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Freezing cold war: militaries move in as Arctic ice retreats – photo essay

This month Arctic sea ice reached its second lowest extent on record, and modeling shows it will completely melt in summer by 2035. But where many see a disaster, some global powers discern an opportunity to secure geopolitical and commercial interests – and military ones.

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The UK, the United States and Canada have been among the countries ramping up their Arctic military exercises, and for the past five years, photographer and film-maker Louie Palu has been taking pictures of soldiers confronting an environment as hostile and deadly as any enemy force. He has photographed a parachute drop into mountainous terrain in Alaska, “through-the-ice” training in a lake in the Northwest Territories, a submarine coming up from under the ice in the Beaufort Sea and igloo-building and radar operations in Nunavut. He saw soldiers suffer frostbite and, during exercises in Finland, even be killed in a vehicle accident, he said.

Canadian pilots and air crew seen after a week of Arctic survival training for military personal from Canada, the UK and France at the Canadian Forces Crystal City training facility near Resolute Bay in Nunavut, Canada. These military personnel are in a tracked ground vehicle taking them back to heated facilities after a week of living outdoors in makeshift shelters at temperatures below minus 50 degrees Celsius.

“There’s an element of failure or disaster about to happen in every photograph, or absurdity,” Palu said. “I broke my ribs twice. I scratched my cornea with ice. The only time I’ve ever seen soldiers more afraid than going out in -60 [degrees Celsius] is Afghanistan when you walk through IEDs.”

The Arctic has always been something of a blank slate, a place so barren and vast it invited humans to invest it with their greatest dreams and fears. As the famous chronicler of the far north Barry Lopez wrote, “people’s desires and aspirations were as much a part of the land as the wind, solitary animals, and the bright fields of stone and tundra”.

US soldiers from bases in Alaska train to ski while attending a course about using snowshoes, survival and logistics in cold weather conditions. They are just south of the Arctic circle, at the Northern Warfare Training Center, a United States Army Alaska installation in Black Rapids, Alaska. Part of their training is based on the events of the Winter War fought by Finland against the Soviet Union in 1939.

For 16th-century explorers, it was a prospective trade route to the Orient. For 17th-century whalers, it was an El Dorado of bowhead blubber and walrus tusks. For cold war defence planners, it was the shortest flight path for a ballistic missile strike.

Following the Soviet collapse, the Arctic was mostly forgotten until 2007, when a submersible planted a titanium Russian flag at the north pole to highlight Moscow’s claim to economic rights over a wide swath of the seafloor there, provoking angry reactions from Washington and Ottawa. Denmark and Canada have since filed their own overlapping seafloor claims.

“Imagination and the unknown are the two themes that everything bottlenecks to,” Palu said. “It’s the unknown future of this planet because of climate change and the opening up of a part of the world that no one cared about before.”

The Fox-Main Long Range Radar site, also known as Site 30, part of the North Warning System. This complex superseded the Distant Early Warning Line, which was initiated in 1954 to detect possible Russian missile and bomber attacks. This facility is located in the community of Hall Beach, Nunavut, and is jointly operated by the US and Canada.

But the warming of the Arctic has galvanised resource extraction more than environmental concerns. Shipping on the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s Arctic coast, which Vladimir Putin hopes will become an alternative to the Suez Canal, is expected to reach 32m tonnes this year, 80% of it oil and gas from huge fields on the Yamal peninsula. The state oil giant Rosneft is drilling the world’s northernmost oilwell offshore and developing what it says will be the world’s biggest oil project onshore.

On the American side, the Trump administration has pledged drilling lease sales in the Arctic national wildlife reserve by the end of the year. And it reversed an Obama-era ruling that would have nixed the proposed Pebble Mine, thus setting the stage for a gold and copper project that environmentalists say will harm the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

Canadian soldier Master Bombardier Jonathan Caron Corriveau holds survival candles that will be his only source of heat in an igloo he built on an Arctic Operations Advisors course. Soldiers learn from Inuit instructors how to build and sleep in improvised survival shelters at the Crystal City training area near Resolute Bay, where temperatures at times were as low as -50 degrees (-58 F) with the windchill.

