Why The Arctic Matters

Jan 4, 2021

In the Winter 2020 issue of the NWCF member magazine, The Bridge, Naval War College professors RADM Lars Saunes and Dr. Walter Berbrick were featured contributors on the issue’s central topic, the Arctic. In this article, they explain why the Arctic matters to U.S. national security policy. To receive your copy of the issue, become a NWCF member today.

The Arctic is undergoing profound and historic physical and geopolitical changes—changes that will impact every nation and generation moving forward. 

The United States, and most other nations, view the world through the Mercator projection—which has become the standard map for navigation. Today, these artificial lines on a map are collapsing and converging, especially in the northern navigable rim—land of Europe, Asia, and North America—stretching from the North Atlantic through the vast Arctic Ocean to the Bering Strait and North Pacific down to the southern tip of the Aleutian Island chain. 

Temperatures across the Arctic region are increasing two to four times faster than the global average. Over the 42-year satellite record, the Arctic has lost over 640,000 square miles of sea ice in March—an area the size of Alaska. If this trend persists, the Arctic may have little or no ice in the summertime by the end of this decade, and mostly thin, young, and very unstable ice during its much warmer winters.

A Blue Arctic Ocean is emerging—offering new opportunities to transit, trade, and fish over historically frozen waters. The Northern Sea Route along Russia’s coastline is the most navigable sea route, cutting as much as 40 percent off of distance traveled compared to the sea routes used today. The Northwest Passage, which weaves from the Davis Strait between Canada and Greenland to the Bering Strait, will likely remain a less viable option for regular commercial shipping because of its shallow depths, narrow features, and sparse infrastructure. But the real game changer, and the one often overlooked by sailors and scholars alike, is the transpolar route—which is more of a reality toward mid-century—opening maritime traffic and trade right over the North Pole—the fastest, shortest, and cheapest east-west sea route of any by far. And still today ninety percent of all trade by volume travels across the world’s oceans–with seaborne trade expected to double over the next 15 years. 

The Arctic is also home to some of the world’s largest oil and gas formations. Thirteen percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the undiscovered natural gas lies above the Arctic Circle—nearly 85 percent of which are offshore, with heavy concentrations off Alaska, Russia, Greenland, and towards the North Pole. An increased abundance of fish moving further north will attract global fishing fleets in search of protein for growing populations. 

Forty different ethnic groups and indigenous communities call the Arctic home. No matter where you travel across the region, Indigenous groups face the same challenges: economic inequalities resulting from immigration, loss of traditional knowledge, along with high rates of substance abuse, suicide, and domestic violence. Lack of political participation, education, and capital are but a few of the major barriers impeding growth and opportunity. 

The regional challenges facing the Navy and the Nation—from the changing physical environment and greater access to sea routes and resources to increased military activity and attempts to alter Arctic governance—have grown more complex and more urgent, while the rapid advance of authoritarianism and revisionists approaches in the maritime environment undermine our ability to collectively meet them. In this new era of great power competition, China is moving vertically North while Russia is moving horizontally east and west across the Arctic. 

Taken together, these challenges create a unique—but limited—window of opportunity to chart a new course for American naval power in the Arctic region. A Blue Arctic requires bold measures to modernize our presence and partnerships to advance U.S. interests and preserve our advantage at sea. Professional Military Education, in depth research, and war gaming, and a variety of analytical tools drawn from public, private, and academic partners will help us anticipate and adapt to a Blue Arctic. This will ensure America’s sea services—the Navy, Marine-Corps, and Coast Guard–remain the most ready, respected, and capable naval force in the world, which is what our nation expects and deserves.

Authors’ note: The views in this article are our own and do not reflect the position of the USNWC, USN, or DOD. 

RADM Lars Saunes (Ret.) finished his naval career as the Chief of Royal Norwegian Navy and now is a professor, CNO Distinguished international fellow, and Co-lead Scholar of the Newport Arctic Scholars Initiative at the U.S. Naval War College.

Dr. Walter Berbrick is a professor in the War Gaming Department, Director of the Arctic Studies Group, and Co-lead Scholar of the Newport Arctic Scholars Initiative at the U.S. Naval War College.


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