Searching for Leads in the Opening Arctic
Disappearing ice, Russia’s newest land grab, and a new great game at the top of the world. An FP special report.
ABOARD THE COAST GUARD CUTTER HEALY, IN THE ARCTIC--When you plow into a 4-foot-thick chunk of sea ice at 3 knots, even in a 16,000-ton state-of-the-art icebreaker like the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy, it's hard not to notice. The whole ship shudders and seems to lurch sideways. Metal cabinets rattle. Californians swear it sounds and feels just like an earthquake, with deep rumbling booms and tremors. Others say it’s like hitting turbulence on a jetliner, the shivering and rattling accompanied by the overdrive whine of 30,000 horsepower. If you're down in the galley, right on the waterline, what you hear is the nerve-wracking scraping of shattered ice along the side. Five stories up, on top of the bridge, you feel the bump of the collision over the strain of the engines pushing the ship through a sea of drifting white, blue, and dirty gray ice.
That’s when there is ice. But thanks to rising global temperatures, especially acute in the Arctic, there’s less of it now than there used to be. And that creates its own problems for a ship that seeks out the stuff.
"I just wish there was more ice. It'd be good training for this crew," said Chief Warrant Officer Tim "Tugboat" Tully, the Healy's bosun. The 85-person crew could use it. This month, they attempted something the ship had never done before: smashing through solid ice to the North Pole itself, unaccompanied by any other vessels. The July trip would have been an ideal time to get the crew used to plowing through some heavy stuff, but the ice was patchy much of the trip. We steamed north through the Bering Strait, passed the Diomede Islands, and got near the northwest tip of Alaska before we spotted our first chunks of ice in mid-July. "Ten years ago, this was heavy going," the bosun said.
ABOARD THE COAST GUARD CUTTER HEALY, IN THE ARCTIC–When you plow into a 4-foot-thick chunk of sea ice at 3 knots, even in a 16,000-ton state-of-the-art icebreaker like the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy, it’s hard not to notice. The whole ship shudders and seems to lurch sideways. Metal cabinets rattle. Californians swear it sounds and feels just like an earthquake, with deep rumbling booms and tremors. Others say it’s like hitting turbulence on a jetliner, the shivering and rattling accompanied by the overdrive whine of 30,000 horsepower. If you’re down in the galley, right on the waterline, what you hear is the nerve-wracking scraping of shattered ice along the side. Five stories up, on top of the bridge, you feel the bump of the collision over the strain of the engines pushing the ship through a sea of drifting white, blue, and dirty gray ice.
That’s when there is ice. But thanks to rising global temperatures, especially acute in the Arctic, there’s less of it now than there used to be. And that creates its own problems for a ship that seeks out the stuff.
“I just wish there was more ice. It’d be good training for this crew,” said Chief Warrant Officer Tim “Tugboat” Tully, the Healy’s bosun. The 85-person crew could use it. This month, they attempted something the ship had never done before: smashing through solid ice to the North Pole itself, unaccompanied by any other vessels. The July trip would have been an ideal time to get the crew used to plowing through some heavy stuff, but the ice was patchy much of the trip. We steamed north through the Bering Strait, passed the Diomede Islands, and got near the northwest tip of Alaska before we spotted our first chunks of ice in mid-July. “Ten years ago, this was heavy going,” the bosun said.
The Arctic is melting. Summer sea ice that used to cover the Chukchi Sea and the Bering Strait isn’t there, where it used to be. Summer ice coverage in the Arctic hit a record low in 2012; this past March, it registered an all-time winter low. As the ice recedes, something new is popping up in its place: oil rigs and commercial ships. Whatever the debate about climate change looks like in Washington, it’s sadly clear up here. At least for part of the year, thanks to rising temperatures, a once-closed ocean is now open for business.
