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Climate Change in the Arctic

In June 2020, Verhoyansk, a town in Siberia registered a record Arctic temperature of 38C (100F), an extraordinary spike in what had been a prolonged Arctic heatwave that had lasted between January and June. Scientists at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, have estimated that climate change has made this period of prolonged heat 600 times as likely to occur.

Over the past thirty years the Arctic has warmed at around twice the rate of the rest of the world. This accelerated rate of warming is known as Arctic amplification. This phenomenon is, in part, caused by the albedo effect.

Arctic Sea Ice

Arctic sea ice cover has always followed an annual cycle, with the greatest cover achieved towards the end of winter in February and the least cover after the summer months in September.

In recent years, there has been a focus placed on the result of the September ice minimum, which is now declining by 12.85% per decade. In September 2005, the Arctic summer ice sheet became detached from the landmasses of Siberia and Alaska for the first time in recorded history. 

Multi-year ice is also giving way to younger, thinner ice which melts each summer. In 2013, ice that was at least four years old accounted for only 7% of Arctic sea ice compared to 26% in 1988.

Ice Albedo Feedback

As global warming causes a loss of sea ice, it makes way for a darker ocean which absorbs more heat from the sun than surface ice and snow. The additional heat now absorbed from the sun results in further ice loss.

In more technical terms, the greater the albedo, the more reflective the Arctic is, which means less ice melt and cooler temperatures. The albedo is calculated by measuring the fraction of incoming solar radiation that is reflected back into space directly. The greatest albedo (around 0.9) is probably found when there is fresh snow on sea ice. As the snow melts into a slush, it can also collect black carbon (or soot) which dulls the brightness of the ice and snow and reduces the albedo (to around 0.5). Once the ice has melted completely, the albedo will have dropped from around 0.9 to 0.1.

The albedo loss in the Arctic has an enormous impact on the rest of the planet. A study by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography estimated that the loss of summer sea ice between the 1970s and 2012, had caused a decrease in average global albedo equivalent in its warming power to add a further one quarter to the amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by humans during the same period.

Changing Ocean Currents

Ocean current patterns usually transfer colder water from the Arctic into the Atlantic and warm water into the Arctic from the Pacific. The rapid ice melt in the Arctic is releasing freshwater, which has a lower density than seawater, and so floats to the surface.

The surface water is now exposed to more wind, as it is not protected by ice, speeding up the Beaufort Gyre, a wind-driven ocean current in the Arctic Ocean polar region reducing the transfer of cold water into the Atlantic. Cold freshwater then mixes with the warm seawater below, causing temperatures to rise and more ice to melt.

Offshore Permafrost Thaw

The Arctic Ocean in its deeper parts contains three layers. The polar surface water that is about 150 meters deep, the Atlantic water that is between around 150 and 900 meters and below that is a cold layer extending to the ocean bed. The polar surface water is, or close to, freezing.

This surface layer used to always be protected by an ice sheet, which would protect it from summer solar radiation. However, this sea ice is now in retreat, leaving swathes of the polar surface water exposed to the summer sun. These ice-free areas are also exposed to winds which mix the warmer surface water with the layers below.

In parts of the Arctic where the continental shelf is only 50-100 meters deep, there is water that is warmer than freezing point reaching the seabed for the first time in thousands of years. This water is now interacting with frozen sediments embedded with methane. The amount of methane stored in ocean deposits is estimated to be more than thirteen times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Methane, per molecule, is twenty-three times as powerful as CO2 when measured over a 100-year period.

When these sediments that have been left undisturbed for thousands of years thaw they release a pure methane gas that rises to the surface. In deeper water, these plumes are oxidised, and they disappear before they reach the surface. However, if they occur in ice-free shallow water, they will enter the atmosphere. There are large swathes of the Arctic shelves that are shallow enough to release methane, including the East Siberian Shelf which for 75% of its entire area is shallower than 40 meters.

Permafrost Decay on Land

Areas of the Arctic which contain permafrost have warmed by 2-3 degrees over the past decades. This has thawed a significant amount of the permafrost, exposing rotten vegetation which emits a mixture of methane, carbon dioxide and smaller amounts of nitrous oxide – all greenhouse gases.

