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World’s armies circle as Arctic warms to reveal untapped supplies of oil and gas

By The Associated Press

YOKOSUKA, Japan — To the world’s military leaders, the debate over climate change is long over. They are preparing for a new kind of Cold War in the Arctic, anticipating that rising temperatures there will open up a treasure trove of resources, long-dreamed-of sea lanes and a slew of potential conflicts.

By Arctic standards, the region is already buzzing with military activity, and experts believe that will increase significantly in the years ahead.

None of this means a shooting war is likely at the North Pole any time soon. But as the number of workers and ships increases in the High North to exploit oil and gas reserves, so will the need for policing, border patrols and — if push comes to shove — military muscle to enforce rival claims.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its untapped natural gas is in the Arctic.

Shipping lanes could be regularly open across the Arctic by 2030 as rising temperatures continue to melt the sea ice, according to a National Research Council analysis commissioned by the U.S. Navy last year.

Russia, Canada and the United States have the biggest stakes in the Arctic. With its military budget stretched thin by Iraq, Afghanistan and more pressing issues elsewhere, the United States has been something of a reluctant northern power, though its nuclear-powered submarine fleet, which can navigate for months underwater and below the ice cap, remains second to none.

Russia — one-third of which lies within the Arctic Circle — has been the most aggressive in establishing itself as the emerging region’s superpower.

“We have an entire ocean region that had previously been closed to the world now opening up,” Huebert said. “There are numerous factors now coming together that are mutually reinforcing themselves, causing a buildup of military capabilities in the region. This is only going to increase as time goes on.”

Noting that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, the U.S. Navy in 2009 announced a beefed-up Arctic Roadmap by its own task force on climate change that called for a three-stage strategy to increase readiness, build cooperative relations with Arctic nations and identify areas of potential conflict.

The findings indicate the Navy is entering a new realm in the Arctic,” said Walter Berbrick, a War College professor who participated in the simulation. “Instead of other nations relying on the U.S. Navy for capabilities and resources, sustained operations in the Arctic region will require the Navy to rely on other nations for capabilities and resources.”

Acknowledging the need to keep apace in the Arctic, the United States is pouring funds into figuring out what climate change will bring, and has been working closely with the scientific community to calibrate its response.

“The Navy seems to be very on board regarding the reality of climate change and the especially large changes we are seeing in the Arctic,” said Mark C. Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences University of Colorado. “There is already considerable collaboration between the Navy and civilian scientists and I see this collaboration growing in the future.”

The most immediate challenge may not be war — both military and commercial assets are sparse enough to give all countries elbow room for a while — but whether militaries can respond to a disaster.

Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the London-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said militaries probably will have to rescue their own citizens in the Arctic before any confrontations arise there.

“Catastrophic events, like a cruise ship suddenly sinking or an environmental accident related to the region’s oil and gas exploration, would have a profound impact in the Arctic,” she said. “The risk is not militarization; it is the lack of capabilities while economic development and human activity dramatically increases that is the real risk.”

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