Project 6633 generates new knowledge centered on Arctic and Antarctic security for the profession of arms. To do so, pools of expertise need to be drawn together. Our team reached out to various academic, military, political, and NGO leaders to curate a collection of short responses to the question: What are the key challenges posed to the Arctic and the Antarctic regions? Future installments of the Project 6633 Interview Series will pose a range of timely and relevant questions about security, competition, and geopolitics in the polar regions. We invite replies to these statements by way of commentary submissions.

Klaus Dodds — Royal Holloway, University of London

The key challenge facing anyone interested in making sense of the Arctic and Antarctic is epistemological. As a geographer, my discipline’s preoccupation is “earth writing.” How to write about regions of the world, often assumed to be part of a wider cryosphere, when so much of what we once assumed is being undermined by excessive heat and moisture? Our lines and latitudes are struggling to either contain or discipline the circumpolar Arctic and Antarctic. Where does that leave Project 6633?

New words such as “Atlantification” are being deployed to describe an Arctic Ocean that is no longer being thought of either as semi-enclosed or buffered by sea ice from the salt and warmth of the Atlantic Ocean. Parts of the Russian North find themselves in the grip of fires that won’t die back in the winter months. Permafrost is no longer permanent in many parts of the Arctic and it is now commonplace to read of an Arctic that is “greening” and/or “browning.” “Thresholds,” “tipping points,” “invasion,” and “hotspots” have been used by scientists to describe the sites and processes contributing to elemental state change and the pressures being placed on governance systems that crave relative stability, nonlinearity, and enhanced connectivity. Even the immense ice sheets of the Antarctic are framed as vulnerable to underwater melting.

Epistemological humility for me is a starting point—so rather than one key challenge, there are multiple. Instead of thinking in terms of “what” is the challenge in the polar regions, we should consider “where” the challenge is unfolding. Indeed, conceptualizing “challenge” itself tends to reveal a great deal about our impulse to categorize (what is polar, what is not), our willingness to accept disruption to routinized patterns of thought, and the differences brought to bear in assessing change (for some, developments in the polar regions are simply a challenge and for others, these challenges are disastrous).

Michael Mann — EU Special Envoy for Arctic Matters

The key challenge facing the Arctic region is climate change.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Average temperatures have increased by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius since the preindustrial period, compared to roughly 1 degree for the planet as a whole. The change is accelerating, too: 0.75 degrees Celsius of that warming have happened in the last decade. Ice is melting at sea and on land; permafrost is thawing.

In 2020, temperatures in the Russian Arctic reached as high as 38 degrees Celsius; in Svalbard, 21 degrees. Summer 2020 saw Arctic sea ice reach its second lowest extent since records began. Ice-free summers could be a reality as early as 2035.

This is bad in itself, but also brings with it a series of security and safety concerns, for which the region isn’t ready. Arctic wildfires are becoming commonplace. Thawing permafrost has led to the collapse of Arctic infrastructure, the probable cause of a major diesel spill at a Russian metals plant this summer.

Melting ice further accelerates climate change by releasing trapped methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Black carbon—sooty deposits from transport and industry—sucks in the sun’s heat and speeds the process further. Not only does this destroy key habitats for many Arctic species; it also threatens the traditional livelihoods of Arctic residents who have lived there for thousands of years.

Animal remains emerge from thawing permafrost and threaten to reintroduce viruses and bacteria such as anthrax into the environment.

Reduced sea ice has opened up the prospect of more commercial and tourist shipping, and has led to more naval activity. But search-and-rescue capacity in these vast areas is sorely lacking, and a major maritime incident could have terrible consequences.

The fight against climate change is thus more urgent than ever before, and time is running out. The European Union has made this battle its number one priority, pledging to become the first carbon neutral continent by 2050. But Europe cannot act alone. The rest of the world must follow its lead. The future of the Arctic—and the planet—depends on it.

Elana Wilson Rowe — Norwegian Institute of International Affairs

A key challenge for the Arctic region is how to manage an environment undergoing a “state change” due to climate change that is also transected by the NATO-Russia security rivalry. The Arctic environment is heating more than twice the global average due to global climate change. The prospect of a seasonally ice-free Arctic brings new strategic importance and increasing levels of all kinds of activity to the region. Combined with a broader backdrop of distrust and diminished military contact and communication across the NATO-Russia divide, there exists a risk that smaller miscalculations, accidents, or incorrect interpretations can escalate into broader conflict. However, it is important to remember that the post–Cold War growth of Arctic cooperative governance occurred alongside an enduring NATO-Russia security rivalry. History shows us that Arctic states found ways to have “cooperation in conflict” in pursuit of both national and collective Arctic interests, including a suite of new binding agreements for managing a more open Arctic over the past decade. Perhaps such an approach has been more achievable in the Arctic than elsewhere due to the inherent interconnectedness of the Arctic ecosystem and the circumpolar connections of the region’s indigenous peoples, communities, and policy networks. Continued dialogue is needed about how to best meet emerging governance challenges and how to avoid unfortunate or unintended tipping points in regional dynamics that could push such a “cooperation in conflict” approach out of reach politically.

Katarzyna Zysk — Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies

The combination of the continued climate change and a growing strategic competition between great powers, not least the United States, China, and other key players, such as Russia, is one such challenge.

