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.
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.
“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.
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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