On the 29th of May 2020, the issue of permafrost made global headlines when a Nornickel fuel storage tank collapsed after the permafrost it was built on began to thaw. The 17,500 tonnes of diesel oil flooded the local Daldykan River. Globally it is estimated that permafrost holds up to 1,600 gigatons of carbon, twice what is in the atmosphere.

Arctic Fires

There is another phenomenon emerging as a consequence of a warming Arctic, and that is peat wildfires. Peat is a brown deposit, formed by decomposing vegetable matter in wet, acidic conditions. When peat dries, it becomes a carbon-rich fuel, which can be easily ignited by a single lightning strike. A spark can spread quickly through the layers of peat, spewing out tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. As the region warms, lightning strikes are becoming more frequent as well as moving further north. These peat fires can remain smouldering beneath the surface layer of peat throughout the winter. These fires, often referred to as zombie fires, can simply reignite the next year when the surface layers dry out again.

Impact of Climate Change on Local Communities

The impacts of accelerated climate change in the Arctic are impacting local indigenous populations that rely on hunting as a way of survival and as part of their cultural and social identity.

The loss of sea ice in the Arctic has caused the decline of certain species such as polar bears, walrus, seals and various species of fish making a reliable harvest of certain animals difficult. 

Melting permafrost has also made it difficult for reindeer and caribou herders to move on wet soggy land. It has also caused ice cellars, where Arctic hunters store walrus meat and bowhead whale blubber to collapse. Infrastructure built into permafrost, such as water lines, telephone poles and house pilings, have been pushed out of the ground in recent years as usually immobile permafrost melts and shifts. Permafrost thaw and coastal erosion have also threatened homes, especially along the Alaskan coast, forcing local housing authorities to build adjustable homes on sleds.

In Northern Canada and Alaska, warming temperatures have caused the disappearance of ice roads disrupting transport systems and further isolating communities from the local economy.

Indigenous culture and knowledge are inextricably linked with their ecosystems. Rapid Climate change directly threatens the identity and diet of many of the indigenous communities in the Arctic.

Indigenous knowledge and understanding of the Arctic land and environment are essential to helping fight climate change and its effects on the Arctic region. In recent years there has been an increase in government-run institutions and environmental groups partnering with indigenous groups to conduct research into the impacts of climate change on the region.

Impact of Climate Change on Arctic Animal Species

The effects of climate change in the Arctic have affected a number of species. The loss of sea ice, in particular, has jeopardised the existence of polar bears, walruses, narwhals and Beluga whales.

Polar bears depend on sea ice to travel, hunt and mate. The loss of this sea ice, coupled with an increase of commercial shipping in the Arctic which breaks up the ice, has forced the bears to travel further inland to find food. There have been reports of polar bears approaching human settlements for food. In 2019, The Guardian reported that an emaciated, and an exhausted polar bear was found around the village of Tilichiki on Kamchatka in Eastern Russia 700km away from its normal habitat in Chukotka. A 2020 study found that at the current rate of warming in the Arctic there will only be a few polar bear populations left in 2100. The study also found that long periods of forced fasting will affect their bodily functions. Scientists estimate that by as early as 2040, Arctic polar bears will experience reproductive failure leading to local extinctions.

Walruses use sea ice as a secure surface to leave their young as they hunt for food, and as a resting place where they can recuperate. The sea ice offers a safe location from predators and humans. The loss of sea ice is forcing many walruses onto land.

Reindeer numbers have plummeted in recent years as climate change has wreaked havoc with their migration patterns. Areas such as northern Siberia and Scandinavia are experiencing less snow and more rain during the winter, which means ice is covering plants, making grazing more difficult for reindeer.

The Arctic Fox, with its all-white coat for camouflage in the snow, inhabits the Arctic tundra biome. As the region warms, the tundra is retreating, making way for trees and plants that can grow in warmer climates. This leaves them vulnerable to red foxes, their much larger relatives who compete with them for food and drive them out of their dens. 

