Troubled waters: a Russian icebreaker makes a voyage along the Northern Sea Route © Elena Chernyshova/Panos Pictures

The battle for the Arctic

The great powers have embarked on a new scramble for the Arctic, as profitable sea routes open up in melting ice. But unless we can salvage the region’s fragile ecology, all humanity’s fortunes will sink

The Arctic might be one of the coldest regions on the planet but temperatures there are rising three times more quickly than elsewhere. Its sea ice is melting: last year, the volume of Arctic ice reached the second-lowest level ever recorded. This isn’t just a crisis for polar bears; the ice’s reflection of solar radiation—known as the “albedo effect”—is a check on global warming. As the ice recedes, more sunlight is absorbed into the oceans, stepping up the rate of climate change.

While the concept of “zombie fires” sounds like something out of Dawn of the Dead, they are real and increasingly devastating to the Arctic. These fires are almost impossible to extinguish because they smoulder underground in peatbogs. They contributed to the eruption of wildfires across Siberia, Alaska and northern Canada that emitted an estimated 244 megatonnes of CO2 between January and August 2020. Satellite data showed that this was 35 per cent more than Arctic wildfires generated over the whole of 2019. 

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has warned that 2020 saw a “sustained transformation to a warmer, less frozen and biologically changed Arctic.” More pithily, the US-based National Snow and Ice Data Center described that year in the region as “persistently peculiar.” 

What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. Both zombie fires and melting ice are vicious circles, with the power to accelerate climate change across the globe. Meteorologists can directly trace the severe winter storms that struck the southern United States in February of this year to shifts in weather systems around the North Pole.

But where environmentalists discern only catastrophe, others spy opportunity: as the ice recedes, the chance to extract resources, grow tourism, build digital infrastructure and open up new shipping routes grows. And where economic opportunity lurks, political power play is rarely far behind.

A chilling new Suez

As Texas battened down the hatches in February, two Russian vessels—a liquefied natural gas tanker and a nuclear icebreaker—completed a historic first. The two ships made a winter transit of the eastern sector of the Northern Sea Route (along the Siberian coastline, from Jiangsu in China to the Russian port of Sabetta). Normally, sea ice would make such a journey impossible at this time of year. Ships have only been able to travel the full Northern Sea Route (also known as the Northeast Passage) between July and November, although traffic within these months has been getting busier, with an unprecedented 62 ships sailing the route in 2020. Improvements in “ice-strengthening” engineering also help, although the Russian tanker needed substantial repairs at the end of its journey.

In a world in which 80 per cent of goods are still shipped by sea, new options for crossing continents are inevitably a big deal for multinationals, and potentially consumers. Where shipping from Japan to Rotterdam would normally involve the Suez Canal and take 30 days (or rather longer, if a ship gets wedged across it after losing control of steering, as happened with an enormous Taiwanese vessel in March), it could take as little as 18 days with the Northern Sea Route. Similarly, if a ship travelled from New York to Japan, it would usually go via the Panama Canal and take 25 days. But by taking the Northwest Passage through the Arctic, it could knock four days off the journey. Beyond this, there is now the Transpolar Route—controversial because it will only be fully viable when more sea ice has receded. This cuts from the Atlantic to the Pacific straight through the centre of the Arctic Ocean, potentially shaving one to two days off the other Arctic itineraries. It’s been of special interest to China since one of its icebreakers, the Xue Long (Snow Dragon), completed the tricky navigation in summer 2012. As well as being speedier, the Transpolar Route will allow traders to avoid Russian bureaucracy, permit costs and ice-breaker support that are necessary for the Northern Sea Route.