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy sailing. Less ice is more ice, the Alaskan natives say: As ice melts, it opens things up just enough to get you into trouble. That’s as true for native whalers and seal hunters as it is for specialized drilling rigs that are starting to head north for a few months each year. Polar seas are not like other oceans. You need a survival suit just to work on deck, even in the summertime. “Man overboard” drills in freezing water have a uniquely sickening undertone; the ship’s pipe’s intonation “Man has been in water for six minutes” becomes a virtual epitaph. Communications and navigation equipment that works fine at other latitudes doesn’t near the pole. And, even if there’s less ice than there used to be, there’s still plenty of it bobbing and knocking and crashing around; what sank the Titanic is constantly looming out of the fog, posing a mortal danger to ships that aren’t ice-hardened.
“Everybody thinks you can do up here what you can do in the Lower 48, and it’s just not so. It’s a whole different environment,” says Capt. Jason Hamilton, 44, a 22-year Coast Guard veteran who just took over command of the Healy, one of two operational icebreakers the United States has. The other, the heavy icebreaker Polar Star, operates in Antarctica.
As the Arctic melts, it is birthing a new global battleground, with huge economic, environmental, and geopolitical implications for the United States. Oil companies are moving north, even though cheap crude makes pricey Arctic drilling a tough sell for now. Shipping companies are eagerly eying a fresh northern route that can trim thousands of miles off voyages between Asia and Europe. Russia, which has a fleet of six nuclear-powered heavy icebreakers, with 11 more planned or under construction, is revamping scores of Cold War-era military bases inside the Arctic Circle. Moscow, eight years after planting a symbolic flag on the seabed at the North Pole, just handed the United Nations an expansive claim to almost half a million square miles of Arctic seabed potentially rich in oil, natural gas, and minerals. The United States would be hard-pressed to make a similar claim, since it has never ratified the Law of the Sea treaty, which codifies international maritime law. And China, which isn’t even an Arctic nation, is busy dipping its toe into the icy waters — launching its very own icebreaker, currently building a second, and for the first time sending navy ships into Alaskan waters.
As this new Great Game gets underway, the United States has in hand only the Healy, 420 feet of red and white steel designed in the early 1990s and launched in 1997. In commission with the Coast Guard for 15 years, the ship shows its wear at times, as bits of rust poke through peeling white paint. Although it’s unarmed, a tiny arsenal is secured below decks in the bow, not far from the always-tilted foosball table. Like on any large ship, life aboard the Healy is a life spent clambering up and down ladder-like stairwells. Six stories separate the lofty bridge from the galley, where the whole crew musters three times a day for surprisingly good chow. Below that, there’s a fully functional gym and an industrial-sized laundry, complete with an old Galaga video game to wait out the big, tumbling dryers. (Captain Hamilton lugs his own mesh-bagged laundry down there himself; everyone, including the captain, has to sweep the dryer’s lint traps after every load or risk a deadly onboard fire.) As the Healy makes clear three times a summer, there’s no operating in the Arctic without icebreakers, even now. But new icebreakers cost a billion dollars apiece and a decade to make. No replacements are being built in U.S. shipyards, and the already overhauled Polar Star is overdue for retirement.
“Is this next decade or so the worst possible time to be caught short-handed in terms of your capabilities?” I ask Hamilton. We’re in his stateroom, watched by the steely canvas glare of the ship’s namesake, “Hell Roaring” Mike Healy, who first prowled these waters more than a century ago in a wooden-hulled boat. The captain, a lawyer by training, short in stature, deadpan by disposition, and dedicated to breaking ice, sours his face at the question like he has bitten something gone bad.
“This is a whole-of-government problem, and it’s time to build one.” He pauses. “There’s some exposure,” he says, meaning there may not be enough icebreakers to do everything the U.S. national security community wants or needs to do. At a minimum, government studies say, the United States needs three heavy icebreakers available to slam their way into Antarctic research stations every year and three others to carve their way through the frozen north. The country has one-third of that.
Still, Hamilton maintains that the Coast Guard — whose motto is Semper Paratus (Always Ready) — can do the job with what it has at hand. “We can meet the minimum essentials with the vessels we have,” he says, because the Arctic summer, when the ice melts and the ocean opens up to traffic, is the Antarctic winter, when there are no operations, and vice versa. “But that puts us in a precarious situation and our risk is much higher than it should be, because what happens if one of the vessels goes down when the other is in a prolonged maintenance period?”