In parts of the Arctic, permafrost is thawing so quickly that it’s collapsing and carving thermokarst, huge holes in the landscape. This ground is wet and slushy, making it difficult to herd caribou or reindeer and can affect migration routes.


Life in the Arctic

The Arctic region is home to approximately four million people, spread across eight countries; Russia, the United States, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Greenland (an autonomous region of Denmark).

Around two-thirds of the Arctic, population live in urban areas. The largest cities and towns above the Arctic Circle are:

  • Murmansk, Russia – 295,375
  • Norilsk, Russia – 178,018
  • Tromsø, Norway – 75,638
  • Apatity, Russia 59,672
  • Vorkuta, Russia – 58,133
  • Severomorsk, Russia – 53,298
  • Bodø, Norway – 51,558

Russia is home to the largest Arctic population with 2.5 million living above the Arctic Circle. Almost 800,000 of Russia’s Arctic population reside in the Murmansk Oblast which is located on the Kola peninsula in the northwest of the country, bordering both Finland and Norway. Russia is home to eleven indigenous groups who live in, or around, the Arctic Circle.

Murmansk is the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. The North Atlantic Current keeps the surrounding Barents Sea ice-free all year round which makes it an important port for shipping and fishing. The city was founded during World War I and went on to play an essential role in World War II as the main port for carrying war supplies to the U.S.S.R. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the city suffered a significant population decline as the industries struggled to adapt to the market economy. However, in recent years the pace of decline has slowed as transport links with the rest of the country have improved, and industry has transitioned to the market economy. Tourism to the city has also increased, as visitors look to visit landmarks such as the Alyosha Monument, a 116 foot tall (35.5 meters) statue to the Soviet soldiers, sailors and airmen of World War II. Murmansk is also a popular destination for tourists looking to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

The nearby port town of Severomorsk is home to the administrative base of the Northern Fleet who are responsible for all naval operations in the European Arctic. Severomorsk is a closed military town.

The city of Apatity is also located in the Murmansk Oblast, and is named after the raw mineral Apatite, a source of phosphorous that is used in the manufacture of fertiliser. Mining is the primary form of employment in the region. Apitity is also home to the Kola Science Center.

The industrial city of Norilsk is located in Krasnoyarsk Krai in northern Russia. Just 25 kilometres north of the Norilsk lies the nickel deposits of Norilsk-Talnakh, the largest known nickel deposits in the world. The mining company Norilsk Nickel is the primary employer in the region. This mining has caused acid rain and smog to regularly reach the city, making it the most polluted in Russia. In 2020 a fuel tank collapsed near the city and flooded the local river system with 20,000 tonnes of diesel fuel.

Canada’s Arctic region is home to approximately 150,000 inhabitants – less than 1% of the country’s total – but around 39% of Canada’s total land area. The largest town in the Canadian Arctic is Inuvik with a population of 3,243. Despite its small population, the town enjoys its reputation as a cultural hub. The town is home to the Great Northern Arts Festival, which lasts ten days and hosts over 3,000 artists from Canada’s north. The festival attracts visitors from all over the world. The Sunrise Festival, which includes dog-sled races, fireworks and bonfires is held annually.

Norway’s Arctic region covers half of the country’s land area and is home to around a tenth of the country’s population. The largest city is Tromsø, where you can find the Arctic’s largest university. The Norwegian Polar Institute is also located in Tromsø. The city experiences a milder winter compared to other towns and cities on the same latitude due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream.

Bodø is the second-largest city in Norway’s Arctic region and is one of the country’s fastest-growing in the country with a lively cultural scene. Many local artists and musicians are based in Bodø and the city will be a European Capital of Culture in 2024.

The traditional lands of the Sámi people are called Sápmi and stretch across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola peninsula in Russia. The largest number of Sámi live in northern Norway (50,000-60,000).

Sweden’s Arctic region is around a third of the country’s total land area and is home to around half a million people, representing about 5% of the total population. The largest city in the Swedish Arctic region is Kiruna with approximately 23,000 inhabitants.

