‘Challenging’ Russia in the Arctic: Political posturing or a war in the making?

As Russia bolsters its efforts to secure and tap the Arctic, both the UK and the US have been vowing to meet its “challenge” – a premise that could lead to war, experts say, if their naval powers could muster the capabilities.

“It’s nobody’s lake,” said US Admiral James Foggo in a recent interview with US media – the latest in a string of American warnings against Russia’s northward push. His concern is primarily for “Arctic Council nations – of which we are a member,” and which are not interested in the Northern Sea Route being exploited by adversary powers like Russia and China.

UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson recently joined the chorus of warnings, saying Britain would “stay vigilant to new challenges” by “sharpening our skills in sub-zero conditions, learning from longstanding allies like Norway or monitoring submarine threats with our Poseidon aircraft.”

But Russia is better positioned both legally and physically to oversee the Arctic and, while still dangerous, the bellicose statements carry little weight for the reality on the ice, experts have told RT.

Bravado for domestic consumption

Williamson’s promise to defend NATO’s northern flank from Russia must be viewed “in the context of current UK domestic politics,” believes security analyst and former UK army officer Charles Shoebridge. With Brexit just around the corner, Williamson is drumming up the Russia and China threats so that other European nations aren’t “tempted to turn to the EU for its security, but must continue to rely on the US and UK through NATO.”

Ultimately, he could be aiming just for political gain.

With the UK in political turmoil it often appears that Williamson is even positioning himself as a future candidate to replace Theresa May as PM.

Likewise in the US: James Foggo's “nobody's lake” comment was tellingly lacking in detail as to how exactly the US is going to keep Russia out of the Arctic, says retired colonel Mikhail Khodarenok.

“James Foggo’s statements at this point are of a purely political nature. It’s telling that he never clarified how exactly the US Navy is going to accomplish that task. Are they going to create naval groups in the Arctic Ocean, seize important coastal areas, channels, naval bases and ports? But that means war with a nuclear power, one which would see unrestricted use of weapons of mass destruction.”

Dangerous free-for-all

War can be averted, the experts believe, though the danger of escalation is very real. The situation, according to Khodarenok, is complicated by the vagueness of international law regarding the Arctic.

James Foggo’s statement is a fresh indication that the Arctic is becoming an arena of global rivalry over transport lanes and natural resources,” Khodarenok said.

World history knows no precedent of such a rivalry playing out without considering military factors.

Shoebridge, on the other hand, believes that when faced with the danger of an armed incident spiraling into “uncontrolled escalation,” cooler heads will prevail.

“Despite the confrontational language they might use, most leaders of most states want to avoid this,” he said.

Also on rt.com US plans expansion to Arctic in bid to challenge Russia, but can it?...

Questionable claims and capabilities

The US seeks to deny Russia and China the use of the Northern Sea Route – but the lane goes along the Russian coastline, which, under international law, gives Russia a degree of control over it, something Russia should lean on when defending its rights to use the waters, says Khodarenok.

Besides, while Foggo wants Russia and China out of the “nobody's lake,” he admits American companies can’t use it either, since their vessels are too big for local conditions. Besides, Russia is the only world power with a significant icebreaker fleet, which makes it the only one capable of rendering aid to ships that have an emergency while sailing there.
On top of that, Russia has been reviving its military installations that guard the area, including radar arrays and permanent military bases. Abandoning those is not an option, since that would mean losing a vital strategic foothold.

For Russia the Northern Sea Route has defense significance as well, since it provides access to all of the world’s oceans, as well as the ability to maneuver between theaters relying only on the capabilities of the Russian Navy.

At the end of the day the only ones undoubtedly standing to profit from the opening of the Arctic arena are military industrial contractors – with the US 2nd Fleet revived for the sole purpose of containing Russia’s Arctic ambition, Navy contracts are bound to follow.

Also on rt.com Cold War is good for business: US contractors rejoice at the new Red Scare...

  • Published in World

Arctic clouds highly sensitive to air pollution

In 1870, explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, trekking across the barren and remote ice cap of Greenland, saw something most people wouldn't expect in such an empty, inhospitable landscape: haze.

Nordenskiöld's record of the haze was among the first evidence that air pollution around the northern hemisphere can travel toward the pole and degrade air quality in the Arctic. Now, a study from University of Utah atmospheric scientist Tim Garrett and colleagues finds that the air in the Arctic is extraordinarily sensitive to air pollution, and that particulate matter may spur Arctic cloud formation. These clouds, Garrett writes, can act as a blanket, further warming an already-changing Arctic.

"The Arctic climate is delicate, just as the ecosystems present there," Garrett says. "The clouds are right at the edge of their existence and they have a big impact on local climate. It looks like clouds there are especially sensitive to air pollution." The study is published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Pollution heading north

Garrett says that early Arctic explorers' notes show that air pollution has been traveling northward for nearly 150 years or more. "This pollution would naturally get blown northward because that's the dominant circulation pattern to move from lower latitudes toward the poles," he says. Once in the Arctic, the pollution becomes trapped under a temperature inversion, much like the inversions that Salt Lake City experiences every winter. In an inversion, a cap of warm air sits over a pool of cold air, preventing the accumulated bad air from escaping.

Others have studied which regions contribute to Arctic pollution. Northeast Asia is a significant contributor. So are sources in the far north of Europe. "They have far more direct access to the Arctic," Garrett says. "Pollution sources there don't get diluted throughout the atmosphere."