That has happened to the Healy before. At Christmastime in 2002, while in its home port of Seattle while being overhauled after its summer cruise in the Arctic, the ship had to hurry up repairs and crisscross the globe to bail out the now-mothballed Polar Sea, which snapped off a propeller blade on a piece of ice during its Antarctic mission. Then it had to hurry back north and make another summer cruise with little time for maintenance. At other times, U.S. icebreakers in trouble could call on the Russian fleet for help, as the Polar Star did during its break-in to Antarctica in 2005. But turning to Russia for help these days isn’t such an obvious alternative.
“Russia, geopolitically, has potentially changed the landscape,” Hamilton acknowledges.
To get on board the Healy requires a cross-country trip, through Seattle, through Anchorage, and finally into the small town of Nome, Alaska, the biggest city on the Seward Peninsula, that chunk of land that juts westward off Alaska and forms the narrows of the Bering Strait. Nome has few comforts and few causes for fame — it is the finish line for the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and boasts Alaska’s oldest newspaper– but it does have the closest thing to a port in this part of Alaska. And that’s where 50-odd scientists, together lugging gear for a score of projects, said goodbye to beer and cell-phone coverage, clambered into their Mustang survival suits, and pulled themselves up a swaying Jacob’s ladder on board the Healy itself.
We sailed straight out of Nome in early July, heading north through the Bering Strait. The goal was to skirt Shell’s drilling prospects off the northwest tip of Alaska before rounding the top of the state for a search-and-rescue exercise off Prudhoe Bay. Then the Healy was hoping to swing north to the very top of America’s exclusive economic zone, a 200-mile-wide offshore belt that holds most of whatever resources are up there, before heading back to Alaska in late July to get ready for the really arduous polar push in September.
These are the kinds of cruises that the Healy does three times or so every summer. Until a few years ago, the Arctic was the preserve of ice-bound scientists and the kind of people who track polar bear migrations. These days, with rising temperatures just hammering Arctic ice sheets, the region is getting a whole lot more visitors. Depending on whom you talk to, the melting Arctic is sparking angst (walruses are beaching by the thousands as their floes disappear), brow-furrowing concern (forget the missile gap — now there’s an icebreaker gap with the Russians), hand-rubbing opportunity (Shell has dropped $7 billion so far just preparing to look for oil off the Alaskan coast), or a little bit of everything all at once.
The most recent and certainly highest-profile visitor was U.S. President Barack Obama, who jetted in for an Arctic conference in Alaska in late August and pledged to bolster America’s status as an “Arctic power.” He announced plans to acquire at long last a replacement heavy icebreaker by 2020, something that Coast Guard leaders have spent years clamoring for. But the administration hasn’t yet found the money needed to design and build a new heavy. The Healy, America’s newest icebreaker, took exactly a decade from funding to commissioning. Citing Russia’s 40-strong icebreaking fleet, Obama also called for the construction of additional icebreakers to give the United States the physical ability to play in this new space, as well as all sorts of other goodies, from extensive charting of polar seas to the construction of a deepwater port in Nome, which will make operating that far north less of a crapshoot.
Obama called on Congress to find the money for the icebreakers, something that has proved elusive over the past decade. Even if the funds are available, it will be extremely difficult to design and build a replacement heavy in five years.
While some Arctic observers chafe at what they see as an obsession with icebreakers, especially comparing the tiny U.S. fleet with Russia’s dozens, America’s top Arctic official says the country needs more and welcomes the president’s announcement.
“Our country is bipolar: We have these Arctic responsibilities, and we have to break into Antarctica to resupply every year,” said retired Adm. Robert Papp, the U.S. special envoy for the Arctic and a former commandant of the Coast Guard. “Icebreakers are needed, and they’re a vital asset for the United States, and how they’re paid for should be a national issue.”