One-third of Finland’s landmass lies above the Arctic circle in Finnish Lapland. The area is sparsely populated compared with the rest of the country with only 180,000 inhabitants compared with 5.5 million people in the country as a whole.

Greenland is home to 58,081 people, with almost 90% of the population being of Inuit descent. The capital Nuuk is the world’s northernmost capital and is home to around 20,000 people, however, the city is actually located below the Arctic Circle. Sisimiut, Greenland’s second-largest city is the largest Arctic city in North America.

The United States’ Arctic region is located in the northern part of Alaska. Only 50,000 of Alaskans live above the Arctic Circle out of the 737,400 inhabitants of the state as a whole. The largest Arctic city north of the Arctic Circle is Utqiaġvik, with a population of around 4,000. The Alaskan Arctic is home to several indigenous peoples including the Aleut, Yup’ik, Iñupiaq, Alutiiq, Athabaskan Tlingit and Haida.

Indigenous population in the Arctic

Around 10% of the total population living in the Arctic are indigenous people, with over forty different ethnic groups. All of the Arctic States, apart from Iceland, have indigenous people living within their territory. There is a wide range of cultural, historical and economic differences as well as similarities between these groups.

Indigenous peoples in the Arctic region have been forced to endure significant changes over the past centuries in the form of colonisation and forced social change that has threatened aspects of their culture and livelihoods.

Native Arctic perspectives have long been excluded by the mainstream media which often ignore, distort or over-simplify their cultural, historical, political and regional contexts. When it comes to the issue of climate change, for example, it is important to recognise that indigenous groups and individuals act and think differently on the subject. The warming Arctic undoubtedly causes significant threats to indigenous life but it can also offer opportunities for business, trade and resource extraction. Native Arctic groups have been continuously adapting to their rapidly changing environment yet they are often presented as helpless victims in the face of climate change. If you want to read an example of reporting which challenges this narrative, then we can recommend this project from the Pulitzer Center that looks at how Alaska Native Inupiat adapt to changing conditions: https://pulitzercenter.org/projects/alaska-natives-front-line#quicktabs-project_content.

Indigenous groups across the Arctic region have formed a number of political organisations over the years such as the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Saami Council. These organisations have led to a better understanding and recognition of indigenous issues as well as promoting the development of indigenous rights.

There are Sami Parliaments in Norway, Sweden and Finland which safeguard, develop and coordinate matters concerning Sami areas of interest including the Sami languages, Sami Culture, reindeer herding and hunting and fishing. The rules regarding eligibility for the electoral roll requires that the person considers themselves Sami and who either has Sami as their home language or has a parent, grandparent or great-grandparent who had Sami as a home language.


Arctic Shipping Routes

Over the past few decades, the Arctic has warmed at twice the rate of the rest of the world. This has caused summer ice cover to decline by 12.8% per decade allowing more vessels to traverse the Arctic shipping routes. Between 2013 and 2019, the number of ships entering the Arctic Polar Code area grew by 25% with the total distance sailed up by 75%. 

There are currently two shipping routes through the Arctic waters; the Northeast Passage which includes the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage.

The Northeast Passage is a shipping route that crosses the Arctic along the northern coast of the Eurasian landmass. The route traverses the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, East Siberian Sea and the Chukchi Sea. The North Sea Route is a shipping route defined by the Russian legislation and is the same as the NEP only it excludes the Bering Sea, and therefore does not reach the Atlantic.

A traversable NEP offers a much shorter journey for ships travelling between the North Pacific and Europe compared to the usual routes via the Suez canal. There is still too much winter sea ice to make this passage commercially viable all year round. The majority of vessels transiting the Northern Sea Route are oil & gas tankers that can handle the significant levels of the ice pack. Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, with some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, is a focal point for shipping with ten ice-breaking tankers transporting gas to Europe and Asia.

However, things are changing; in 2009, two German vessels became the first commercial ships to transit the NEP. In 2018, the Danish company Maersk sent the first-ever container ship along the Northern Sea Route, shaving ten days off their usual journey. In 2018 the Norwegian ship, Eduard Toll, transporting oil and gas travelled from Korea via the Yamal Peninsula to France became the first ship to cross the Northeast Passage during winter without the use of an icebreaker.

