OPINION: Security in the changing Arctic means embracing research

At the University of Alaska Fairbanks, studying the Arctic is not only what we do, it’s who we are here at America’s Arctic University.

Fairbanks, like the rest of our state, is seeing the impacts of climate change in real time. The Arctic is warming three times as fast as the rest of the globe. These rapid polar changes have global implications — not only for atmospheric, ocean and geophysics dynamics, but also for U.S. national security.

As the Arctic warms and the Arctic Ocean becomes increasingly navigable, the North American Arctic isn’t as remote as it once was — for Americans or our adversaries. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that he sees the Arctic as a “theater for resource competition and even instability, and we need to stay ahead of that.”

Alaska’s military footprint is critical as the Pentagon turns its eyes north. As Secretary Austin said in a recent visit to Eielson Air Force Base, “We are an Indo-Pacific nation, and we are an Arctic nation. And here in Alaska … this is where we can project power into both regions and where we must defend ourselves from threats coming from both places.” The Army, Navy and Air Force have each issued Arctic strategies in the last two years, and Alaska has become the fifth highest state in defense spending per capita.

Where the military sees strategic value, we Alaskans see home. However, these views can coexist if Alaskans are engaged in Arctic security conversations and our experience is utilized appropriately.

This opportunity is why I am looking forward to the new National Arctic Strategy being developed by the National Security Council. This document is not only a signal of the region’s increasing importance, but an opportunity to identify the gaps in our strategic and scientific knowledge. The 2013 Arctic Strategy embraced decision-making with the best available science at the time — but science is ever-evolving, and we must continue to advance Arctic research to better support future decisions. Researchers and military strategists alike often speak of “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” when describing information awareness, and the Arctic is full of both. Only thorough, dedicated research informed by local and Indigenous knowledge can help solve these unknowns.

One key step to advancing research lies within the future Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies. Thanks to the leadership and foresight of Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, funding for this critical investment was included in the most recent National Defense Authorization Act. The center was formally established by Secretary Austin in June. Late last year, the Department of Defense, or DoD, announced it would be located in Alaska and headed by retired Maj. Gen. Randy “Church” Kee, who until recently led the University of Alaska’s Arctic Domain Awareness Center.


DoD plans to have Gen. Kee and his team pursue missions such as advancing Arctic awareness and addressing the impacts of climate change in the region. Despite this promising development, there are still questions that cannot be addressed through policy without more research to define them. That’s why it is essential to support scientific advancement that enables living and operating in the changing Arctic as part of the new strategy.

For example, maintaining military installations or civilian infrastructure in the Arctic requires an understanding of how permafrost is changing and thawing. Maintaining domain and threat awareness requires better tracking of ice floes in ocean waters that are warming, but not yet ice free. We need to understand changing weather patterns in the north and throughout the world. Troops need us to advance state-of-the-art cold weather gear and sailors need ships that can operate reliably in sub-freezing temperatures.

At UAF, we’ve refocused much of our research toward addressing emerging security questions. I believe we need to work together to support Arctic security efforts across the federal government — whether that’s DoD, the Department of Homeland Security, or other agencies that need us to identify the unknowns.

In the rapidly changing Arctic, it’s important to remember that we need to do more than use the best available science, because tomorrow, it may be very different. We need a resilient and adaptable model that doesn’t just prioritize research, but builds it into our decision-making.

Nettie LaBelle-Hamer was raised in Alaska and received her master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She lives in Fairbanks and works as vice chancellor for research at UAF.

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