The actual opening of the Arctic is due to melting ice. The amount of sea ice covering the Arctic varies from winter to summer and year to year. Every fall, ice gradually forms until, by March, thick ice covers the whole northern sea and reaches far down Alaska’s western coast. Then it begins a steady retreat until September, though the ice is still solid north of 80 degrees latitude even in those warm months. During those six months, the Arctic sheds half its ice cover. The problem is there’s generally less and less of it to shed.
Earlier this year, 2015 was on track to set a new record for summer low ice coverage. Then it stopped retreating quite so fast; wind, waves, currents, and pressure patterns can change ice forecasts from one day to another and make what looks like smooth sailing suddenly bumpy. Even so, June marked the third-worst year of the satellite record. By August, as the Healy was steaming north toward the pole, the melting accelerated again and the oceans were opening up at a near-record pace.
Hamilton has been south to Antarctica on the nausea-inducing “polar rollers” and up to 80 degrees north as an engineering officer, as an executive officer, and now as a commander. “In general I’ve seen much more open water — not this summer, but the last time I was up here — than anticipated,” he said. But this summer too: At the northernmost part of the first summer cruise, in mid-July, the Healy hoped to find some big expanses of thick, multiyear ice on which to drop the gangplank and give the crew and the scientists aboard a chance to clamber out. We couldn’t find any. (They couldn’t find any on the next cruise either, until they were practically at the North Pole.)
Early in the Healy’s cruise, we sailed north by northeast off the Alaskan coast, straight toward the Burger prospect, where Shell’s leases are. Hamilton was on the bridge, paper coffee cup in hand, when he spotted a number of vessels ahead on the navigational computer. He fiddled with the mouse to check their distance, and an officer on the bridge noted that they were private vessels. “Oil industry,” Hamilton said. “They’re the only ones up here.”
The U.S. Arctic is finally, after years of official foot-dragging and industry false starts, open for oil exploration. The Arctic is estimated to hold 90 billion barrels of oil, or about 13 percent of the world’s total, plus 30 percent of its conventional reserves of natural gas. Shell won final permission from the Obama administration this year — eight years after the Anglo-Dutch company first sank billions of dollars into offshore leases — to drill some exploratory wells in a promising area about 60 miles off Wainwright, Alaska, in the shallow waters of the Chukchi Sea.
Unfortunately for Shell, the timing isn’t great. Oil prices have plummeted over the past year, to about $50 a barrel. That’s too cheap to make Arctic exploration a paying prospect anytime soon; drilling for oil in the Arctic is a lot more expensive than drilling for it in Texas.
So why is Shell even up the Arctic? In part, because there could be a mother lode of oil under those icy waters, and big oil finds are harder and harder for energy firms to get their hands on. But Shell is also in Alaska simply because now, for the first time, it can be. As the company noted in exploration plans filed this year with federal regulators, the central Chukchi Sea, where its leases are, now has an extra four weeks of ice-free time each year, compared with three decades ago. An extra month is a make-or-break difference when the drilling season only lasts from July through October.
“The Arctic is going to open, and there will be activity up there, and I think we need to be better prepared for it than we are today,” retired Adm. Gary Roughead, who stepped down as chief of naval operations for the U.S. Navy in 2011, told me. He was expressing a sentiment held across the Navy and Coast Guard worlds, and in Alaskan political circles, but that finds little resonance in the rest of the United States, which struggles to see itself as a truly Arctic nation.
But what does that increased activity really look like? It’s inhospitably cold and inaccessible much of the year, and even at the height of summer it can be squally with windchills in the teens. The U.S. Arctic has a screaming dearth of the kinds of everyday infrastructure taken for granted most everywhere else; there are few power plants, roads, air bases, deepwater ports, or broadband Internet connections, for instance. Nome has to get its diesel fuel for power and heat shipped in by sea; indeed, one of the Healy’s proudest moments was helping to deliver emergency fuel supplies to a suddenly ice-blocked Nome three years ago.
But though the Arctic may lack roads, rails, and ports, there is oil — lots of it. And though Shell is placing a bet on Alaskan waters, much of those resources are concentrated in the Russian Arctic. That explains not just the feverish race by companies like Gazprom and Rosneft to try to tap that mother lode in Russian coastal waters — with or without Western help — but also extensive Russian territorial claims laying title to seemingly everything else. Russian energy firms lack Western expertise and Western environmental standards, but President Vladimir Putin is determined to turn Arctic riches into his regime’s economic engine, possible environmental consequences be damned.