In 2020, an Arctic heatwave caused unprecedented temperatures along the Siberian coast. The NEP was ice-free by mid-July for the first time in recorded history.

Russia, with thousands of miles of coastline along the North Sea Route, has invested heavily in the region in recent years. With the diminishing ice in the Arctic, Russia not only stands to gain from controlling the shipping routes along its coast but also through the vast quantities of undiscovered oil and gas reserves along the continental shelf.

Melting ice and the development of modern ports along the Russian coastline have spurred an increase in Sino-Russian cooperation as China looks to develop a new ‘polar’ trade route as part of their Belt and Road Initiative. In 2012, the state-controlled China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) sailed the first-ever Chinese vessel, the icebreaker ‘Xue Long’ (Snow Dragon) along the Northern Sea Route. In recent years, COSCO has dramatically increased their activities in the region.

The Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage is the sea route between the Atlantic and the Pacific that runs through the Arctic Ocean along the northern coast of North America via the Canadian Archipelago.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the route became a favourite amongst explorers looking to prove themselves in the harsh and unforgiving climates of the Canadian Arctic. The archipelago and persistent summer ice made it largely impenetrable and many early sailors lost their lives trying to traverse the route.

Over the past decade, global warming has caused the ice to retreat and shipping firms are beginning to discuss whether the Northwest Passage can become a viable shipping route. In 2014, the MV Nunavik, became the first cargo ship to cross the Northwest Passage unassisted, cutting its usual journey via the Panama canal by 40% and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 1,300 metric tonnes. The ship was transporting nickel from Quebec in Canada to China.

The Northwest Passage remains significantly more difficult to transverse than the Northeast Passage, due to the islands along the Canadian coast which retain more ice than the Russian route, as well as a lack of deepwater ports.

The Northwest Passage is also the subject of a sovereignty dispute between Canada and the US as well as other maritime nations. Canada classifies parts of the Northwest Passage that lie in the Canadian archipelago as internal waters while others contest that the Passage is part of an international strait, where foreign vessels have the right of ‘transit passage’.

The Transpolar Sea Route

The Transpolar Sea Route is a future shipping route that would if current climate change projections are correct, open up around the mid-century. The Route would cut across the centre of the Arctic Ocean, straight across the North Pole.

The TSR  would be the shortest of all the Arctic shipping routes and would largely avoid territorial waters. Today, the route can only be traversed by heavy icebreakers.

In China’s Arctic policy released in January 2018, the TSR is referred to as the ‘Central Passage’ and is included in the nation’s plan to develop a Polar Silk Road.

Heavy Oil

Heavy oil used by many ships in the Arctic is considered incredibly environmentally hazardous as it emits black carbon that collects on snow and ice – which reduces their reflective properties and melts the ice faster. 

Heavy oil also poses a spill risk, as the consistency of the fuel makes it very hard to clear up. The clean transportation council has attributed around two-thirds of black carbon found in the Arctic to the use of heavy oil.

The clean transportation council has attributed around two-thirds of black carbon found in the Arctic to the use of highly polluting fuel.


Arctic Security

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world which, among other things, is melting sea ice at a rapid rate. This has resulted in fresh expanses of open waters and shipping routes that can slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the west by twenty days.

This has resulted in an increased militarization of the region as Arctic nations rush to secure their shifting maritime borders and protect their commercial interests. Tensions have been further amplified by the prospect of vast untapped oil and natural gas reserves made accessible by the melting ice.

Russia

It is clear that Russia sees its Arctic region as essential to the country’s economic and military security. The Center for Strategic International Studies breaks down Russia’s military presence in the Arctic into three main objectives:

1) Enhance homeland defence, specifically, a forward line of defence against foreign incursion as the Arctic attracts increased international investment;

2) Secure Russia’s economic future; and

3) Create a staging ground to project power, primarily in the North Atlantic.