As economic interests in the north have grown, so have military patrols to test or defend territorial boundaries. Following the 2019 declaration by the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, that it was “America’s moment to stand up as an Arctic nation”, the US deployed destroyers off Russia’s northern coast in May – and for the first time since the 1980s. In July, the air force released its inaugural Arctic strategy. Last month Senator Dan Sullivan said the US will deploy 100 F-22 and F-35 fifth-generation fighter jets to Alaska, where US aircraft have intercepted Russian warplanes at least a dozen times this year.

Canadian soldiers on the Arctic Operations Advisors course build igloos under the supervision of Inuit instructors at the Crystal City training facility near Resolute Bay, Nunavut.

US and Russian submarines are reportedly hiding under the ice in numbers not seen since the cold war, and last week a vessel operated by Russia’s main directorate of deep-sea research, which is developing a nuclear-powered underwater drone and is believed to be targeting Arctic fiberoptic cables, returned from its maiden voyage through Arctic seas.

No one seriously believes that Russia would deploy its recently developed combat snowmobiles to Resolute Bay, or that the US would drop paratroopers on the other side of the Bering Strait. But more assets in the Arctic means a greater risk of accidental collisions or shootouts.

A Canadian Ranger, illuminated by a snowmobile and his headlamp during a snowstorm, helps pull a net using under-ice fishing techniques for Arctic char during a patrol on King William Island, Nunavut. Canadian Rangers are a volunteer, community-based military unit. In the Arctic they are mostly Inuit.

“The likelihood of hot conflict involving land-based troops is very low,” said Lillian Hussong, a research associate at the Washington-based Arctic Institute. “What I am concerned about is competition, with that comes the likelihood of miscalculation. A lot of risk in the Arctic has to do with miscalculation and not understanding adversaries’ intentions.”

The involvement of “near-Arctic state” China in the region further complicates the picture. It just sent its second icebreaker, Snow Dragon 2, on a maiden voyage to gather sediment cores in the Arctic Ocean, and Beijing-based Cosco is the only one of the five major container shipping companies sending vessels through the Northern Sea Route each year as part of the “Ice Silk Road” initiative with Russia. Some in the west suspect that these scientific and commercial pursuits could lead to espionage or military activity.

Civilian personnel from the US Navy's Arctic Submarine Laboratory prepare to retrieve a torpedo fired under the ice by the USS Hartford, a nuclear attack submarine, during ice operations. Two other submarines, including a Royal Navy submarine from the United Kingdom, later sailed below the ice to the North Pole from a base set up on a floating ice sheet 150 miles north of Deadhorse, Alaska.

“I’ve done 117 interviews with American military officials and diplomatic officials stationed in Arctic areas, and the Chinese are always brought up,” Hussong said. “And when I ask about threats to us in the Arctic, sometimes Russia isn’t brought up at all, but after climate change China comes next.”

The burgeoning commercial and military rivalries in the far north are in fact a distraction from the real problem, which is the devastating effects of climate change. These include a deadly anthrax outbreak in northern Russia in 2016, rain-on-snow events leading to the starvation of thousands of reindeer, and a permafrost thaw that was blamed for the largest ever Arctic oil spill this summer. Writing about the Arctic buildup in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, an American and British academic argued that the United States is heading “toward an unnecessary confrontation in a region where the real enemy isn’t cold war ghosts but looming environmental disaster”.

Marines practice room clearing in buildings outside a US National Guard Barracks in Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, in Alaska. These marines were training for operating in cold weather environments and an upcoming deployment to Norway.

In this light, the far-ranging military exercises Palu photographed smack of hubris rather than mastery.

“What are they waiting for? They’re waiting for they don’t know,” Palu said. “So it’s an imagined threat, but the irony is that climate change is the real threat. Climate change will destroy everything up there, not another army.”

US marines and Army special forces walking toward a long range radar station operated by NORAD in Utqiagvik, formerly known a Barrow, in Alaska, the most northerly point of the US. These troops are taking part in the US military's annual Arctic Edge exercise, which takes place across Alaska and involves numerous branches of the U.S. military.

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