How the world’s powers are fighting over a melting Arctic

For many years, the frozen Arctic was little greater than a footnote in international financial competitors, however that’s altering as its ice melts with the warming local weather.

Russia is now trying to assert more of the Arctic seabed for its territory. It has been rebuilding Chilly Warfare-era Arctic navy bases and just lately introduced plans to check its Poseidon nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed torpedo in the Arctic. In Greenland, the current election ushered in a new pro-independence authorities that opposes overseas rare earth metal mining as its ice sheet recedes—together with tasks counted on by China and the U.S. to power technology.

The Arctic area has been warming at least twice as fast as the planet as a entire. With the sea ice now thinner and disappearing sooner in the spring, a number of international locations have had their eyes on the Arctic, each for entry to valuable natural resources, together with the fossil fuels whose use is now driving global warming, and as a shorter route for industrial ships. A tanker carrying liquefied pure fuel from northern Russia to China examined that shorter route this previous winter, traversing the normally frozen Northern Sea Route in February for the first time with the assist of an icebreaker. The route reduce the delivery time by nearly half.

Arctic delivery routes. [Image: Arctic Council/Wiki Commons]

Russia has been increase its icebreaker fleet for years for these and different functions. The U.S., in the meantime, is enjoying catch-up. Whereas Russia has entry to more than 40 of those ships at the moment, the U.S. Coast Guard has two, certainly one of them nicely previous its supposed service life.

As an expert in maritime trade and Arctic geopolitics, I’ve been following the rising exercise and geopolitical tensions in the Arctic. They underscore the want for contemporary considering on U.S. Arctic coverage to handle rising competitors in the area.

The issue with America’s icebreaker fleet

America’s ageing icebreaker fleet has been a persistent matter of frustration in Washington.

Congress delay investing in new icebreakers for many years in the face of extra urgent calls for. Now, the lack of polar-class icebreakers undermines America’s potential to operate in the Arctic area, together with responding to disasters as delivery and mineral exploration improve.

It’d sound counterintuitive, however diminishing sea ice could make the area extra harmful—breakaway ice floes pose risks both to ships and to oil platforms, and the opening waters are anticipated to draw each extra delivery and extra mineral exploration. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 30% of the world’s undiscovered pure fuel and 13% of undiscovered oil may be in the Arctic.

The U.S. Coast Guard has simply two icebreakers to handle this altering surroundings.

The Polar Star, a heavy icebreaker that may break by way of ice as much as 21 ft thick, was commissioned in 1976. It’s normally posted to Antarctica in the winter, nevertheless it was sent to the Arctic this yr to offer a U.S. presence. The crew on the ageing ship has needed to fight fires and take care of energy outages and tools breaks—all whereas in a few of the most inhospitable and distant areas on Earth. The second icebreaker, the smaller Healy, commissioned in 2000, suffered a fireplace on board in August 2020 and canceled all Arctic operations.

An icebreaker answer

A method so as to add to the icebreaker fleet could be to have allies collectively procure and function icebreakers, whereas every nonetheless builds up its personal fleet.

For instance, the Biden administration might collaborate with NATO allies to create a partnership modeled on NATO’s Strategic Airlift Capability of C-17 airplanes. The airlift program, began in 2008, operates three massive transport planes that its 12 member nations can use to rapidly transport troops and tools.

An analogous program for icebreakers might function a fleet beneath NATO—maybe beginning with icebreakers contributed by NATO international locations, similar to Canada, or accomplice international locations, similar to Finland. Like the Strategic Airlift Functionality, every member nation would buy a proportion of the shared fleet’s working hours primarily based on their total contributions to the program.

U.S. Protection Secretary Lloyd Austin introduced a step towards extra of this sort of collaboration on June 9, 2021, with plans to determine a new Center for Arctic Security Studies, the sixth Department of Defense Regional Center. The facilities concentrate on analysis, communications, and collaboration with companions.

Utilizing the Legislation of the Sea

One other technique that might enhance U.S. affect in the Arctic, buffer looming conflicts, and assist make clear seabed claims could be for the Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Legislation of the Sea took impact in 1994 and established guidelines for the way the oceans and ocean assets are used and shared. That features figuring out how international locations can declare elements of the seabed. The U.S. initially objected over a part that restricted deep seabed mining, however that section was amended to alleviate a few of these considerations. Presidents Invoice Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all urged the Senate to ratify it, however that still has not happened.

Over the previous few years, nonetheless, “near-Arctic” countries, together with China, Japan, South Korea, Britain and lots of European Union members, have change into extra engaged, and Russia has change into extra lively.

With the rising tensions and increasing curiosity in the area, the period of cooperative engagement has began to recede with the melting sea ice.


Rockford Weitz is a professor of apply and the director of the Fletcher Maritime Research Program at the Fletcher Faculty at Tufts University