A thawing Arctic is heating up a new Cold War

Nations—and their militaries—are scrambling to control long-frozen resources and new shipping routes.

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Canadian soldiers climb on the wreckage of a plane, roughly a thousand miles south of the North Pole, to scout the area during an Arctic survival course on Cornwallis Island. As the Arctic warms and tensions over its future rise, the Canadian and U.S. militaries have stepped up operations in the region.
This story appears in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine. Photography for this story was supported by grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Pulitzer Center.

Late on a gray November afternoon Marvin Atqittuq, a newly elected patrol commander in the Arctic community of Gjoa Haven, stood on the frozen sea outside town and called his troops in for a meeting. A frigid wind flicked snow in from the south, and it was about 20 below zero, cold but not that cold for the Arctic. The company of some 20 Inuit men and a few women gathered around with rifles slung over their shoulders, dressed in hand-sewn jackets of caribou hide or pants made of polar bear fur or wearing the usual store-bought stuff, which was far less warm but namuktuk, good enough for now.

Atqittuq (pronounced At-kee-TUK) pulled on a pair of sealskin gloves and outlined the plan for the day. The group was part of the Canadian Rangers, a reserve component of Canada’s armed forces, and Atqittuq would now lead them on his first mission as their commander: a weeklong patrol by snowmobile down the treeless coast of King William Island. There would be GPS training, military-style target practice, search-and-rescue scenarios, and plenty of hunting and ice fishing.

I stood at the edge of the circle, rubbing ice from my eyelashes. It was too cold to take notes, so I watched faces and read the frostbite scars, little badges of honor that told of lives spent outdoors on one of the planet’s most unyielding landscapes. The group soon broke up and began smoking last cigarettes before the long ride into darkness. Atqittuq walked over to ask whether I was warm enough. He was tall, broad shouldered, laughed easily. He’d been a ranger for many years before the others had voted him their new commander. In a friendly way, he warned me not to fall asleep on the journey ahead.

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U.S. soldiers eat high-calorie rations to help their bodies deal with the cold at the Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska, where the Army conducts cold-region training. The soldiers learn tactics derived from the Winter War, fought between Finland and the Soviet Union in World War II.

It happened, he said. Sometimes people tumbled off their snowmobiles and went missing. He reminded me that there was currently no cell service on the island or anywhere else in the territory of Nunavut—three times the size of Texas. “If anything happens and you get separated, just sit tight till someone comes back for you,” he said. “And try not to meet any polar bears.”

The rangers are called “Canada’s eyes and ears in the north,” and their units have been patrolling the country’s outermost regions since the 1940s. Most rangers in the far north are indigenous volunteers, and over the years they’ve acted as scouts, participated in war games, and helped regular troops learn to build igloos, navigate the tundra, and generally stay alive in the cold. Their role, like the far north itself, isn’t well-known, and the rangers have always managed to keep going on shoestring budgets and hand-me-down equipment, including government-issued bolt-action rifles made in the 1940s and stamped with the British crown.

Around the time of my visit, though, the Canadian government had been reappraising the rangers. Rumblings about an international scramble to stake new claims in the warming Arctic and on its vast trove of untapped resources had prompted politicians in Ottawa to promise the rangers better gear and funds to recruit more volunteers. Meanwhile U.S. military officials also were interested in the program, with an eye toward creating something similar in Alaska.

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Some 400 U.S. soldiers practice parachute jumps near Alaska’s Fort Greely. The multinational exercise, which includes Canadian forces, prepares troops for the rigors of large, coordinated operations in extreme cold conditions.

Atqittuq welcomed the attention. He was raised in the Arctic and was now raising his own son there, so he understood the different ways the far-off government could go from friendly to fickle to forgetful. But this time it wasn’t hard to guess what was on politicians’ minds: After years spent ignoring the fact that the Arctic is warming faster than any other place on the planet, Canada was finally coming around.

“We Inuit have been talking about this climate change stuff for a long time,” Atqittuq told me before we headed out onto the tundra. “Now the government’s catching up, and they want us to keep a lookout. Well, OK. We’re proud Canadians.” Then he grinned. “Just wish we were Canadian enough to get good phone service, eh?”

