Arctic/Antarctic

New Battlefields: Could The Thawing Arctic Circle Become A Future Frontline?

The Arctic may be cold and inhospitable but it is no longer impenetrable.

An ice-covered fjord on Baffin Island, with Davis Strait in the background, Canada (Picture: NASA).

The Arctic is the northernmost point of Earth, a vast frozen desert largely made up of sea-ice.

The region consists of the Arctic Ocean and parts of Canada, Russia, the USA, Greenland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland.

In the mid-winter months, the sun never rises and temperatures can easily reach lows of - 50º F in the higher latitudes. 

US Coast Guard Cutter Healy Alaska Arctic
Coast Guard Cutter Healy conducts Arctic patrol in support of the Office of Naval Research north of Alaska (Picture: US Department of Defense).

But the region is going through rapid change, as rising temperatures are reducing sea ice and technological advances are making the once impenetrable Arctic increasingly accessible. 

The area is rich in natural resources, with the US Geological Survey estimating that the Arctic holds 70% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas – some 1,699 trillion cubic feet of gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. 

The greater accessibility is expected to prompt a race to claim and exploit these assets. 

Russian troops parachuting
Russian troops parachuting in the Arctic (Picture: Russian MOD).

Arctic navigator Captain Craig Feeney has worked 14 seasons in the region.

He has seen the thawing ice sheets firsthand and how this has sparked interest amongst powerful nations, with Russia attempting to exert its dominance.

"Without a doubt, we're going to have issues of sovereignty in the North.

"[Russia] have laid a claim to the North Pole. 

"Canada is refuting it, it should be international waters... Denmark is also refuting that claim, all the other regions are really.

"As tensions get worse, it's quite possible that Russia might decide to say we'll patrol vessels here."

Russia has a large fleet of purpose-built ice breakers, eight of them nuclear-powered.

President Vladimir Putin is also modernising Soviet-era bases in the Arctic and plans to increase cargo shipments across the Arctic Sea, with 60 million tonnes more by 2025.

Russia's Arctic Trefoil military base on Franz Josef Land (Picture: Russian Ministry of Defence).
The 14,000 square metre base in Franz Josef Land is now Russia's most northern permanent installation (Picture: Russian MOD).

China has also looked to develop its presence in the region.

In Greenland, Chinese companies planned to buy an abandoned naval base and build airports but their plans were rejected by the country's devolved government.

All of these moves by eastern powers are a big concern for the Ministry of Defence. Professor of International Security Caroline Kennedy-Pipe said: 

"No one owns the central Arctic... So we could see a gold rush, an oil rush in the Arctic. 

"We're expecting to see great power rivalries played out, particularly with a resurgent Russia and a very interested China."

Wildcat helicopter at Royal Norwegian Air Force Station Bardufoss
Wildcat helicopter at Royal Norwegian Air Force Station Bardufoss

That changing physical and strategic picture saw the UK’s Defence Select Committee urge for more ambition in the Arctic. Caroline Kennedy-Pipe continued: 

"It looks like a race to me but we're looking 30, 50, 70 years out.

"There's a longer-term horizon that depends on climate change but it's certainly a race.  

"We're certainly, as a member of NATO, watching the Russians very carefully."

This year more than 800 Royal Marines and their support arms deployed to Norway as Britain strengthens its focus on the Arctic.

Prince Harry arrives in Norway for Ex Clockwork
Earlier this year, Prince Harry visited Marines deployed to Bardufoss on Exercise Clockwork in Norway.

Rachel Astell is a student at the college: "It gives me the chances to know how I would do it.

"For example, knowing the speeds you have to go at, all the different cautions I have to take, the dangers I need to look out for, that don't apply in normal or even close restricted waters."

This specialist training ensures they are ready to sail in one of the planet’s most hostile environments.

Alongside the military commitment, Britain is echoing the mix of military and civilian investment Russia is making.

Captain Feeney is part of that, helping train future generations of ship's captains about the complex process of navigating through the polar ice fields.

At the City of Glasgow College Riverside campus, a specialist 360-degree tanker simulator allows the next generation to learn how to pilot through the changing ice sheets of the Arctic.

Breaking ice 150119 Picture MOD
Breaking sea-ice in the Arctic (Picture: MOD).

Climate change is set to open up the Arctic like never before in the coming decades.

Easier navigation will see a once impenetrable natural barrier lowered to reveal new shipping routes and beneath them precious natural resources.

The race to stake a claim will test relations between countries who already have competing interests in the region and around the world.