“It’s not about political power or international law — it’s a question for humankind. We can’t allow a barbarian country to do things in the Arctic without international control,” said Alexander Temerko, a former deputy chairman of Russian energy firm Yukos and a veteran of Putin’s energy-industrial complex.
There’s a reason for that: An oil spill at the top of the world would be potentially catastrophic, one reason environmentalists are apoplectic at the U.S. administration’s decision to let Shell proceed. Icy water is harder to operate in and less suitable for containment booms used to corral spills. Squally weather and heavy seas can make oil recovery a lot tougher than in more placid waters, like the Gulf of Mexico. Any prolonged blowout could seriously threaten the walruses, seals, whales, and polar bears that feed many of Alaska’s native communities and could devastate Alaskan fisheries as well.
Everyone remembers the catastrophic explosion at the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which set off a three-month gusher of flowing oil and wringing hands. But in the Gulf, where most of the U.S. offshore oil industry is concentrated, there are airfields and ports and Coast Guard stations and pre-positioned oil-spill equipment and always-on-call spill-response teams. In the Arctic, there’s not. Kodiak, Alaska, the closest Coast Guard air station, is 1,000 miles from Shell’s drilling area.
The Coast Guard, federal regulators, and Shell are trying to make sure oil drilling can be done safely. Shell has to keep a second drilling rig at the ready, after it had a failure a couple of years ago while drilling with just a single rig. The Healy itself carried out, in mid-July, a search-and-rescue exercise off Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, which involved a civilian ScanEagle drone, a Coast Guard helicopter, and another chopper operated by oil company ConocoPhillips.
The likely increase in oil exploration is one reason that recent Healy missions, which always support a suite of scientists doing research, have focused on oil-spill responses and related technologies. This summer, for instance, a team from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, tested out a device that can “sniff” the isotopes in the air for up to 10 miles in front of the ship. Once the system is operational and placed on a buoy, that kind of technology could help detect oil spills and fuel leaks long before they’re apparent. Other science projects included testing the ability of a small, hand-launched drone to fly itself back to the ship and “land” in a net; that would save small-boat crews the trouble and risk of having to get into icy waters to recover drones themselves. And, of course, there were plenty of science projects meant to help detect ice itself, from wave gliders to huge, lightweight balloons that can give the bridge a bird’s eye view of what lies ahead.
Most ships seek to avoid ice. Ships like the Healy steam straight for it. About one-third of the crew members at any given time are newbies, new to the ship and new to polar missions. Like the scientists on board, they too clamber to the rails to get a glimpse of their first pack ice. The veterans seem more concerned with getting a chance to check the satellite Internet for the fate of their favorite teams, mostly the Mariners and the Seahawks for this Seattle-ported ship. Captain Hamilton himself managed to find 15 minutes in an insanely crowded day to walk me through the sabermetric arguments for why the Mariners ace pitcher, Felix Hernandez, is actually underrated.
It takes a different breed to seek out exactly the kind of floating hazards that can drive a hole through a steel hull or trap a ship in the vise-like grip of tons of ice, forcing it to spend the whole, dark winter “nipped” between floes. Even with all of today’s technology, from double hulls to massive diesel-electric engines to satellite communications, it can still happen. The Polar Sea got nipped for five days in the Arctic in 1984 and was hunkering down to winter over when it finally broke free. The Healy itself got trapped for 93 hours off Barrow, Alaska, in the summer of 2005 and only got free thanks to high-velocity fire hoses and a lucky shift in the wind. Later that year, the Healy teamed up with a Swedish icebreaker to make a dash for the North Pole. (“This is not a trip that should be made alone,” the mission report concluded, though the ship shrugged off such concern for this year’s polar dash.)