In early May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Rovaniemi, the capital of Finland’s northernmost province, to deliver a speech to the Arctic Council, a group made up of the eight nations that border the Arctic, plus representatives of the region’s indigenous peoples. For about 20 years the council has encouraged collegial debate, cooperation, and a progressive perspective on climate change. Pompeo’s appearance, as the emissary of an administration that is opposed to that approach, made for an awkward moment.

“This is America’s moment to stand up as an Arctic nation and for the Arctic’s future,” Pompeo declared at an event the night before the official meeting. “Because far from the barren backcountry that many thought it to be … the Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance.”

The speech signaled the end of a truly bizarre rebranding of the Arctic that has been under way for more than a decade. What was once considered a frozen wasteland is now routinely described as an emerging frontier. The Arctic, in other words, is open for business.

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Marines simulate seizing a building in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States. Marine Corps commandant Gen. Robert Neller recently told senators that after years of focusing on the Middle East and Pacific, the Marines “had gotten back into the cold-weather business.”

For most of human history, the world above 66 degrees latitude has remained largely out of play for large-scale commerce. Explorers, speculators, and scientists long believed rich resources and shipping routes lay hidden beneath the Arctic’s ice and snow, but the true nature of its wealth was obscured by the same deadly cold, debilitating darkness, and enormous distances that blocked its exploitation.

Today the Arctic landscape is greener than you are probably comfortable imagining, with fewer caribou and reindeer, more mosquitoes, warmer summers. The most visible and disturbing change has come at sea, where summer sea ice—the floating expanse that covers much of the Arctic Ocean during the region’s brief thaw—has been disappearing at an astonishing rate.

While this floating sheet always shrinks in warm months and grows again with the return of the cold, the scale of ice loss has been unprecedented, and some researchers believe it’s speeding up. NASA scientists estimate that on average the Arctic loses nearly 21,000 square miles of ice each year, and the experts who prepared the 2014 National Climate Assessment predict the Arctic Ocean will be ice free in summer before 2050.

“It’s all happening much faster than anyone thought,” said Michael Sfraga, director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “There’s an ocean opening before us in real time.”

Along the new frontier, the contest will not be about claiming new territory. Except for a few disputed tracts, mostly on the seafloor and including the North Pole itself, the Arctic’s borders are settled. Instead nations and corporations are now seeking a share of trillions of dollars’ worth of minerals—including gold, diamonds, and rare earth metals—petroleum, natural gas, and fish, as well as access to potentially cost-saving new shipping lanes.

Retreating ice has been followed, in some places, by heavy investment. Russia and Norway have been the most active Arctic nations, spending billions over the past decade on natural gas and oil infrastructure, deep-water ports, and ships capable of navigating the Arctic Ocean’s still-icy waters. Meanwhile China has sought its own footholds in the region, backing Russian gas projects and offering development loans to other Arctic nations. The Chinese also are building their own fleet of icebreakers, a clear bet on the future by a nation that lies more than 2,500 miles south of the pole.

By contrast, most Western nations, including Canada and the United States, which together control nearly half the Arctic coastline, have virtually ignored the north. The U.S. has five functioning icebreakers (compared with Russia’s 51) and no deep-water ports north of the Arctic Circle. That disequilibrium has, in turn, been dogged by a creeping tension, and the new frontier narrative has been accompanied by one of looming conflict, even the possibility of a new Cold War. These fears, finally felt in the U.S., were the real reason behind Pompeo’s appearance at the Arctic Council.

“The region has become an arena for power and for competition, and the eight Arctic states must adapt to this new future,” he said. “We’re entering a new age of strategic engagement … complete with new threats to the Arctic and its real estate, and to all of our interests in that region.”

The problem, of course, was that if Pompeo wanted to think of the Arctic as an arena, presumably where a race might be run, some nations already had a solid head start.

On King William Island, the rangers traveled west in a long line of snowmobiles. Some pulled wooden sleds, heavy with food, camping gear, and military equipment. I joined the procession on a borrowed machine, and after several frigid hours driving into the enormous night, we reached a frozen lake called Kakivakturvik.

In bright beams of headlamps and headlights, the rangers scattered over the lake and began setting up large canvas tents on the ice. Caribou skins and tarps were dragged in, then foam mattresses, sleeping bags, coolers filled with food.

