May 26th 2017

The Seas They Are A Changin’: Arctic Climate Change and National Security

Ice fields from Jokulsarlon are slowly melting away (David Barrena)

Nowhere in the world are the effects of global climate change more visible and dramatic than in the Arctic, as documented by NASA’s Aqua satellite and other powerful monitoring tools. The rate of warming across the Arctic is twice the global average. Vast regions of the Arctic Ocean, once covered with sea ice year round, are now open water during the summer months.

This Arctic climate change is a transformation that has profound short and long-term national security implications. As the Arctic Ocean becomes open to widespread human activity, the world economy will be changed, with all the security implication for sea routes and other economic activities. At the same time, changes in the Arctic climate could accelerate climate changes worldwide.

Opening the Northwest Passage …

Nearly five hundred years ago, explorers began searching for the Northwest Passage — a sea route around the northern edge of the North American continent that would save thousands of miles during a voyage between Europe and Asia.

Northwest Passage Sailing Routes (Wikimedia Commons)

For centuries they never found it. Ships that attempted the Northwest Passage found their way blocked by Arctic sea ice. As NASA recounts, not until 1903–1906 did explorer Roald Amundsen succeed in making the passage in a specially built ship. But the voyage remained impassable to commercial shipping or indeed any conventional ships.

Arctic climate change, however, is on the verge of opening the Arctic sea lanes — not only the Northwest Passage but also its counterpart, the Northeast Passage along the Arctic coast of Russia. Arctic coasts will thus become accessible for the first time. Ironically, Arctic land transportation could become more difficult as permafrost melts into marsh and mud.

Rich deposits of natural resources are known to exist along these Arctic coasts, but sea ice rendered them economically out of reach. Now they are becoming accessible, potentially triggering a gold rush of activity that could raise the economic — and security — stakes across the Arctic region. As the CBC notes, the impact on Canada is particularly dramatic: Canada has the world’s longest coastlines, more than 100,000 miles in all, most of it within the Arctic circle.

Claims of territorial and navigation rights, once only nominal, may now become flashpoints of tension. Thus the Arctic region draws special attention in a Pentagon report on the national security implications of global climate change.

Worldwide Security Implications

But Arctic climate change has other national security implications that extend far beyond the Arctic. Polar bears are not alone in being threatened by the retreat of the Arctic sea ice. During the summer, the Arctic season of the midnight sun, intense sunlight pours down. Historically, sea ice has reflected most of it back into space.

But as the ice melts, this summer sun is absorbed by sea water, warming it — and thus accelerating the process of global climate change. The warmer it gets, the faster the sea ice melts, and the more ice is melted, the more rapid the warming, a classic vicious circle or positive feedback loop.

The effects, such as disruption of agriculture, could have a destabilizing effect on security worldwide.

In responding to this national security challenge the first requirement is knowledge. As the Arctic region is transformed, we need to monitor both changing environmental conditions and growing human activity in the area.

Yet Arctic conditions remain rugged at best, often hostile, making autonomous drone operations a natural and necessary solution for research and patrol surveillance alike. Thus a new tool for Arctic research is becoming available just as the need for it is growing.

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