Risk Insights
April 29, 2024

Examining a Changing Arctic: Opportunities and Issues

Rodger Baker
Executive Director of the Stratfor Center for Applied Geopolitics at RANE

Rodger Baker, Executive Director, Stratfor Center for Applied Geopolitics at RANE

On a fog-shrouded June morning in 1937, a red-winged Soviet ANT-25, piloted by Valery Chkalov, broke through the clouds and landed at Pearson Field in Vancouver, Washington, completing the first non-stop trans-polar flight. The event demonstrated vividly that the Arctic was not an impenetrable space, but a pathway between Eurasia and North America. Just two years earlier, speaking at a U.S. House Committee on Military Affairs hearing, Brig. Gen Billy Mitchell, extolling the value and significance of existing and emerging air power, had made the notable, if slightly exaggerated, observation that “Alaska is the most central place in the world for aircraft, and that is true either of Europe, Asia, or North America. I believe in the future he who holds Alaska will hold the world, and I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.” Chkalov’s feat appeared to reinforce Mitchell’s point, and today, Alaska hosts the largest concentration of fifth generation aircraft anywhere in the world.

The Arctic has been opened to air power for more than 75 years. During the Cold War, U.S. nuclear missile submarines lurked under the ice, periodically breaking through in a demonstration of power, showcasing America’s nuclear capabilities and the Arctic’s strategic importance. But today, it is not merely the air, or the sea beneath the ice, that center the Arctic’s strategic significance. The changing climate is seeing a rapid decline in sea ice extents, and several studies suggest that within 15 years the central Arctic will be ice free at least during the summer. The Arctic sea surface, long an ice-covered barrier, is opening to greater scientific, commercial, and military traffic - and with it a new dimension to Arctic - and national - security.  But the changing Arctic climate is not only a consideration for military planners and strategic thinkers. Each new risk also provides new opportunities and space for adaptation.

Areas with reduced sea ice are already seeing a steady increase in overall Arctic maritime activity, but particularly along the northern Russian coastline. This may provide new access routes for Central Asian goods, which can now travel rivers to an ice-free Arctic, and then on to international markets. A warming climate may provide new agricultural opportunities in the far north, reducing some of the current food vulnerabilities in the Arctic regions. Throughout the Arctic, critical minerals for the new energy transition (and storehouses of more traditional hydrocarbons) present opportunities for economic development and national resource security. Yet a shifting climate also sees thawing permafrost undermining the already stressed regional infrastructure and threatening the reliability of different seasonal modes of transportation.

The very challenges of a rapidly changing Arctic also make the area a valuable testing ground for (and utilizer of) new technologies, from expanded uses of UAVs (and other unmanned vehicles) to new energy technologies (including small modular nuclear reactors), from AI-enhanced automated agriculture to expanded satellite and other telecommunications systems. Coastal erosion and permafrost thaw call for new engineering solutions, expanded maritime activity requires additional domain awareness and expanded search and rescue capabilities, and changing patterns of flora and fauna will call for new management mechanisms to balance subsistence, recreational, and commercial hunting and fishing. All this in a place rarely seen as central to most Arctic nation’s core populations, located far from their Arctic frontiers.

Many of these issues will be explored further as Rodger Baker, Executive Director of the Stratfor Center for Applied Geopolitics at RANE, participates in the upcoming Alaska Day 2024: Building Blocks for a Sustainable Future, hosted by the Alaska Federation of Natives. Learn more here: https://opf.6bf.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/AKDay_Abstract-v6.pdf