Soon the tents glowed with lantern light and whispered with the sound of kerosene stoves. Steaming cups of tea were passed around, a few stories shared about favorite sled dogs, and then it was back outdoors. In small groups the rangers fanned out over the lake, chopped holes in the foot-thick ice, and dropped fishnets into the black water.

Across the Canadian Arctic, ranger patrols mix military exercises with traditional activities such as hunting and fishing that are still a necessary part of life in the far north. Over the next several days Marvin’s group tried to balance these with the martial stuff of navigation drills and training on GPS devices.

Strong winds hurtled off the frozen sea, and thick fog and clouds hung low over the tundra. The temperature rose toward freezing a couple of times, then fell again and stayed far below zero. All this was typical for late November, and soon our lives collapsed into the small white and gray world around camp.

Days began and ended at the fishnets. The haul of iqalupik, arctic char, was so plentiful that soon each tent was flanked by a small stand of stiff pink bodies, stuck tails first into deep drifts of snow. When we got hungry, we simply slipped an arm out the door and snagged a fish. Sometimes we cut it up and made soup. More often we ate it raw, slicing the char into our mouths. Frozen sushi, Marvin called it, fresh and cold, almost tasteless, with a note of steel from the knife blade.

Beyond the nets, our hours vanished into a well of small tasks. In the day’s few hours of weak sunlight, there were stoves to tend, ice to melt for drinking water, tents to relocate when the ice below them turned to slush. Snowmobiles regularly broke down in the unforgiving cold. At one point, a mother polar bear appeared near camp with two cubs, which made the act of heading off alone to relieve oneself—already dismal enough in the puckering cold—an even uglier prospect.

During the mission I shared a tent with Marvin Atqittuq and his father, Jacob, who at 74 was one of Gjoa Haven’s most celebrated hunters. Jacob Atqittuq had been born in an igloo and spoke only enough English to make occasional jokes. Over his lifetime he’d survived brutal winters and hungry bears, searing frostbite, boat accidents, even a season of famine that had killed many Inuit. Each morning he woke before us, and at the foot of the broad mattress we all shared, he cooked bannock, a sweet, doughy bread, and softly sang old church hymns in Inuktitut.

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U.S. aviators practice deploying signal flares in the event of a crash or forced landing. With millions of square miles of empty, inhospitable landscape, the Arctic presents huge logistical challenges for search-and-rescue operations.

One evening, as we lay in our sleeping bags, Marvin told me he’d once tried to leave the Arctic. He’d found a vocational school in southern Canada that offered classes in small engine repair. But years before, Jacob had watched another son taken from home and forced to attend one of Canada’s notorious residential schools, where indigenous knowledge and traditions were cruelly repressed. He asked Marvin to stay. Learn the old ways. Keep the family whole.

Marvin didn’t regret his decision. He was a father himself and a volunteer fireman in Gjoa Haven. He’d found a job with a company maintaining telephone lines, and he was slowly learning all he could from Jacob. But Jacob also seemed to inhabit a simpler, older Arctic.

The one Marvin knew was complicated. There were fewer opportunities, more drugs. There were social media and the internet. Marvin understood his Arctic was becoming something new. He’d read that the ice was melting, that another war might come north. He knew the weather was different from what he’d known as a child—not necessarily warmer but more unpredictable.

As for the gold rush he kept hearing about, he couldn’t see it. “All these things are supposed to be happening,” he told me, referring to the predictions of new infrastructure and jobs to harvest the region’s hidden riches. “I don’t really feel much change. I definitely don’t feel like I’m part of it.”

The next morning I left camp to scout for caribou with the Atqittuqs and a few others. When a blizzard blew in and swallowed our hunting party, it was Jacob who led us back to camp, using a combination of GPS and some other, inner map. I drove my snowmobile slowly behind Marvin’s, nearly blinded by a skin of ice that formed inside my goggles. Soon the world became so intensely white that I could no longer tell where the earth ended and the storm began.

At some point, the balaclava covering my face slipped out of place, exposing an inch of skin. I felt a burning sensation, as though someone had pressed a hot coin to my cheek, but I was busy keeping up. Hours later, in our tent, Jacob saw the burn. He pressed his thumb to it. “Good,” he said.

