Wed, Jan 30, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Military buildup takes place
in the Arctic as melting ice opens northern borders

As ice melts and shipping lanes open up, geopolitical tensions are growing and old Cold War bases are being reopened

By Jonathan Watts  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

The climate crisis is intensifying a new military buildup in the Arctic, diplomats and analysts said earlier this month, as regional powers attempt to secure northern borders that were until recently reinforced by a continental-sized division of ice.

That so-called unpaid sentry is now literally melting away, opening up shipping lanes and geo-security challenges, said delegates at the Arctic Frontiers conference, the polar circle’s biggest talking shop, who debated a series of recent escalations.

Russia is reopening and strengthening Cold War bases on the Kola Peninsula in the far northwest of the country. Norway is beefing up its military presence in the high Arctic.

In October last year, NATO staged Exercise Trident Juncture with 40,000 troops, its biggest military exercise in Norway in more than a decade.

A month earlier, the UK announced a new “Defence Arctic Strategy” and promised a 10-year deployment of 800 commandos to Norway and four Eurofighter Typhoons of the British Royal Air Force to patrol Icelandic skies.

The US is also sending hundreds more marines to the region on long-term rotations and has threatened to send naval vessels through Arctic shipping lanes for the first time.

While these strategic moves have echoes of the Cold War, the modest buildup falls far short of that era and there remains a strong spirit of cooperation in many areas.

The current tensions are a result of a world warmed by industrial emissions. The Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the planet, shrinking sea ice and exposing more water and territory to exploitation and access.

“Right now, the reasons we are seeing more military activity is that countries are worried by the specter of open water,” one of the speakers, Royal Holloway, University of London geopolitics professor Klaus Dodds, told the Guardian.

“The unique Arctic security architecture has shape and form that come from natural extremities. If the Arctic becomes just another ocean, this breaks down. It’s elemental,” he said.

The Arctic’s unique characteristics are under attack from all sides.

Below, the once-frozen ocean is now mixed with warmer, more saline Atlantic waters. In the skies above, the polar vortex is weakening, allowing intrusions of balmy air currents from the south.

Sea ice is being lost at a rate of more than 10,000 tonnes per second, University of Bergen Geophysical Institute professor Tore Furevik said.

“We’re heading for a new and uncertain Arctic with ramifications for nature and politics,” he said. “We should strive to be less suspicious, less hostile and more open-minded if we are to deal with a problem that we have so recklessly created.”

By 2035, the Arctic is forecast to be free of ice during summer, which would allow ships to sail across the north pole.

Business interest is growing. Last summer, a Maersk container ship for the first time navigated the northern sea route from Asia to Europe carrying fish and electronic goods.

Energy companies are exploring new oil and gas fields. Once-remote regions are becoming geopolitical hot spots.

Norway’s Troms, which hosted the conference, was once a tiny trading post. Today, it is a tourism hub and a gateway to the mineral-rich north.

“Now we have a historically strange situation with political and economic activity in the Arctic. So many people are knocking on our door, including business and state representatives from China, Pakistan, Singapore and Morocco,” Troms Mayor Kristin Roymo told the Guardian. “There is also a very obvious increased naval presence.”

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