The Russian military conducted live firing exercises in the Arctic in March 2021. (Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation)

Security and Climate Risks in the Arctic as Temperatures and Tensions Rise

The Council on Strategic Risks’ Converging Risks Lab and the Woodwell Climate Research Center released a new report on June 21. Temperatures and Tensions Rise: Security and Climate Risks in the Arctic includes groundbreaking new analysis on the implications of thawing permafrost across the Arctic region for security infrastructure, as well as modeling of the potential security implications of rapid changes in ice loss, temperature change, and growing regional activity. 

An interactive story map analysis of this research was launched in May 2021 in support of the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting. Together, the story map analysis and detailed report provide important new tools for security actors increasingly asked to interact in a rapidly changing Northern climate.

While previous research has examined rising tensions and future security scenarios in the Arctic, few publications have worked directly with climate scientists to model how changing climate realities in the fastest warming region on Earth could interact with these human activities. With each passing year, military and private activity in the region grows rapidly, and these forces will be forced to interact with growing extreme weather, ice variability, and permafrost thaw in the North due to warming temperatures.

The report notes, that for the past two decades, the change in Arctic temperatures has been nearly double that of the global average due to the phenomenon of Arctic amplification, with the strongest warming signals occurring in the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn and winter months. In fact, surface air temperatures in the Arctic during the most recent Arctic meteorological year (October 2019 – September 2020) were the second warmest on record.

It adds that temperatures are projected to rise dramatically, and will contribute to the enhanced risk of several hazards, including wildfires, intense precipitation events, and coastal erosion, all of which could have dangerous implications for Arctic communities and security actors in the region. 

The Arctic region could be ice free in summer in just 10-15 years. Diminishing sea ice and rising temperatures are opening up the region for increased commercial and military activities, presenting potential issues for navigation, communication, and submarine and anti-submarine warfare operations. The United States Navy has publicly said that melting ice will make Arctic submarine forces more important, while Russian ice-breakers are already equipped with cruise missiles.

The report warns that U.S. security technology in the Arctic region is already known to be out-of-date, with military bases, radar stations, and national guard posts in Alaska and Greenland in need of modernization. Permafrost degradation presents serious threats to this aging infrastructure, particularly in Alaska, where roughly half the state is underlain by permafrost, and where foundations of military and civilian infrastructure alike are already cracking, and will become increasingly destabilized.

To move forward and navigate these rapid changes, the report’s authors say decision-makers must first better integrate climate data and future projections into their consideration of regional geopolitics. They add that security actors must actively consider the potential compound impacts of these phenomena interacting with each other and other security threats, with focus on the potential escalation of tensions and novel risks. 

With military presence in the Arctic growing each passing year, and overlapping claims on territories and resources already acute, security actors must pay close attention to the variables of change shifting the ice, ground, weather, and mobility of the region, the report concludes.

This report is the second in a partnership between climate scientists at Woodwell and security experts at the Council on Strategic Risks to examine growing climate security challenges in security hotspots around the world. A report analyzing Chinese-Indian border tensions (Melting Mountains, Mounting Tensions: Climate Change and the India-China Rivalry) was released in May 2021, as was a story map analysis of the case study. 

The Arctic report is co-authored by Council on Strategic Risks Senior Fellow Kate Guy and Woodwell Climate scientists Dr. Alexandra Naegele, Natalie Baillargeon, Madeleine Holland, and Dr. Christopher Schwalm. The previously released story map was created by Carl Churchill and Kate Guy. The Converging Risks Lab of the Council on Strategic Risks will be launching a third case study report in partnership with Woodwell Climate Science Research Center later this year.

Read the full report at The Council on Strategic Risks

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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