Russia has 24,140 km of coastline along the Arctic Ocean, 53% of the ocean’s total. The majority of its defensive and offensive capabilities are focused along its western Arctic regions. In the past decade, Russia has invested heavily in revamping and growing its military capabilities in the Arctic.

On the 1st of December 2014, the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command was established to give greater autonomy to the Northern Fleet. The Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command includes all Russian armed forces located in the Murmansk and Arkhangelsk Oblasts. The Northern Fleet is responsible for naval operations in the European Arctic. 

The Northern Fleet is tasked with protecting the coastline up to the Bering Sea as well Russia’s Arctic economic ventures. It is also responsible for protecting the country’s military assets on the Kola Peninsula for the survivability of second-strike nuclear assets. The Kola Peninsula is located in the Northwest of Russia, bordered by the Barents Sea in the north and the White Sea in the east and southeast. Murmansk is located in the peninsula; with a population of around 300,000, it is the largest city above the Arctic Circle. The Northern Fleet contains about two-thirds of the Russian Navy’s nuclear-powered ships. In 2018, the fleet welcomed its first icebreaker, Ilya Muromets.

Russia has also invested heavily in protecting its western Arctic territories, deploying a number of radar and air defence systems as well as refurbishing cold-war era airfields.

The majority of Russia’s Arctic military activities are Naval and Aerial, however, there has also been a build-up of ground troops, in particular the Arctic Brigade stationed close to the Norwegian border.

Temperatures across Russia’s Arctic and Subarctic territory can drop below -50 degrees in some areas. These vast distances and extreme conditions that the Russian military face in the Arctic has led to significant investment in Arctic specific technology, including Arctic-specific land platforms, adapted armoured personnel carriers and a trans-Arctic fibre-optic cable linking military facilities on the Arctic Seabed from the Kola Peninsula in the country’s northwest and Vladivostok in the east. Russia has also deployed specialized UAV units, specifically designed to weather Arctic conditions.

Russia has carried out a number of Arctic military exercises over the past few years designed to project its military strength and maritime control over its Arctic waters. These have included the Vostok-2018 where the Northern Fleet conducted operations off the Pacific coast before twice passing through the Northern Sea Route as well as a 2020 paratrooper military drill involving a 30,000 jump onto Franz Josef Land.

United States

The US military involvement in the Arctic began during the Cold War when the region proved useful for advance warning radar systems and the placement of ICBMs. The Arctic also played a crucial role for both the Soviets and the US, who could operate submarines beneath the Arctic ice sheet providing a nuclear second-strike capability.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States’ military interest in the region came to end, and until recently, there was no clear or consistent Arctic strategy. However, in response to Russia’s increased activity in the region, the US has begun to adopt a more prominent position in the region. 

The country is still lagging behind many of the other Arctic states when it comes to Arctic military capabilities and preparedness. Whilst Russia has more than 40 icebreakers, the US military has only two operational ones. In October 2018, the USS Harry S.Truman carrier and its fleet sailed above the Arctic Circle, the first time a naval unit had since the end of the Cold War.

In 2019, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, spoke of the need for the US to reverse the decades of neglect in the Arctic. 

“We are fortifying America’s security and diplomatic presence in the area… hosting military exercises, strengthening our force presence, rebuilding our icebreaker fleet, expanding Coast Guard funding, and creating a new senior military post for Arctic Affairs inside of our own military.”

Mike Pompeo at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Rovaniemi, Finland. 2019

The US military has now reactivated the decommissioned Second Fleet in the North Atlantic. The Barents Sea patrol now makes regular trips above the Arctic circle. Large parts of the Barents Sea lie in Russia’s exclusive economic zone and contain waters that Russian submarines regularly operate in. 

The Alaskan Command is responsible for operations in and around Alaska. The Command includes the Eleventh Air Force, the United States Army Alaska and the United States Naval Force Alaska.

The US’ northernmost military base is actually situated on Greenland. Thule Air Base was initially established to protect the Danish colonies from Germany in the Second World War. Today, it is operated by the US Air Force Space Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command who use it to monitor space for defence purposes.