The opening of the new frontier can be traced to a calm morning in August 2007, when a pair of Russian submersibles dropped 14,000 feet to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and planted a flag made of titanium at the North Pole. Images broadcast around the world of the Russian tricolor on the seabed drew quick condemnation in the West.

It had been one of the hottest years on record, and just a month later scientists monitoring the ocean by satellite announced that sea ice had shrunk to the lowest extent ever witnessed. “It was the largest Arctic ice loss in human history and was not predicted by even the most aggressive climate models,” said Jonathan Markowitz, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. “This shock led everyone to suddenly understand that the ice was rapidly disappearing, and some nations decided to start making moves.”

Today Russia has become, by most measures, the dominant power in the Arctic. It has the world’s largest fleet capable of operating year-round in extreme northern waters and maintains dozens of military bases above the Arctic Circle. The U.S. maintains one base in the Arctic, an airfield, on borrowed ground in northern Greenland.

Russia has stationed new troops in the north, increased submarine activity, and returned warplanes to Arctic skies, where they now routinely buzz NATO airspace. But Markowitz and several other researchers told me Russian activity in the north was a mirror more of internal plans than of global ambitions.

Two million Russians inhabit the country’s Arctic territory, which has several large cities, including Murmansk and Norilsk. The combined Arctic populations of Canada and the U.S. equal less than a quarter of that number. In the U.S., the largest Arctic town, Utqiaġvik, formerly Barrow, is home to just over 4,000 people.

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U.S. Special Forces troops and Marines simulate capturing an Arctic radar station at Point Barrow, Alaska, the nation’s northern­most point. Radar stations are key tools for tracking missile launches and incursions by Russian aircraft.

Russians depend heavily on extracted resources, Markowitz explained. They view the Arctic “as their strategic future resource base.”

According to Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, in Washington, D.C., Chinese expansion into the Arctic follows a similar resource-focused strategy, not a territorial one. Beyond its investments in Russian oil and gas ventures, she said, China is specifically interested in gaining access to new sea-lanes that could reduce transit times between Asian ports and European markets by as much as two weeks.

Last January the Chinese government published a white paper that outlined its northern intentions. In it, China described itself as a “near-Arctic state” that hoped to collaborate with other nations to build a “Polar Silk Road” dedicated to commerce and research. “It’s something to watch carefully,” Sun said. “I will give you the literal translation of what the Chinese said to me: ‘We know that we don’t have claims in the Arctic, but if there’s anything in the Arctic that we can get, we don’t want to be left out.’ ”

During my travels along the new frontier, Cold War analogies always fell flat. Easier to grasp was the Arctic’s overall absence from the North American mind. Over decades the U.S. and Canada had never bothered to develop their northern territories or invest in their people. Even Pompeo’s speech, with language of opportunity and marketplaces, felt more like a warning than a plan—the protest of a player arriving late to the game.

This attitude is often insulting, even painful, to the Arctic’s indigenous people, especially because such promises of opportunity have nearly always excluded them. Joe Savikataaq, the premier of Canada’s Nunavut Territory, echoed Marvin Atqittuq when he told me the Inuit had been left out of plans for the new Arctic. “We’re happy and proud to be part of Canada,” he said, “but we feel like the poor brother that gets scraps.”

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The attack submarine U.S.S. Connecticut protrudes through an ice floe in the Beaufort Sea. For decades the U.S. and Russian navies have jockeyed for position in the Arctic. Now China is ready to enter the fray, investing in icebreakers and other technology as melting opens new, potentially lucrative shipping lanes.

Savikataaq listed several categories in which northern communities lag behind southern ones—health care, job creation, technology, college graduation. Then he listed a few where the north was ahead: loss of ice, cost of living, rate of warming, rate of suicide. Whatever’s coming this time, he said, it will hit us first. “I can’t speak too much about what Russia or China or the U.S. want to do or might do. We’re so small and our resources are so limited that we’re just a bystander,” Savikataaq said. “All we can do is adapt as best we can.”

About a week into the rangers’ mission the weather finally broke, and Marvin Atqittuq decided it was time to shoot Russians. He and Sgt. Dean Lushman, a former Canadian infantryman who had become an instructor with the ranger program, hauled out a sheaf of brownish paper targets, stapled them to sticks, and planted half a dozen in the snow outside our camp. Each bore the printed image of a charging soldier, his mouth open in a yell, his rifle mounted with a bayonet. Lushman called them his “Commie squad.”