The impact of climate change, including shifting weather patterns, challenging the operational environment, fish migration and growing prospects for exploitation of natural resources, in addition to opening of new, potentially strategically important sea lines of communication, has been—and is likely to remain—nonlinear, both in scope and pace of the development. Hence, it makes it harder to anticipate and plan for the increased human activity, both commercial and military, and for related illegal activities that will likely follow suit. There is no doubt, however, that the radical changes to the natural environment at the poles will continue, affecting also the patterns of geostrategic competition between great powers and other regional stakeholders.

One question is to what extent the intensifying strategic competition will be mitigated by interdependency and cooperative approaches. Will the existing network of governance regimes in both regions be sufficiently resilient to withstand the complex  and unpredictable rivalries and tensions? Or will additional bilateral, sub-regional, regional, and global-level forms of governance be necessary to compel the stakeholders to pursue security and prosperity through cooperative approaches? In any case, the impact of the strategic competition will hardly remain within the regions’ boundaries. It is yet another reason to follow closely the geopolitical dynamics at the poles. 

Mathieu Boulegue — Russia & Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

Without a doubt—climate change! Its impact, amplified by human activity, is and will be affecting polar regions—and beyond—for decades to come. The environmental impact on polar regions is well known: receding polar ice, permafrost melting, and rising sea levels will accelerate coastal erosion, methane pocket liberation, and the spread of harmful pathogens hitherto trapped in ice. In terms of human development, climate change is already affecting local and indigenous populations in the Arctic circle—inequality of access and human development, fueled by potential population displacements in the Arctic region, will have dire consequences for coastal states. Less polar ice also means increased human activity, and therefore more competition for access, passage (notably through the Central Arctic Ocean), and probably for Antarctic resources. With more human presence will also come normative changes in Arctic governance (China already declaring itself a “near-Arctic” state) and possibly in the Antarctic Treaty. Finally, the impact of climate change is already informing how Arctic coastal states are approaching military-security affairs in the region, with now heightened military tension and ultimately the risk of miscalculation.

Troy Bouffard — Director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Currently, the key challenge of the Arctic region involves the lack of a defense-related circumpolar security dialogue. Almost all other global issues have an effective, high-level forum to discuss critical Arctic-related issues. To be sure, the contemporary Arctic has benefited greatly from significant cooperation—the likes of which are not experienced elsewhere, especially when considering that four of the five Arctic littoral states are founding members of NATO, and the other is Russia. However, the United States suspended mil-to-mil contact with Russia in 2014, and in effect stopped defense-related Arctic discussions involving the West and Moscow. Of note, this does not include the Coast Guard and coast guard-like organizations. They have a very healthy relationship with all eight Arctic nations in the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (AGCF)—hence “defense” and not “military,” since coast guards are often a military service. The advantages of working together in the AGCF, and numerous other organizations, are abundantly clear. Such paths to success must be accessible to defense organizations. Many authorities are ready and willing, including Russian. There is an understanding that discussion helps provide clarity, intent, and opportunity. Expectations can be provided, and rules for contact and interaction can be managed without escalation. Existing tensions can be improved into stable levels of competition. Today’s threats are developing fast, and the Arctic region is an emerging region of changing unknowns. Such circumstances require discussion by all key stakeholders—including defense—in order to achieve nominal conditions for sustained peace and cooperation throughout the region. Climate change alone will demand the best of efforts to confront, especially in the Arctic where effects develop faster and more intensely, potentially amplifying tensions in ways yet to be anticipated. Collaboration is possible; however, meaningful discussion is how it begins.

Oana Lungescu — NATO Spokesperson

The Arctic is a region of great importance. It is a major site of natural resources, a shipping route, a place of scientific research, and a region of security interest. The receding polar ice will also have wide-ranging consequences on shipping routes, access to resources, and economic development, and will have implications for our security.

We are now observing growing geopolitical competition in the area, with Russia and China asserting their interests in the Arctic. Russia has increased its military capabilities in places not seen since the Cold War, including with new weapons systems, radars, and icebreakers. China calls itself a “near-Arctic state” and has plans for a “Polar Silk Road” linking China to Europe via the Arctic, which may have far-reaching consequences.

NATO has increased its presence in the High North, including with regular exercises, and Allies continue to invest in key capabilities like icebreakers, maritime patrol aircraft, and antisubmarine systems. NATO’s new Joint Force Command for the Atlantic also demonstrates the importance we place on the North Atlantic. The sea lanes between Europe and North America must remain free and secure.

At a time of increased instability, NATO Allies need to work even more closely together and with partners to defend the rules-based international order. It is in our common interest to ensure that the High North remains a region of low tensions. This matters to us all, particularly as five NATO Allies are Arctic states, as well as two of our closest partners, Finland and Sweden. We strongly support stability, security, and cooperation in the polar regions.

Dr. Elizabeth Buchanan is a lecturer in strategic studies for the Defence and Strategic Studies Course at the Australian War College in Canberra, a fellow at the Modern War Institute, and co-director of Project 6633.

Dr. Ryan Burke is an associate professor of Military & Strategic Studies at the US Air Force Academy, a fellow at the Modern War Institute, and co-director of Project 6633.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or of any organization the authors are affiliated with, including the Australian Department of Defence and Australian government.

Image credit: Ronald Woan