According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Arctic sea ice extent has declined by 40% since 1979. The loss is transforming Alaska’s climate while also accelerating coastal erosion.

“In a diminishing ice environment in the Arctic region, we’re seeing there’s more opportunity for industry, more opportunity for resource extraction, if done in a very careful manner,” said Randy Key, Arctic Domain Awareness Center executive director.

Operating in the Arctic provides many challenges to the U.S. Air Force and its allies, but it also provides many unique opportunities. In this story, we take a look at how the joint team is working to meet these challenges and and make the most of each opportunity available in the Arctic environment. U.S. Air Force Video // MSgt. Robbie Arp

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the Arctic houses 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30% of its undiscovered gas and an abundance of uranium, rare earth minerals, gold, diamonds and millions of square miles of untapped resources.

Both of the United States’ near peer adversaries — Russia and China — present challenges to U.S. national security as they establish a larger strategic footprint, both commercially and militarily, in this newly accessible environment.

Washington strategists have turned their gaze towards the Arctic and determined that the need to enhance U.S. operations and capabilities there has become clear and immediate.

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U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere, left, the commander of Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, Alaskan Command, U.S. Northern Command, and the 11th Air Force, converses with a visiting representative of the Bangladesh Air Force while participating in Red Flag-Alaska Executive Observer Program at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, June 14, 2019.

U.S. Air Force photo // Alejandro Peña

“We have two operational squadrons of the F-22 Raptors here at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and starting next April we’ll begin fielding two operational F-35 Lightning (II) fighter squadrons at Eielson Air Force Base (Alaska),” said Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere, Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command region commander.

He went on to say, “The United States has the ability to defend land, maritime, and the air over and around the joint operating area of Alaska.”

The changing environment in the Arctic is also providing unique challenges to infrastructure on U.S. installations. Ground that continues to shift due to thawing permafrost creates unique problems.

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The 23rd Space Operations Squadron, Det. 1 is located more than 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The detachment is the northernmost Air Force Satellite Control Network site and is responsible for collecting data and pushing commands to AF satellites.

U.S. Air Force photo // Airman 1st Class Jonathan Whitely

The solutions being used are derived from the problem itself — manipulating the permafrost, thawing or freezing where needed to ensure the ground can support the infrastructure.

“Really, it’s more about adapting, I think, than trying to hold back the change, because I don’t think we can,” said Gary Larsen, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineering Resource Development Center’s Cold Regions Research Engineering Laboratory operations manager. “The changing climate is going to affect military infrastructure in the Arctic and around the world.”

“The engineers and the professionals that build our facilities have really refined it to a unique science to manipulate the permafrost to build facilities to operate in this very cold environment,” Bussiere said. “I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll be able to meet any challenge head on.”

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A 210th Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk transports cargo in support of Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2018. ICEX 2018 is a five-week exercise that allows the Navy to assess its operational readiness in the Arctic, increase experience in the region, advance understanding of the Arctic environment, and continue to develop relationships with other services, allies and partner organizations.

U.S. Air National Guard photo // Airman 1st Class Kelly Willett