The targets had been developed for NATO forces during the Cold War. Standing shoulder to shoulder at the foot of a small hill, they were the tallest objects around for miles, so obvious against the snow it didn’t seem possible to miss.

Atqittuq drew a line in the snow 100 yards away and arranged his troops along it. He gave each a handful of bullets, and the rangers knelt onto sealskins or parkas and began firing their clumsy, antique rifles. Atqittuq said age was their only advantage: The old rifles had so few moving parts that they usually didn’t freeze.

I asked Lushman, who had done several combat tours in Afghanistan, if he thought a new Cold War was coming to the north. He laughed.

“Man, look at this.” He spread his arms wide, taking in the empty tundra, the rangers, the paper Russians. “What would anyone do up here? Tanks driving around, soldiers, planes?” He turned to Atqittuq. “Whaddya say, Marv? You ready to fight the Russians?” Atqittuq grinned up from his notebook. “Too much hassle.”

“From a military standpoint, it doesn’t make sense, eh?” Lushman said. “You’ve seen how much time we spend out here just doing basic shit. You’ve seen how often our stuff breaks down, how much work it takes just to survive. Ain’t no war comin’ up here.”

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Canadian soldiers build an igloo during the high Arctic phase of their training to become Arctic operations advisers. In this part of the program, they learn to travel, survive, and build shelters when they reach the high Arctic.

The Canadian Rangers had been created during the first Cold War, when military planners, worried about ballistic missiles and the space race, had looked at the Arctic and seen a vulnerable back door. But the rangers themselves were never intended to battle invading armies. Even now, the eyes and ears of the north are far more likely to watch for passing ships: the Chinese icebreakers, cargo vessels, and cruise ships that are expected to appear in ever greater numbers as ice disappears.

Paul Ikuallaq, one of the rangers on the firing line, had been volunteering with the program for some 30 years. During the Soviet era he had helped train NATO troops. “It was kind of a shit show,” he said.

A barrel-chested, tough-love kind of guy with a rich laugh, Ikuallaq also didn’t believe war would come to the north. The kabloona soldiers he had taught over the years all went home with ice-numbed fingers and toes, reminders of just how bad war in the cold would be.

“Those guys, some of them didn’t even know when they had frostbite on their faces,” Ikuallaq said, laughing. “They didn’t know they could get even whiter.”

While none of the NATO officials I spoke to believed Russia would launch a war in the north, several suggested a conflict might begin somewhere in the south and eventually spread to the Arctic. Some cited Russia’s violent takeover of Crimea and China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea.

But many outside the military believe there’s still hope for a different Arctic, one that looks less like a Cold War battlefield and more like Antarctica or space. In those regions, both of them also frontiers, international agreements—and distance—dampen the effect of political struggles.

“Countries that have difficulty elsewhere find themselves having to cooperate in cold, dark, dangerous, expensive regions,” said Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia. “This necessity of cooperation leads to a practice of cooperation.”

On our last evening in camp, well after the sun had set, a small group of young Inuit roared in on snowmobiles. The rangers greeted them, cigarettes began to glow. It was cold but not that cold. The men had been hunting caribou somewhere in the west, without luck.

Suddenly one of the newcomers stumbled into the crowd. He was upset and told of a young man who had been riding in the sled he was towing. The passenger had disappeared. He must have fallen off somewhere out on the tundra. Marvin and other rangers asked for more details, but the young man could only shrug and point. Here was the sort of search-and-rescue mission the rangers had trained for. But before Atqittuq could organize it, a pair of rangers suited up and throttled off.

We watched their headlights streak into the darkness, grow fainter, vanish. Then most of us wandered back to our tents to wait and listen for the whine of returning machines. We made tea. Marvin seemed concerned but not overly so; the missing Inuit had been raised in the Arctic and knew what to do if he found himself alone on the ice. I thought of the bears spotted a couple of days before and tried to imagine what the young man was doing out there. Maybe he was singing hymns.

Writer Neil Shea profiled Tokyo in the April issue. Photographer Louie Palu received a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph the military in the Arctic. This is his first story for the magazine.