When the Ice Breaks, Tensions Are Rising
Crisis Committee to discuss the Militarization of the Arctic
While the Arctic is out of sight for most of us, the region has now gained global attention in the light of a radiation leak aboard the USS Jacksonville (SSN-699) on November 25 th this year. The nuclear-powered Los Angeles-class attack submarine reported an emergency as it was traversing the northwest passage. A fire, which broke out at 22:23 UTC, severely damaged the engine room and led to a radiation alarm, forcing the Jacksonville to break through the ice shield and surface around 600 km away from Barrow, Alaska. Because of the highly volatile state of the reactor it had to be scrammed at 23:30 UTC. As the first report of casualties due to radiation exposure came in, the Pentagon organized and called to action an immediate crisis response task force. Despite high efforts by the onboard medical staff one of the firefighters who had absorbed a high radiation dose went into cardiac arrest and could not be resuscitated, leading to the first and only immediate death of the incident. Even though the investigation team was able to retrieve invaluable data logs from the submarine, the government reduced all public outreach and publication to a minimum. This caused not only a public outroar but also the spread of numerous rumors, some of which attribute the electrical fire onboard the USS Jacksonville to foreign malware that might have entered the ship system during an upgrade of the propulsion system and the installation of digital hardware. The incident could be hinting at what awaits the international community in the future of an increasingly digital world where cyber warfare can easily bleed into the physical world with all its consequences.
Even before this event tensions have been high between all parties involved in Arctic matters due to climate change and global warming. The historically inaccessible region of the Arctic contains one-fifth of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas resources, alongside important metals and deposits of methane hydrates. This makes commercial exploitation of an ice-free Arctic Ocean by companies and countries more than likely and poses a challenge not only for the international community but also for the roughly 4 million people who inhabit the region itself. By now September Arctic sea ice is declining at a rate of 13% each decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average. Concomitant with the warming of the ocean is the widespread bloom of toxic algae – a once-rare phenomenon that is likely to occur more frequently in the near future endangering marine animals and residents of coastal areas in northern and western Alaska, who rely on local marine resources for food. Another threat lies in the rapid thaw of Arctic permafrost which holds an estimated 1,500 billion tonnes of carbon that could be released as CO2 or methane into the atmosphere. In October 2021 a report has found that the melting Arctic permafrost could release radioactive waste from Cold War nuclear submarines as well as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and new virus strains.
This year’s Arctic Circle Assembly (14-16 October) has brought forward the numerous interests that come into play as the Arctic ice cap melts, thereby making it easier to exploit natural resources and opening up new maritime trading routes. Especially China and Russia have expressed their interest in the development of new Polar routes and are therefore seen as major players. China even went so far as to declare itself a “Near-Arctic State” in its White Paper from 2018, despite not being an Arctic country and therefore lacking geographical claim. The country’s growing ambitions and interest in building a “Polar Silk Route” have nevertheless raised the Arctic Council’s concern. Similarly, Russia’s construction of new military bases in the Arctic region due to a gradual loss of its protective barrier of ice and extreme cold are considered a danger by NATO. As a result and means of confronting Russia, the US and NATO have started to militarize the Arctic through Norway in the past few years, leading to considerable tensions between nuclear-armed nations. In order to prevent further deadly events in the Arctic Circle, ease suspicions and reinforce diplomacy the Secretary-General of the United Nations has called the President of the Security Council to call for member states to convene, granting Arctic Council states observer status as well. It remains to be seen whether the Council can provide clarity and solutions to the matter at hand.