by Judith Curry
[T]he world’s military leaders . . are preparing for a new kind of Cold War in the Arctic, anticipating that rising temperatures there will open up a treasure trove of resources, long-dreamed-of sea lanes and a slew of potential conflicts.
An article posted at Huffington Post is entitled Arctic Climate Change Opening Region to New Military Activity. Excerpts:
By Arctic standards, the region is already buzzing with military activity, and experts believe that will increase significantly in the years ahead.
The U.S., Canada and Denmark held major exercises two months ago, and in an unprecedented move, the military chiefs of the eight main Arctic powers – Canada, the U.S., Russia, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland – gathered at a Canadian military base last week to specifically discuss regional security issues.
None of this means a shooting war is likely at the North Pole any time soon. But as the number of workers and ships increases in the High North to exploit oil and gas reserves, so will the need for policing, border patrols and – if push comes to shove – military muscle to enforce rival claims.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its untapped natural gas is in the Arctic. Shipping lanes could be regularly open across the Arctic by 2030 as rising temperatures continue to melt the sea ice, according to a National Research Council analysis commissioned by the U.S. Navy last year.
Russia – one-third of which lies within the Arctic Circle – has been the most aggressive in establishing itself as the emerging region’s superpower.
Rob Huebert, an associate political science professor at the University of Calgary in Canada, said Russia has recovered enough from its economic troubles of the 1990s to significantly rebuild its Arctic military capabilities, which were a key to the overall Cold War strategy of the Soviet Union, and has increased its bomber patrols and submarine activity.
He said that has in turn led other Arctic countries – Norway, Denmark and Canada – to resume regional military exercises that they had abandoned or cut back on after the Soviet collapse. Even non-Arctic nations such as France have expressed interest in deploying their militaries to the Arctic.
Acknowledging the need to keep apace in the Arctic, the United States is pouring funds into figuring out what climate change will bring, and has been working closely with the scientific community to calibrate its response.
The most immediate challenge may not be war – both military and commercial assets are sparse enough to give all countries elbow room for a while – but whether militaries can respond to a disaster.
“Catastrophic events, like a cruise ship suddenly sinking or an environmental accident related to the region’s oil and gas exploration, would have a profound impact in the Arctic,” she said. “The risk is not militarization; it is the lack of capabilities while economic development and human activity dramatically increases that is the real risk.”
JC comment: I anticipate that this activity will be a boon to scientific research in the Arctic Ocean. In the 1950’s – 1980’s, the USSR and the U.S. expended considerable resources on Arctic Ocean research. Of particular relevance to my own research in the region, the USSR manned 1-2 drifting ice island weather stations in the Arctic Ocean. During the cold war, the U.S. Office of Naval Research funded considerable research aimed at understanding the ice/ocean environment for submarines. In 1989, all this activity ceased. There have been several scientific expeditions to the Arctic in recent decades, but without the sustained surface (and below surface) observations that were undertaken prior to the end of the cold war.
Tribute to Norbert Untersteiner
This renewed activity in the Arctic Ocean brings to mind Norbert Untersteiner, who passed away last month. Untersteiner is the father of modern sea ice research. Neven has a good obit [here]. Untersteiner was the station leader of the 1957 International Polar Year Arctic drifting station Alpha, the first manned drifting ice station conducted by the West. The story of the Drifting Station Alpha is told by Untersteinter [here].
I first encountered Untersteiner in 1982 at a NATO Advanced Study Institute on the Geophysics of Sea Ice, in Maratea Italy (which was organized by Untersteiner). I was attending this workshop as a graduate student, and the proceedings of the workshop are collected in a volume The Geophysics of Sea Ice. This workshop was seminal in setting the course of my research for the next two decades. The data for my Ph.D. thesis included that from Alpha, AIDJEX (a field experiment on ice dynamics organized by Untersteiner) and the Arctic Ocean drifting buoys. I engaged with Untersteiner and others from the University of Washington Polar Science Center in planning for the field experiment SHEBA, which was executed in 1997/1998. To get a sense of Untersteiner and his amazing life and scientific contributions, I recommend the University of Washington’s tribute to him [here].