A Warning About Warming: Climate Change Threatens Arctic Nuclear Security

Early in the Cold War, security experts recognized the strategic importance of the Arctic.

A flight path over the North Pole provided the US and USSR the quickest route to a nuclear attack on each other. So as early as the 1950s, US military planners worked with their Canadian counterparts to place radar systems in the far north to detect an incoming Soviet attack. The Soviet Union based its Northern Fleet in the Kola Peninsula for similar reasons, leading to regular nuclear submarine patrols beneath the Arctic’s icy surface by the SovietsAmericans, and British alike.

Today, the Arctic remains an important region in the global nuclear security complex. The US and Canada operate the North Warning System in the region, a complex of radars designed to work with other assets (such as the US space-based infrared system) to provide warning and classification of missile threats from that quarter. Russia, too, has placed defense systems in the Arctic, most recently deploying specially designed surface-to-air missiles. Its Northern Fleet continues to operate in the region, with both nuclear-powered icebreakers and ice-capable corvettes armed with cruise missiles, and President Putin has made it a priority to recommission old and build new Arctic military facilities. These nuclear infrastructures and activities, however, are threatened by the climate changes occurring in the Arctic.

Melting permafrost, for example, will pose a key challenge to nuclear infrastructures as the thawing of the Arctic’s underlying land layer disrupts the structural foundations on which these systems are built. Take NORAD’s North Warning System, a 1980s era US-Canadian radar system that traces its heritage to the radars of the 1950s and now itself needs updating. Architects will be tasked with designing a replacement system that can cope with new and continuously changing ground foundations, especially if that system—like its predecessors—is meant to last 30-40 years.

As the Arctic becomes ice free for longer periods of time each year, states will also need to adjust their nuclear operations in the region. For example, Russia relies on the cover from aerial observation and heightened background noise provided by layers of Arctic ice to hide its patrolling SSBNs. As that ice melts—with some climate reports projecting ice-free Arctic summers by 2050—there will be a greater need for escorts and patrol aircraft to help secure the underwater battlespace around these SSBNs, with consequent impact on military resourcing and the potential for encounters between NATO and Russian nuclear-related military assets.

Effects like these will only expand as the region experiences more and more drastic climate changes. Ground-based defense systems must account for a wider array of climates, satellites must be positioned to detect greater activity in the region made possible by melting iceways, and new capabilities must be developed and deployed to effectively operate in an ever-changing environment.

The confluence of climate change and nuclear stability therefore merits significant scrutiny. But expert discourses on climate and security seem unconnected. In the climate domain, a series of reports citing the rise in global temperature have gained international attention over the past few weeks. This rise is most drastic in the Arctic, where thawing permafrost and changing weather patterns threaten an already vulnerable ecosystem and pose fundamental challenges to regional infrastructures and ways of life.

Meanwhile, a separate conversation focuses on the militarization of the Arctic. Both Russia and China have increased their presence in the region amidst growing competition for natural resources and control of sea lanes made more accessible by melting ice. Russia in particular has expanded its military capabilities, re-opening Cold War-era bases, building and deploying icebreakers, and increasing the Northern Fleet’s capabilities and presence in the region. Western states, in turn, have recognized a need to respond. The UK, for instance, recently released a report calling for greater attention to Arctic defense initiatives.

While these two conversations largely exist in parallel to one another, the pressing challenges that each domain poses to nuclear security in the Arctic receives even less attention. Considering the critical role the Arctic plays in the global nuclear security complex and the potentially drastic effects climate change poses to the Arctic nuclear infrastructure, greater acknowledgement must be given to this link and the broader implications it poses for the future of deterrence in the 21st century.

Jamie Kwong is a Research Assistant in the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme at RUSI, working on projects related to nuclear stability and supporting UK PONI initiatives. She is pursuing her PhD in War Studies at King’s College London, where her research focuses on public engagement with nuclear issues in both the U.S. and Europe.

Image credit: Cdr Charles Ball/MOD, Royal Navy submarine breaks through Arctic ice for major exercise, 11 March 2018, Ministry of Defence.


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