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The Russian port of Sabetta, recently established to take advantage of opening sea routes © Alexander Ryumin\TASS via Getty Images

The vast mineral treasures hidden beneath the Arctic ice are, on their own, the kind of prize that has often attracted rivalry and a scramble for conquest. Recent estimates say the Arctic contains 90bn barrels of undiscovered oil, 17 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered gas and 44bn barrels of natural gas liquids. But this potential for new crossings adds another dimension. Throughout history, wars have been fought over warm water ports and nautical crossings that give strategic and commercial advantages. Trans-continental connections have often been a special flashpoint. During the first century of the Suez Canal’s existence, the many tussles there embroiled not only the French and the British along with the thoroughfare’s Egyptian hosts, but at times drew in Japan, Israel and the US. Now, as the planet warms, the Arctic is fast becoming a new crucible. 

Mapping the problem

The most obviously interested parties are the eight members of the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum of the states that have territory in the region. In terms of sheer scale, Russia predominates: it is sovereign over more than half of all Arctic land. It also leads the charge on visible military presence, with weapons like the recently tested Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile, its impressive fleet of almost 50 icebreakers, and—more quaintly—proudly publicised infantry manoeuvres involving huskies and reindeer. At the end of February, it cemented its influence from space, sending up a satellite—the Arktika M—to monitor the region’s climate and environment.

Under Donald Trump, the US—on the Council because of Alaska—developed a characteristically chest-beating approach. Trump seemed especially interested in mining: an awareness of rare-earth metals probably lay behind his ludicrous (but not unique) suggestion of “buying” Greenland in 2019. Yet he was no more capable of consistent geopolitical strategy here than anywhere else.

Since Joe Biden’s election, however, the US has shifted gears. Biden has launched a US army training programme called “Arctic Warrior” to develop skills in “cold weather warfare” that were mothballed after the Cold War. In February, he sent four US Air Force bombers and 200 personnel to Ørland Air Station in Norway, 350 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Normally the US military monitors the Arctic from a British base; being based in Norway enables a swifter response to any signs of Russian aggression.

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Less than a week later, Denmark revealed that it too was going to boost defence spending by $250m in response to the Russian build-up. Its surveillance capabilities will be improved by drones in Greenland (where it is sovereign) and sophisticated air radar in the Faroe Islands.

The new rivalry is not confined to Council members. China defines itself as a “near-Arctic” nation, with ambitions to make those opening ocean routes into a “Polar Silk Road.” China first gained a notional foothold through the 1925 Svalbard Treaty which, while determining that the archipelago was Norwegian territory, gave other signatories the same rights to access it. With impressive far-sightedness, China made sure it was one of them. A lifetime later, in 2003, the People’s Republic established the Yellow River Station in Svalbard and its presence became a physical one. By 2018, China was co-operating with Iceland to create a joint Arctic Science Observatory, and haggling over buying or leasing an airport in Lapland, something the Finnish Defence Ministry ultimately blocked.

The global extent of the phenomenon is demonstrated by the fact that, this January, even India released a draft Arctic policy. Delhi rationalised it by pointing to the “intricate link between conditions in the Arctic and the monsoon and Himalayan systems.” Britain too has shown its hand, announcing a regular Royal Navy presence there from early March as part of an international bid to make sure that Russia and China cannot monopolise the new trade routes.

Among the Arctic Council’s members, Canada’s Justin Trudeau is getting almost as worried about China as Biden is about Russian expansionism. In December, he blocked the Chinese state-owned company, Shandong Gold Mining, from buying a goldmine on national security grounds. The mine is close to both Canada’s Northwest Passage and to US and Canadian early warning radar facilities and underwater monitoring systems.

“With so much at stake, the very mapping of the Arctic has become intensely political”

With so much at stake, the very mapping of the Arctic has become intensely political. Back in 1997, an international scientific mission to document the sea floor was launched in St Petersburg. Despite its stated neutral intent, the resulting charts always had geopolitical implications. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea gives scope for coastal states to extend sovereign rights, or—put more bluntly—to launch sub-sea land grabs. An underwater mountain range called the Lomonosov Ridge has become a particularly contested prize: Canada, Denmark and Russia all see it as an extension of their own territories. In 2007, Russia pointedly planted a flag on the ridge, just two and a half miles below the North Pole, after a UN specialist body rebuffed its first official bid for sovereign rights. Since then, it has reapplied and both Denmark and Canada have made submissions. The commission’s recommendation is pending, but Moscow’s interest doesn’t wait. In October, two Russian ships were sent to collect further data for new high-tech maps of the ridge to bolster its claim.