The US has also participated in a number of Arctic military exercises and war games over recent years. In March 2020, the US had planned to send 7,500 combat to team up with NATO forces in Norway for a mock battle near the border with Russia. The exercise was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Although the US has made significant commitments to beefing up its Arctic military presence, the region still remains a significant weak spot. It will be a while before the US can expect to rival its Arctic neighbours when it comes to military might.

Canada

Canada, like the US, had allowed its Arctic military capabilities to fall into decline after the Cold War. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the Canadian Army began to train again in Arctic conditions. The initial training exercises, including Northern Bison, which included sending a small force to Churchill, exposed a significant lack of effectiveness and winter warfare skills. Operation Arctic Ram in 2012 highlighted a critical shortage of over-snow vehicles rendering many of the troops immobile in Arctic winter conditions.

In response to these issues, the Canadian Army invested in a series of Northern Operational Hubs along with self-contained mobile units including the Arctic Response Company Groups (ARCGs). These groups are made of reservists still based in the south of the country, which means that it can still take weeks for them to deploy.

The Canadian Military’s permanent presence in its Arctic and Subarctic regions are The Canadian Rangers, a part-time military force of roughly 5,000 personnel, many of who are indigenous. With the country’s Far North making up more than 40% of the landmass but containing less than 1% of the population, the Ranger’s local knowledge of their land is a highly valued asset. The Rangers also train the southern units in essential skills for surviving the northern conditions.

The Navy (RCN) has also invested in infrastructure, technology and vessels which will allow them to operate in the Northwest passage due to their ice-breaking capability. The RCN have ordered six Arctic offshore patrol ships to conduct armed sea-borne surveillance in Canada’s waters. The RCN has also built the Nanisivik Naval Facility on Baffin Island in Nunavut. The base, which should be operational towards the end of 2020, will be used for refuelling the Arctic patrol ships as well as Victoria-class submarines.

Canada has also invested in improved surveillance programs including the Northern Watch project which provides underwater surveillance from its base on Devon Island. The RADARSAT II satellite can effectively track ships as they move through Canadian waters. The Royal Canadian Airforce (RCAF) also provides additional surveillance with its Aurora aircraft.

Canada’s ability to operate in the Arctic has improved significantly over the past decade. Ground forces are now better trained and more mobile in Arctic conditions; an arctic naval base and arctic vessels are under construction and surveillance has become more sophisticated.

Norway

Despite a population of only 5 million, the Norwegian military plays a vital role in the Arctic. This is largely due to its geographical position. The country borders Russia along the Kola peninsula, where Russia has based a large portion of its Arctic military force. 

One-third of Norway lies above the Arctic Circle and it is home to around 10% of the population which made it the perfect location for NATO’s Centre of Excellence for Cold Weather Operations. Norway is also home to a purpose-built cave system outside Trondheim used for storing US military equipment.

Due to its strategic location, Norway often hosts NATO-led military exercises, including the Trident Juncture in 2018, which involved 50,000 participants from 31 nations. These exercises are designed to secure Norway’s and its allies ability to conduct multinational joint exercises in high-intensity combat scenarios and in demanding winter conditions.

Norway is the only country in the world to have its military headquarters based above the Arctic Circle on the city of Bodø. The Norwegian Army is one of the most experienced in cold weather conditions. The Norwegian Navy operates anti-submarine frigates and corvettes (small warships) which are able to function in Arctic waters. They are also revamping an airbase in Evenes, in Northern Norway that will host new F-35 fighter jets as well as new P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft. The Norwegian military has also developed a unique Advanced Surface to Air Missile System which also includes land-based Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile capabilities. 

In 2020, Norway announced a new defence plan in response to escalating tensions with Russia and China in the Arctic. The new plan would focus on strengthening the Brigade Nord, a combat formation based in Northern Norway and Finnmark Land Defence, a unit based in Porsanger, near the Russian border.  The Army will also receive new armoured combat vehicles and long-range precision weapons as well as a new mobile unit for Chemical, Biological, Radioactive and Nuclear defence. Four more submarines will also be added to their existing fleet of six Ula class submarines.

