Melting Ice Caps Could Spark Tension In The Arctic; Defense Department Releases 'Arctic Strategy'

The world's most peaceful ocean could open up to tourism, commerce, and possibly militarization.

By Ben Wolford on November 23, 2013 6:15 PM EST

The Department of Defense released an

The Department of Defense released an "Arctic Strategy" to deal with climate change.

Melting ice caps are changing Arctic sea routes and opening previously inaccessible territory to tourism, commerce, and mineral extraction. This, the U.S. Defense Department said Friday, has the potential to spark tensions in the world's most peaceful ocean.

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In response, the department has released a new "Arctic Strategy," following other world powers that have done the same. "A flood of interest in energy exploration has the potential to heighten tensions over other issues," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, according to The New York Times, at the International Security Forum on Friday in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He added that international security efforts "will ultimately help reduce the risk of conflict."

Scientists have predicted and documented climate change fallout — everything from wildfires to flooding to food shortages and even direct heat-related fatalities. But this new military focus is a sobering reminder of the potential for climate change to drum up new conflicts and exacerbate existing ones. The "Arctic Strategy" is at once an effort to stake out America's interests in the Arctic, a call for multilateral cooperation, and a warning: the U.S. is guarding its northern borders.

"The Arctic is at a strategic inflection point as its ice cap is diminishing more rapidly than projected and human activity, driven by economic opportunity — ranging from oil, gas, and mineral exploration to fishing, shipping, and tourism — is increasing in response to the growing accessibility," the Defense Department said. "Arctic and non-Arctic nations are establishing their strategies and positions on the future of the Arctic in a variety of international forums."

The American strategy is eight points and includes protecting civilian operations and the "freedom of the seas." It also warns that less ice creates a new "avenue of approach to North America for those with hostile intent toward the U.S. homeland." It adds that "the Department will remain prepared to detect, deter, prevent and defeat threats to the homeland."

At the same time the Defense Department is aware that an overzealous militarization of the Arctic could lead to a polar arms race. But it intends to mitigate that risk through "collaborative security approaches." Hagel said, The Globe and Mail reports. "Throughout human history, mankind has raced to discover the next frontier. And time after time, discovery was swiftly followed by conflict. We cannot erase this history, but we can assure that history does not repeat itself in the Arctic."

Experts anticipate global carbon emissions will set a new pollution record by the end of this year. They say it's unlikely that the leading CO2-producing nations will be able to curb their fossil fuel burning quickly enough to stem a 2-degrees-Celsius rise in the worldwide temperature. It's difficult to predict, however, how much ice loss would occur for each degree of warming. About 130,000 years ago, the earth was warmer by 1 degree Celsius, and the sea level was as much as 20 feet higher than today, according to NASA.

Hagel anticipates that interests from southern nations will dominate Arctic maneuvering, according to The Times. "Among them are the growing economic and geopolitical importance of the Asia-Pacific; conflict and instability across the Middle East and North Africa; the unprecedented diffusion of global economic power; new sources of and demand for energy; the rise of China, India, Brazil and other nations; environmental degradation and devastating natural disasters; and the role of technology in closely linking the world's people, their aspirations and their grievances," he said.

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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