As the World Warms, Navy Strategists Plan for an Arctic Rush

The U.S. Navy is scrambling to come up with new rules as exploration and exploitation of the Arctic booms Cmdr. Christy Hagen/U.S. Navy/AP

Approximately 25,000 polar bears live in and around the Arctic Circle. Climate change has put the majestic ursines, a longtime favorite of children's books and Christmas cards, in peril. In 2008, the United States listed them as a "threatened species" under the Endangered Species Act, and populations have been on the decline since then.

So when is it acceptable for a Marine to shoot one? The Navy is still trying to figure that out.

Walter Berbrick, a retired Navy officer and a professor of war games at the U.S. Naval War College, was conducting the Fleet Arctic Operations Game in 2011, simulating, among other things, how the Navy would respond to an oil spill in the Arctic, when he discovered there were no rules of engagement for polar bears. "You've really got to be mindful of where you're at and where they're at," Berbrick says, pointing out that polar bears travel in open waters and on ice floes where naval units would have to operate. "Folks need to be trained and deployed understanding their interaction with polar bears. The Navy needs some kind of specialized force protection training, policies, rules of engagement.

"It's something the Navy doesn't think about or plan for or prepare for, because there hasn't been a demand for it," he says. Until now.

In February, the Navy released the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap for 2014 to 2030, a document outlining naval preparations for the region. It doesn't address rules of engagement for polar bears, but it does lay out various other necessities for Naval capabilities in the Arctic, from new satellite communications equipment to cold-weather training exercises. The Navy's road map followed the Department of Defense's "Arctic Strategy" report of November 2013 and the White House's May 2013 "National Security Strategy for the Arctic Region." The documents make up a nascent Arctic strategy.

As global warming melts Arctic ice, the region is being opened to increased commercial activity like shipping, mining and drilling. And along with human activity comes foreign policy and military strategy. Strategists in the Navy and throughout the government are scrambling to put policies in place, develop technology and create a plan of action for this burgeoning region of commercial activity.

A Very Chilly Canary

The Arctic covers some 5.5 million square miles: 8 percent of the earth's surface and 15 percent of its total landmass. Eight countries—Russia, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Iceland and the United States—have territory that extends into the Arctic Circle. About 13 million people live within the Arctic Circle, around 7 million fewer than in the New York City metropolitan area. That's because the Arctic has some of harshest climates on the planet: Temperatures dip to -50 F in the winter.

A group of road signs on an ice-road built to serve gas and oil companies exploring in the Nenets Autonomous Region in the Russian Arctic. In the summer the road will melt away revealing the marshland that lies beneath. Justin Jin/Panos

Human-made climate change affects the whole world, but the Arctic is feeling its impact more quickly and dramatically than elsewhere. The Arctic is "global warming's canary in the coal mine," in the words of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Since 1978, the winter Arctic ice cap—the complete ice coverage that lasts through the winter and recedes in the summer—has shrunk by 12 percent every decade. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted melting Arctic ice as one of the first serious casualties of global warming.

And these changes are happening faster than anyone predicted. "Climate models have consistently underestimated the rate of change in the Arctic," Jan-Gunnar Winther, the director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, said in a recent interview with an environmental news website. "We must be aware that the future could bring yet more surprises in the region." In the past year, Arctic sea ice was at the fifth-lowest level since recording began. The lowest level came in 2011.

Disappearing sea ice is bad news for the planet, but not everyone is mourning. "It's great if you're a shipper," says Laurence Smith, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies the region. Cargo transit through the Russian Arctic Northern Sea Route hit an all-time high in 2013. There's big money to be made in the Arctic, and climate change is making that possible.

"The popular perception is that Arctic warming is going to open some treasure trove of resources," Smith says. That will be true in several industries. Tourism to the region is growing. Warmer waters have increased fish stocks. Offshore oil drilling is expected to boom. The region contains up to 22 percent of the world's untapped oil and gas deposits. Longer summers and less ice have already given oil companies strong incentives to start exploration.

Less ice also means more ships. Moving around the North Pole could slash shipping times—and costs—for many countries that would be happy to avoid the Suez or Panama canals. Russia and China in particular have shown interest in northern shipping routes.

It's this increased activity that has the Navy looking to plot a course for the frigid region—both to support commercial activity and to be of assistance if there is trouble. Preparations go from grand strategy to the more mundane. If the Navy is to operate seriously in the Arctic, it will need icebreakers, ships that do exactly what their name implies. Other Arctic states have invested heavily in these. Russia has 30, and Canada has 13. The United States has just three, all of which belong to the Coast Guard and are not powerful enough for Arctic operations.

On the less expensive side of naval preparation are things like writing a new "Cold Weather Operations Handbook," something the Navy hasn't updated since 1987, according to Robert Freeman, a public affairs officer at the Navy's Office of the Oceanographer. The old version is basically useless. For example, the old operations handbook suggests that if sea spray freezes on the outside of a ship, sailors should take a baseball bat to chip it away. That's not going to work anymore, Freeman says. "In the modern Navy, we have all kinds of very sophisticated and intricate weapons systems on the surface of a ship. You can't hit them with a baseball bat."

But even if there are challenges, there are also tailwinds making the Navy's life easier. The Arctic remains one of the few areas where international cooperation is the norm rather than the exception. The region is governed through the Arctic Council, a forum in which Arctic states and interested observers iron out issues involving the region, from environmental protection to border disputes. When Russia planted a flag on the North Pole in 2007, many commentators speculated that it would launch a series of land grabs in the world's least hospitable region. It never came to pass.

Military-military cooperation abounds, too. U.S. naval officers engage in training exercises with Russian and Norwegian counterparts. The navies of Arctic countries share information and expertise on science and cartography. Even as tensions have flared between Russia and the United States in recent weeks over Ukraine, relations remain good on Arctic issues. "Russia does want to be a partner with the other Arctic states," says Rear Admiral Jonathan White. "We're not seeing anything to be concerned about."

The reason, according to White and independent Arctic analysts, comes back to money. "All the Arctic nations have things to gain, with additional access to resources, trade routes, fishing and tourism," White says. "I'm optimistic that we can do it together. But just like any other ocean in the world, we have to be ready."