Warming Arctic Opens Up A “New Cold War” Frontier in the Previously Inhospitable North

The Arctic is warming up at near-record speed, twice as fast as the rest of the planet due to climate change, according to the recently-released Arctic Report Card 2020. Shrinking sea ice opens up the inhospitable far North to more human activity and old Cold War rivalry. PBS Newshour Weekend Special Correspondent Benedict Moran and video journalist Jorgen Samso report on the ‘new cold war’ from Nunavut, Canada.


TRANSCRIPT

Hari Sreenivasan:

This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual Arctic Report Card showing that the Arctic is warming at an unprecedented rate. Scientists measured temperatures last year that was the second-highest in more than 100 years.

The warmer climate is thawing permafrost and causing sea ice and land-based glaciers to melt more rapidly. It’s also creating more open water and human activity, like commercial shipping, oil exploration, and even tourism. The new frontier is also behind a resurgence of Arctic geopolitical rivalry. Special correspondent Benedict Moran and video journalist Jorgen Samso report on the “new cold war” from Nunavut, Canada.

Benedict Moran:

This is Rankin Inlet, in the northwest of Hudson Bay, high up in the Canadian Arctic. Temperatures are frigid, well below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

But, inside this tent, Canadian military diver Anmolpreet Grewal is getting ready to go swimming.

Upsot:

When he goes in, hold back for the whole dive.

Benedict Moran:

There are dive teams from all over. France, Canada, Belgium, Finland, and the United States.

Upsot:

Diving!

Benedict Moran:

Above the ice, the crew watches a remote feed of divers swimming down to the bottom. Above them is four and a half feet of ice. Prior to the dive, Seaman Anmolpreet Grewal explained the mission.

Anmolpreet Grewal:

It’s getting used to the temperature, getting used to a different environment, being in an environment where I’m not able to come to the surface at free will, where there’s only one entry and exit point, and just working on overall proficiency.

Benedict Moran:

For many soldiers here, this is their first time in the Arctic. But this is a rehearsal for more frequent and longer deployments. It’s a training for a future Arctic. One with more people, and possibly, more accidents.

Benedict Moran:

The Arctic is one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. Temperatures here can get down to negative 60 or lower with windchill. Yet, governments are preparing for the influx of more military and commercial vessels, as well as people, by training for search and rescue operations.

Benedict Moran:

Though it’s cold, temperatures here are getting warmer. Planet Earth has warmed 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. Arctic temperatures, though, have risen twice that amount. That translates to less sea ice. Twenty to 30 years ago, old ice — seen here in white — existed all year round. This old ice had a fringe of seasonal ice — seen here in grey — which froze and thawed every year. The old ice is now melting, leaving only the thinner, seasonal ice that can fully melt in the summer. As the sea ice melts, a new Cold War is heating up. Brigadier-General Patrick Carpentier is the commander of Canada’s Joint Task Force North.

Patrick Carpentier:

We often try to isolate the North from the rest of the globe. And the reality of what’s going on in the Arctic right now is that we see that the Arctic is not separate. It’s part of the world. And geopolitics impacts the north the same way as any other place.

Benedict Moran:

Russia, China, Canada, Nordic countries, and the U.S. are scrambling to plant their flags on this new frontier. Mike Sfraga is the director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center.

Mike Sfraga:

We are literally watching a new ocean open before our eyes, as unfortunate as that is, as a result of climate. And so all sorts of incredible opportunities open, but whenever there’s open space on the planet, politics play a role.

Benedict Moran:

With new open space, old Cold War rivalry between Russia and the U.S. is returning.

Mike Sfraga:

Are we going to go to war in the Arctic? My answer is no. But we should be very mindful of the activity.

Benedict Moran:

Russia is more active than ever. The country has a significant population in the far North. Thirty percent of its GDP depends on the region. And as the sea ice melts, a new shipping route is opening up above Russia. They’re calling it the Northern Sea Route, and once it becomes navigable, it will shorten the amount of time it takes for a cargo ship to travel between Western Europe and Asia by two weeks, compared to using the Suez Canal.

Mike Sfraga:

As the Northern Sea Route becomes more accessible, you’ll see more activity there. There will be money to be made.

Benedict Moran:

The Russian military is also scaling up its presence here. It launched a new Arctic command, and is opening all-weather army bases, like this one, in Kotelny Island in northern Siberia. It can house 250 soldiers, for long periods of time.

Vladimir Pasechnik:

There’s a system of closed communication tunnels between facilities that save soldiers from unfavourable weather conditions. Our water and food reserves can last a year.

Benedict Moran:

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the Russian buildup in the Arctic is, quote, “significant.”

Jens Stoltenberg:

Of course, this matters for NATO. From the Arctic, you can control much of the North Atlantic, and the vital sea line between North America and Europe. So increased Russian military presence in the air, at sea, on land but also undersea with submarines is a challenge for NATO.

Benedict Moran:

Norway is Russia’s neighbor — and they are worried about the Russian buildup. In March of this year, it hosted what was supposed to be the largest-ever Arctic military drill in NATO’s history. It was cut short because of the COVID-19 pandemic. NATO hopes these drills will keep Russia’s expansion in check.

Jens Stoltenberg:

Tensions have risen but at the same time we still strive to try and keep them down and to avoid escalation because we also have a history in the Arctic where even during the coldest period of the Cold War, NATO allies were able to work with the Soviet Union.

Benedict Moran:

Then, there’s China. Not an Arctic country, but one that wants to be. In 2018, it released an official policy paper that laid out plans for large-scale investment and infrastructure in the north. Like this gas plant, in Russia’s Siberia. It’s part of what they call a new Polar Silk Road. Gao Feng is China’s special representative for Arctic affairs. He defended China’s Arctic ambitions at a 2018 Arctic conference.

Gao Feng:

In recent years China and relevant countries have already made some positive progress in promoting the commercial use of the Arctic shipping routes, infrastructure building in the Arctic region, exploration of resources and laying of submarine cables.

Benedict Moran:

China now calls itself a ‘near-Arctic’ country, to ensure it has a stake in any negotiations over opening territory. At a meeting of Arctic foreign ministers in 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected this.

Mike Pompeo:

The shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles. There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states. No third category exists. And claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.

Benedict Moran:

But to some, these strong words mask how the U.S. is falling behind in the Arctic race. The U.S. only has two working ice breakers, and one of them has been in operation since the 1970s. That compares to 40 icebreakers for Russia, many of which are nuclear-powered. China has two, and they are building a third. In 2019, Congress approved funding for three new icebreakers. At a hearing on Capitol Hill in February, the head of the U.S. Coast Guard said more are necessary.

Charles Ray:

If left unchecked, Russia’s and China’s behavior is fracturing the tenuous stability and rules by its governance in the Arctic. Leadership begins with presence and that’s a challenge. Our nation’s icebreaking fleet is aging and we do not have the capacity to cover where we think we should be at the present time.

Benedict Moran:

President-elect Biden has not yet announced an Arctic policy.