Sailors have their own vocabulary; icebreaking sailors are a lexical frontier apart. Words like “polynya,” “sastrugi,” “frazil,” “dark nilas,” and “ice blink” get sprinkled into their conversations as they peer ahead at ever-shifting chunks of ice, trying to plot a course that won’t get them trapped. And there are different kinds of icebreaking. The huge, heavy Polar-class ships just ride up on top of ice and crush floes with their weight. The Healy, technically a medium icebreaker, can do that too, but it also has a sharp knife under its bow that it uses to shear through obstacles. What makes Arctic ice trickier than the thicker stuff in Antarctica, says Master Chief Matt Lasley, the ice navigator, is the constant drift that can slam massive sheets of sea ice into each other at huge pressure. And ice that has been around for a couple of years is harder than steel.
“You can hit like a solid wall and be like, ‘Man, we’re not getting through this; we’re going to have to find something else,’” he says. Lasley has driven through ice north and south, on both Polar-class ships and one trip on what passes for Britain’s icebreaker, RRS Ernest Shackleton. He keeps a copy of the “Ten Rules of Icebreaking” on the desk in his berth. (Rule No. 3: “Be patient.”)
“The key is to know how to read the ice, how to see the ice,” he says. That’s just what Lasley tries to teach some of the officers and crew members at an ice-piloting training course one afternoon in the wardroom, where he stresses the need to find a delicate balance between safety and risk. At all times, Hamilton keeps one eye on the lesson and one on the flat-screen television, showing the view from the bird’s eye aloft con, from where the ship is steered when going through heavy stuff. Hamilton clambers up to the aloft con himself as often as he can: “What’s the point if you can’t grab the stick every once in a while?” he asks with a devilish gleam in his eye.
He interrupts the ice-training course to stress the fundamental lesson he’d made to me earlier: Icebreakers need to find the path of least resistance, but the clock is also always ticking, whether it’s on a mission to reach the North Pole or plow a supply channel for U.S. scientists at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. That constant pressure to break through the ice before winter closes in puts everyone on the ship under strain.
“You have a month-and-a-half, two-month period of time to do that break-in. Otherwise it gets dark. And you don’t want to be down there when it’s starting to get dark,” Hamilton says of his southern cruises.
The U.S. icebreaking community is small and tightknit, a world within a world. They ride ships with red hulls and wear red hats and hoodies, signs of their polar initiation. It took Capt. Greg Stanclik, the Healy’s executive officer, 10 years to land his first icebreaking gig. Extremely tall and baldheaded, he towers over everyone else on the ship and seems to be constantly ducking overhead pipes and mortal-sized doorways. He has never looked back, though his next assignment, ruefully, is behind a desk: He handed the Healy over to a new executive officer after that first summer cruise.
“It’s an amazing experience: You are bashing your ship against things that everyone else tries to avoid,” he says. He has more ice experience than any other officer on the bridge, but the adventure never gets old. “We are on a ship that has the capability to go to the North Pole, and I am going to brag about that for the rest of my life,” he says.
But there’s a flip side to that top-of-the-world adventurism, especially for the thin ranks of American icebreakers. “If you’re on any other Coast Guard ship and you break down, you look over your shoulder and there’s someone backing you up. You come here — you’re it,” says Stanclik.
That sense of isolation was brought home in the most mundane possible way during the Healy’s cruise. The dishwasher broke a few days out of Nome, no small matter for a galley that has to serve 500 meals a day. There was a small supply of paper plates and cups, but not enough to last the rest of the trip. That’s when Ron Adrezin, a professor of mechanical engineering at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, stepped up. He used a 3-D printer, carried on board for loftier scientific purposes, to craft a replacement part for the dishwasher. Eventually, it worked; he was later given a formal letter of appreciation for “vital services” performed. And that got him thinking about more than just dishwashers.
“What if you had a 3-D printer on every trip and could just bring the files with the blueprints, rather than trying to carry all the possible spare parts you would need on board?” Adrezin wondered.
Scientists and academics like Adrezin are the reason the Healy exists. There were teams on board from universities in Alaska, from private drone outfits, and from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. For the United States, polar missions are all about research, whether that’s checking the health of the oceans or pulling out ice cores or sniffing what’s inside the Arctic air. And that’s true for the year-round stations in Antarctica and for the massive floating lab that is the Healy.
