happen elsewhere. It may be heating up faster than anywhere else on the planet, but coastal erosion, changing weather patterns and resilience issues affect, and will continue to affect, other parts of the planet in the future. The Arctic is an opportunity to learn what it takes to deal with these problems before it is too late.
(1) "Low Ice, Low Snow, Both Poles." NSIDC Arctic News and Analysis RSS. National Snow and Ice Data Center, 7 June 2016. Web. 26 July 2016.
(2) "Geography." State Area Measurements and Internal Point Coordinates. United States Census Bureau, n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.
(3) “Annual Peak of Arctic Sea Ice Hit a Record Low.” Earth Observatory. NASA. 8 April 2013. Web. 25 July 2016.
(4) Mooney, Chris. "‘We’ve Never Seen Anything like This': Arctic Sea Ice Hit a Stunning New Low in May." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 7 June 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(5) "Arctic People." All About Arctic Climatology and Meteorology. National Snow and Ice Data Center, n.d. Web. 27 July 2016.
(6) Kraska, James, and Betsy Baker. "Emerging Arctic Security Challenges." Center For New American Security (2014): 1-16. Web. 24 July 2016.
(7) Vidal, John. "Russian Arctic City Hopes to Cash in as Melting Ice Opens New Sea Route to China." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 Feb. 2014. Web. 27 July 2016.
(8) Pettersen, Trude. "China Starts Commercial Use of Northern Sea Route." Barentsobserver. Barent Observer News, 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 27 July 2016.
(9) Joling, Dan. "Alaska Deepwater Port Proposed for Vessels in Arctic Waters." Alaska Dispatch News. Alaska Dispatch News, 19 Feb. 2015. Web. 27 July 2016.
(10) Hoff, Rachel. "A Weak Arctic Posture Threatens America's Ability to Lead - AAF." AAF. American Action Forum, 5 Jan. 2015. Web. 27 July 2016.
(11) United States. National Defence. United States Coast Guard. United States Coast Guard High Latitude Region Mission Analysis Capstone Summary. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
(12) O'Rourke, Ronald. "Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress." Fas.org. Congressional Research Service, 27 May 2016. Web. 27 July 2016.
(13) Brzezinski, Mark F., Lisa Murkowski, Robert J. Papp, Jr., and Scott G. Borgerson. "A Discussion on National Security Risks in the Changing Arctic." National Security Risks in the Changing Arctic. 9 June 2016. Council on Foreign Relations. Web. 20 July 2016.
Image: © Vitaliy Smolygin | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-oil-platform-arctic-ocean-production-image34748134#res14972580">Oil platform in the Arctic Ocean</a>