China too—which maintains that the Arctic is an international space—is indulging in creative cartography. Its policy is framed by a polar-centred map that depicts the US and China as being separated by the Arctic rather than the Pacific Ocean, a flip in geographical thinking so brazen that Beijing would not have dared adopt it before the sea ice began melting away. 

Window-dressing vs the world

How bad could the power tussle get? Gloomier Arctic members of Nato, such as Norway, look back at Russia’s behaviour in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine and shudder. A visit to Norway’s cavernous joint military headquarters in Bodø is telling. A large screen constantly monitors traffic in and around the country’s northern borderland with Russia. Oslo also keeps a vigilant eye trained on another “frontline”—the Barents Sea to Norway’s immediate north. Some there even ask if the Russians could “do a Crimea” in the Arctic. Defence planners will tell you, in confidence, that they worry about Svalbard, about 1,000km from northern Norway. Imagine a routine argument about fishing quotas, for example, being used to deploy “grey zone” tactics and sow chaos. A misplaced fishing vessel could end up being seized by the other side, potentially acting as a dangerous trigger.

Allies like Iceland and indeed the UK urge Nato to take a similarly muscular stand, but Alliance states whose geographical focus is further south tend to see the Arctic as a distraction. For all the grandstanding and military posturing in the region, a “hot” war is not the gravest danger—the chances of that are remote. A lot of the positioning is captured by the Russian term pokazukha, usually translated as “window-dressing”—showing off to scare or impress. What we are in for is best described as a very cold war.

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Locals of Baffin Island, Canada, which has seen a surge in shipping traffic © Rachel Halliburton

A bigger threat than any physical conflict is that while the world is distracted by a classic power struggle, the fragile Arctic ecosystem will be ruined. That would inflict collateral damage on all of us—the supposed “victors” included.

Drilling for oil and extracting gas is, both through its direct effect on the local environment and its carbon contribution to climate chaos, the most damaging activity possible for the region. Professor Martin Siegert, the co-director of Imperial College’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change, explains: “introducing oil production leads to catastrophes, as we saw with the Russian oil spill last year,” when 20,000 tonnes of diesel oil leaked into a river in Siberia.

And in the design of energy projects, there are signs of the anti-western alliance that is the subject of dark warnings at Nato conferences: in December 2019, the “Power of Siberia” pipeline was inaugurated, a joint investment project between Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation that promises to transport Russian gas to Chinese markets over a 3,000km network.

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A Russian flag is planted on top of the deepwater Lomonosov Ridge, in a provocative declaration of sovereignty © AFP PHOTO / NTV

But the west is in no position to demonise its rivals for putting short-term profit ahead of long-terms costs for the planet. Many oil companies from many nations have exploration plans. These include the British-Dutch multinational Shell and, until 2018, America’s ExxonMobil, which partnered with Russia’s Rosneft before US sanctions on Moscow forced it to pull out. Yet money has a way of working around politics: Rosneft’s Arctic projects continued regardless. In November 2020 its £111bn Vostok Oil project was announced, which will potentially access five billion tonnes of oil as well as introducing two new airports, 15 industry towns and a pipeline. The nearby port of Sabetta—built between 2012 and 2020 to be the Arctic’s biggest shipping destination, as well as part of a major liquefied natural gas project—will give easy access to the Northern Sea Route.

While many nations are involved, a distinct Russian grand strategy—combining resource development with militarisation, in a way Stalin would have recognised—aims to make the most of the country’s Arctic assets by 2035. Which, in no small irony, is the year that environmentalists are warning the Arctic’s sea ice could disappear.