“Yeah, we’re going to the North Pole — but it’s not just to go to the North Pole. It’s to complete a science mission where we learn about the health of the oceans,” says Captain Hamilton. “You can’t pick up a newspaper now without somebody talking about climate change, or typing an email home to my wife who’s talking about how it’s the seventh day in a row that it’s 90-something degrees in Seattle in June. Our hope is that we’re able to help with understanding, because you have to understand before you can do anything.”
But for other nations, notably Russia, the Arctic is about a whole lot more than science projects. For Russia, whose entire northern coastline is inside the Arctic Circle, the region represents a potential shield, a flash point for conflict, and a potential treasure trove of oil, gas, and other riches. Little wonder that since returning to power, Putin has made revitalizing the Arctic one of his top priorities, throwing billions of dollars into energy projects, reopening some 50 Soviet-era Arctic military bases, and conducting there the largest military exercises since the Soviet Union’s demise. At the end of August, after announcing even more Russian air and naval forces for the region, Russian generals declared they would have a self-sufficient Arctic command set up by 2018.
As the Center for Strategic and International Studies just noted in “The New Ice Curtain,” a study on Russia’s Arctic ambitions, Russia’s deputy prime minister and point man for the Arctic, Dmitry Rogozin, has led the rhetorical charge. He has spooked foreign observers by describing the Arctic as Russia’s “Mecca” and insisting on Russian presence in the region regardless of Western sanctions and efforts at isolation. “Tanks do not need visas,” he has said.
“Russia views itself as the Arctic superpower, as the Kremlin is increasingly willing to use the Arctic to demonstrate Russia’s return to power on the global stage and in the region,” the CSIS study concluded.
“The problem is less due to the military buildup than the buildup of rhetoric,” said Papp, the U.S. Arctic envoy. “President Putin and his associates, their rhetoric about how important the Arctic is to them and their need to defend it is not useful to the type of cooperative efforts we would like to do within the Arctic.”
Russia’s decision to make the Arctic the fulcrum of its bid to revitalize its economy and armed forces — both especially important now in the wake of Russian isolation after the annexation of Crimea — means that U.S. policymakers must confront a new space for geopolitical competition (and possibly cooperation) where the United States has seldom operated and where it has few good tools to do so even today. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky in a different context: You may not be interested in the Arctic, but the Arctic is interested in you. Economic, environmental, and geopolitical strains promise to move a once-peripheral region ever closer to the center of discussion, as difficult as it is for the United States to truly see itself as an Arctic nation.
“The problem comes down to being able to convince leadership, both in the executive branch and the legislative branch, that we need an investment strategy for how to build the place out,” said Roughead, who as Navy chief started a task force dedicated to climate change and published the Navy’s first Arctic road map, plotting out future operations in what amounts to a whole new ocean.
After years of Coast Guard and Navy officials crying in the wilderness, that calculus may finally be changing. In Alaska, Obama underscored the need for new ships and ports to realize America’s Arctic ambitions, though it isn’t clear where the money or ships will come from in the short time frame the president laid out.
It’s welcome news but little immediate consolation for the Healy, still smashing its lonely way home. With ice thinner than expected all the way up, the Healy reached the North Pole on Sept. 5, exactly a week ahead of schedule, making it the first U.S. surface vessel to ever smash its way up there alone. Now, it has to make it back home. Still charting the course and watching for ever-shifting leads is Master Chief Lasley, pitting the Healy’s hardened hull and shearing blade against seasoned ice that can be as hard as steel. He has read all the stories of icebound ships, forced to winter over after losing their battle with nature; he did get briefly trapped once in Antarctica on the Shackleton. It’s the one part of the polar experience he doesn’t envy.
“When a hard object meets a hard object, something’s gotta give, so you gotta have a place for that ice to break off and get out of your way,” he says. “You force yourself in there, you’re stuck.”
Photo credits: KEITH JOHNSON and U.S. COAST GUARD
Keith Johnson is a deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
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