Despite Norway’s pivotal role in NATO’s defence against Russian influence in the Arctic, Norway promotes a policy of deterrence and rapprochement with its eastern Neighbour. In 2019 a bilateral communication channel was established between Oslo and Russia.

Sweden

After Norway, Sweden has the second-highest military budget out of its Scandinavian neighbours. The size of the military was drastically reduced after the country deactivated mandatory military service in 2010. However, in 2017, Sweden announced it would reactivate conscription citing the decision as a response to increasing concern over Russia’s military ambitions.

Shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, a Russian submarine was allegedly spotted in the country’s capital, Stockholm. Despite an extensive hunt for the submarine in the capital’s archipelago, the incident remains unresolved. This case revived memories of the Soviet nuclear submarine that ran aground in Karlskrona, southern Sweden in 1981.

The submarine incident along with Russia’s occupation in Crimea and eastern Ukraine saw a swell in support for the country to join NATO and an expansion of the defence budget. In 2019, Sweden’s Navy moved its headquarters to a cold war fortress on the island of Muskö that had been built to withstand a nuclear attack during the Cold War era.

Approximately 30% of Sweden lies above the Arctic Circle but it is not a littoral Arctic state which means that its navy is focused on threats in the Baltic Sea. Sweden’s Arctic military presence consists of the Norrbotten regiment in Boden near the Arctic border which boasts 500 officers and 900 other personnel. The regiment is supported by the Norrbotten Air Force wing located in Luleå. The Swedish military also has three light infantry battalions based north of the Arctic Circle for patrolling its Northern regions.

Finland

Finland is the only non-NATO European Union state bordering Russia. The country has universal military service conscription in place in which all men above 18 years of age serve for 165,255 or 347 days.

Around one-third of Finland lies above the Arctic Circle which means that a significant portion of its military forces is located in the Arctic. There are military installations in Kajaani, Sodankylä, Rovaniemi and Huovinrinne.

One of the country’s four airbases is based in Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland. It is home to a number of Finland’s fleet of Hornet fighter planes. The Finnish government is currently discussing a plan to renew the entire Finnish fleet of fighter planes.

Finland’s military has participated in, and hosted, a number of military exercises that have included international participation. These include the Arctic Challenge, an air combat exercise involving Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden with support from the US Air Force. In May 2021, Finland will hold the Arctic Lock joint exercise.

Denmark, Greenland & Faroe Islands

Although the country of Denmark lies far below the Arctic Circle its military still plays an important role in the region due to Greenland. The world’s largest island is an autonomous Danish dependent territory with limited self-government and its own parliament. However, Denmark maintains control over foreign affairs and defence matters.

The Danish military has a dedicated unit for the Arctic region called the Joint Arctic Command. The command is headquartered in Nuuk, Greenland, with a liaison Unit in the Subarctic Tórshavn on the Faroe Islands. The Faroe Islands have been a self-governing part of the Danish Kingdom since 1948 but Denmark retains control over the defence and security policy, the Supreme Court and monetary policy.

The Command’s main tasks are surveillance and enforcement of sovereignty and the military defence of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. The Joint Arctic Command is also responsible for fishing inspection, search & rescue, maritime pollution protection and hydrographic surveys.

The Arctic Joint Command contains four ocean patrol frigates and two offshore patrol vessels. It also contains an elite Danish naval unit called the Sirius Dog Sled Patrol which conducts long-range reconnaissance patrol missions across northern and eastern Greenland, including the Northeast Greenland National Park. The patrols are usually done in pairs and using dog sledges, with patrols sometimes taking four months.

The Joint Arctic Command also hosts a liaison team at the Thule Air Base in Northwest Greenland, The Air Base is operated by the US Air Force and is home to the 21st Space Wing’s global network of missile warning sensors, space surveillance and space control for the North American Defense Command and the Air Force Space Command. The Airbase handles more than 3,000 flights a year. It is also home to the world’s northernmost deepwater port.

Iceland

Iceland is the only NATO member to have no standing army. Iceland does have a Coast Guard that patrols the Icelandic waters and airspace. The Icelandic Coast Guard consists of three ships and four aircraft which are equipped with small arms and artillery.