Northern lights

It is not all doom and gloom in the Arctic. Prior to the pandemic, smaller states like Iceland and Finland were investing heavily in tourism in response to the surge of well-heeled visitors, especially from China; in the small Norwegian town of Kirkenes they enjoyed the chilled-chic of an ice hotel. The Northern Lights is big business. In our own separate visits to the region in recent years, the buzz of change has often been palpable. Cranes litter the skyline of little Iqaluit, on Canada’s Baffin Island, where the products of a building boom include two new luxury hotels and a deep seaport. While some locals worry about the pressure on creaking infrastructure, others talk excitedly about the opportunities to take wealthy foreign tourists heli-skiing or snowmobiling, to watch nature at the ice floe edge. 

More signs of money and influence are on show at the annual Arctic Assembly in Iceland and the Arctic Frontiers conference in northern Norway. Until the virus struck, these lavish political and commercial marketplaces were drawing a cosmopolitan crowd: you might hear the Singaporean Arctic ambassador Sam Tan and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon speak in the morning, and Chinese shipping executives in the afternoon.

The Arctic Circle conference hosted in Shanghai in 2019 (just a month before Nato hosted its own Arctic get-together) was a fascinating showcase of ambition. Before entering the auditorium, visitors could admire models of China’s two icebreakers, alongside a polar bear made out of resin. That creature, so threatened by thinning sea-ice, was an unintentional reminder of the frightening direction in which the region is headed. But the rising superpower continues to see opportunities and not only in damaging mining projects; its presence is felt in everything from Icelandic
geothermal energy projects to the Canadian coldwater shrimp industry. 

Digital connectivity is another big interest— one that is shared with America. Globally, sub-sea cabling is responsible for handling 99 per cent of digital traffic. What everyone wants is a fast, high-capacity route that criss-crosses the world’s oceans. The melting of ice in the previously non-negotiable Arctic Ocean is seen as creating opportunities for such infrastructure. On top of this the Arctic environment is viewed as prime for data centres, because its low temperatures mean that money can automatically be saved on cooling them down. Russia has its own plans for what it terms Northern Digital Stream 1. It has teamed up with Finland on an ambitious plan for an internationally funded, trans-Arctic undersea communication cable called Arctic Connect. Moscow is also—somewhat warily, amid concerns about data security—exploring partnerships with China Telecom and Huawei Marine.

“The treasures of the Arctic are provoking a furious competition for control that nobody can win”

All this serves to highlight that while there are obvious dangers in rivalry, co-operation holds risks of its own. Direct investment from powers like China is becoming politically—and even socially—hard to resist, because of the opportunities that come with a new mine or airport.

Take the ugly row that erupted earlier this year over a proposed mining project in Greenland’s Kvanefjeld, for the extraction of uranium and rare earth metals. The question of whether Greenland Minerals—an Australian company backed by the Chinese Shenghe Resoures Holding—should be given permission to go ahead saw some local government ministers receive death threats. Ultimately it caused the ruling coalition in the capital, Nuuk, to splinter. The project’s fate will be determined by whoever wins the snap election planned for this April.

Conversely, Trudeau came under fire after imposing a five-year ban on drilling in the Beaufort Sea. Environmentally it was a good move, but indigenous leaders in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories condemned him for shutting down the potential for good jobs and economic growth. Just because wider humanity faces an ecological-civilisational crisis, it does not follow that all Arctic inhabitants are opposed to further development. The Inuit have been at the forefront of those warning of the consequences of climate change, but poverty, substance abuse and suicide are also pressing problems. Outside interest in local resources can provide a chance to focus global attention on the needs of their communities.

But more broadly, the importance of preserving the Arctic is beyond argument, and not least for those who live there. Its singular treasures and opportunities are provoking furious competition, and the temperature is now rising politically as well as meteorologically. But as the ice sheets melt, permafrost thaws, sea levels rise and zombie fires take hold, this could prove to be a competition that nobody can win. 

Whatever decisions the security professionals take, the greatest problem of all is the collective human rampage that will, if unchecked, destroy the region. The events of the last six months provide little reassurance. The Arctic is not doomed—for now. Yet it will struggle to survive in a world where microplastics end up entombed in floating sea ice, while a Russian flagpole lies on the seabed below.