[…] Worth an estimated $17.2 trillion, an amount roughly equivalent to the entire U.S. economy, these resources have been trapped for eons under a dome of ice and snow. But now, with the Arctic warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, that dome is getting smaller and smaller. According to scientists at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center, about 65 percent of the ice layer above the Lomonosov Ridge melted between 1975 and 2012. In layman’s terms, says Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University, this means one thing: The ice cap is in a “death spiral.”
For the countries that border the Arctic Ocean— Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark (through its territory of Greenland)—an accessible ocean means new opportunities. And for the states that have their sights set on the Lomonosov Ridge—possibly all five Arctic Ocean neighbors but the United States—an open ocean means access to much of the North Pole’s largesse. First, though, they must prove to the United Nations that the access is rightfully theirs. Because that process could take years, if not decades, these countries could clash in the meantime, especially as they quietly send in soldiers, spies, and scientists to collect information on one of the planet’s most hostile pieces of real estate.
While the world’s attention today is focused largely on the Middle East and other obvious trouble spots, few people seem to be monitoring what’s happening in the Arctic. Over the past few years, in fact, the Arctic Ocean countries have been busy building up their espionage armories with imaging satellites, reconnaissance drones, eavesdropping bases, spy planes, and stealthy subs. Denmark and Canada have described a clear uptick in Arctic spies operating on their territories, with Canada reporting levels comparable to those at the height of the Cold War. As of October, NATO had recorded a threefold jump in 2014 over the previous year in the number of Russian spy aircraft it had intercepted in the region. Meanwhile, the United States is sending satellites over the icy region about every 30 minutes, averaging more than 17,000 passes every year, and is developing a new generation of unmanned intelligence sensors to monitor everything above, on, and below the ice and water.
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The U.S. State Department plans to create an Arctic ambassador position to highlight the growing importance of that region. In a letter to U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, Secretary of State John Kerry said he planned to name a “high-level individual of substantial stature and expertise” to serve as Special Representative for the Arctic Region.
“For a long time now, I’ve shared the view that the Arctic region really is the last global frontier, and the United States needs to elevate our attention and effort to keep up with the opportunities and consequences presented by the Arctic’s rapid transformation,” Kerry wrote in the letter, released by Begich’s office Friday. “Properly managed, this region provides an opportunity for creative diplomatic leadership — but truly establishing and capitalizing on this leadership role will require making the Arctic region a higher U.S. priority; greater attention paid by senior policy makers; and, in keeping with President Obama’s call for ‘national unity of effort’ on the Arctic, coordination of operational departments.”