Scientists have been interested in the effects of pollution on Arctic clouds because of their potential warming effect. In other parts of the world, clouds can cool the surface because their white color reflects solar energy back out into space. "In the Arctic, the cooling effect isn't as large because the sea-ice at the surface is already bright," Garrett says. "Just as clouds reflect radiation efficiently, they also absorb radiation efficiently and re-emit that energy back to warm the surface." Droplets of water can form around particulate matter in the air. More particles make for more droplets, which makes for a cloud that warms the surface more.

Seeing through the clouds

But quantifying the relationship between air pollution and clouds has been difficult. Scientists can only sample air pollution in clouds by flying through them, a method that can't cover much ground or a long time period. Satellite images can detect aerosol pollution in the air -- but not through clouds. "We'll look at the clouds at one place and hope that the aerosols nearby are representative of the aerosols where the cloud is," says Garrett. "They're not going to be. The cloud is there because it's in a different meteorological air mass than where the clear sky is."

So Garrett and his colleagues, including U graduate Quentin Coopman, needed a different approach. Atmospheric models, it turns out, do a good job of tracking the movements of air pollution around the Earth. Using global inventories of pollution sources, they simulate air pollution plumes so that satellites can observe what happens when these modeled plumes interact with Arctic clouds. The model allowed the researchers to study air pollution and clouds at the same time and place and also take into account the meteorological conditions. They could be sure the effects they were seeing weren't just natural meteorological variations in normal cloud-forming conditions.

Highly sensitive clouds

The research team found that clouds in the Arctic were two to eight times more sensitive to air pollution than clouds at other latitudes. They don't know for sure why yet, but hypothesize it may have to do with the stillness of the Arctic air mass. Without the air turbulence seen at mid-latitudes, the Arctic air can be easily perturbed by airborne particulates.

One factor the clouds were not sensitive to, however, was smoke from forest fires. "It's not that forest fires don't have the potential," Garrett says, "it's just that the plumes from these fires didn't end up in the same place as clouds." Air pollution attributable to human activities outpaced the influence of forest fires on Arctic clouds by a factor of around 100:1.

This gives Garrett hope. Particulate matter is an airborne pollutant that can be controlled relatively easily, compared to pollutants like carbon dioxide. Controlling current particulate matter sources could ease pollution in the Arctic, decrease cloud cover, and slow down warming. All of those gains could be offset, other researchers have suggested, if the Arctic becomes a shipping route and sees industrialization and development. Emissions from those activities could have a disproportionate effect on Arctic clouds compared to emissions from other parts of the world, Garrett says.

"The Arctic is changing incredibly rapidly," he says. "Much more rapidly than the rest of the world, which is changing rapidly enough."

Russia eyes military icebreaker force to protect Arctic borders - report

The Russian Navy is reportedly considering the creation of a force of military icebreakers and ice-class attack ships based on the newest nuclear icebreakers. Their task would be security of the Northern Sea Route and protecting Russia’s Arctic borders.

The design of an ice-class attack vessel is being discussed with the military, Valery Polovinkin, adviser to the Krilov State Research Center, specializing in research into sophisticated maritime equipment, told Izvestia daily. It is likely that the ship will have a lot in common with the Leader project, a new-generation of Russian nuclear-powered super-icebreakers expected to enter the design phase in 2016.

Russian military plans mobile nuclear energy plants in Arctic by 2020

The CEO and chief constructor at the Center’s subsidiary developing Leader project, Aleksandr Ryzhkov, believes the new 205-meter-long super-icebreaker, powered by two 60 MWt RITM-400 next-generation nuclear reactors will have excessive power “to cross the North Pole in any direction, any time of the year, in any ice condition [thickness].”

The icebreaker’s power plant will have unprecedented operating capacity of crashing through 2-meter-thick ice at a speed of 14 knots, which is seven times faster than the nuclear icebreakers operating today.

“At a slower speed it will go through ice 4.5 meters thick,” Ryzhkov told Izvestia. “For navigating vessels on the traditional routes along the shore this is excessive.”

Although the Leader project is being designed for civilian use, “these days, this sector of shipbuilding is increasingly becoming a locomotive for the military taking relevant decisions,” Ryzhkov said.

The recent naval drills in the Arctic, which implied landing of troops on Kotelny Island (New Siberian Islands archipelago, located between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea, on the 75th parallel) has shown that even the presence of huge icebreakers powered with megawatts of nuclear power cannot guarantee the integrity of the hull of a standard military vessel operating in ice conditions. The vessels themselves need to be ‘ice-proof’ to be able to maintain Russia’s constant military presence in the Arctic region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a constant military presence in Arctic waters back in December 2013. This presence is necessary both for protecting the growing potential of the Europe-Asia transit gaining momentum on the Northern Sea Route and for maintaining Russia’s national security from the north.

@RT_com’s defense installations set to be completed by 2017 http://on.rt.com/7hmg

“If deployed to this [Arctic] area, American warships armed with BGM-109 Tomahawk long-range cruise missiles would have a firing range covering three-quarters of our territory, otherwise impenetrable from any other direction,” Polovinkin said.

Construction of a series of icebreakers to work with military vessels is already underway, with the first new generation diesel-electric icebreaker Ilya Muromets (Project 21180) - built at the Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg - floated out in June.

However, the design of a typical icebreaker leaves no place for deployment of modern military hardware, such as radar and missile complexes, so an ice-class warship needs to be designed independently, keeping in mind specific hardware to be installed onboard to ensure its military capabilities.

  • Published in World

Arctic Ice Cap Is Smallest Since Late 1970s

WASHINGTON – The Arctic ice cap this year is the smallest it has been since the late 1970s, when satellite monitoring of the polar region began, and experts attribute the shrinkage to climate change and global warming, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, reported Tuesday.

Subscribe to this RSS feed