Record heat in the Arctic is setting the stage for a different kind of conflict

Russian icebreaker Yamal during the removal of manned drifting station North Pole 36, August 2009.
  • Siberia has seen record-setting heat in recent weeks, part of a trend of increasing temperatures across the Arctic region.
  • A warmer Arctic has long been seen as an opportunity for increased shipping and resource extraction, but going after those resources may bring otherwise cooperative countries into conflict.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Record-setting temperatures above the Arctic Circle have again drawn attention to climate change in the high north, where the prospect of more accessibility has stoked both national and commercial competition.

The temperature hit 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, where records have been kept since 1885. The town, home to about 1,300 people and roughly 3,000 miles northeast of Moscow, has the world’s most extreme temperature range, with a low of -90 degrees Fahrenheit and a previous high of 98.96 degrees Fahrenheit.

Temperatures have hit highs across Siberia this year. The heat has melted snow and ice, contributing to feedback loops that perpetuate the warming trend.

Verkhoyansk is inland, but satellite images taken over the weekend showed open water on the East Siberian Sea and signs of ice melt on the Laptev Sea. The Arctic as a whole is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

That trend has long been present in the European Arctic, where temperatures have risen and sea-ice coverage fallen over the past 40 years.

Nilsen Arctic ice photo
Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen on his voyage through the Kara Sea in August 1913 National Library of Norway

A photo taken by journalist Thomas Nilsen, editor of Norwegian news outlet The Barents Observer, in the Kara Sea in 2013, a century after a similar voyage by Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, revealed the extent of that diminishing ice cover.

“The photos are taken on the same August day at the same location, but with 100 years in between,” Nilsen told Insider in an email in February. “And worse, we sailed even further north that August in 2013 and didn’t see any sea ice at all.”

Nilsen Arctic photo current
A voyage Thomas Nilsen participated in on the 100th anniversary of Fridtjof Nansen’s voyage, in August 2013. Thomas Nilsen/Barents Observer

Nilsen presented the photos at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council and the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, DC, in February.

“If you find certain spots, like Svalbard on Norway, the changes are even more dramatic,” Nilsen said at the event. “Over the last 100 months, there has not been one single month where temperatures have been normal or lower than normal. It’s always been higher and up to 8 degrees Celsius” – or up to 14 degrees higher in Fahrenheit.

Climate change and resource insecurity

Along with more interest from navies, a more accessible Arctic has attracted an increase in commercial activity.

Russia, which has the world’s longest Arctic coastline and gets roughly one-quarter of its GDP from the region, has led the way with its Northern Sea Route.

Arctic map Northern Northwest Northeastern sea routes
A map of the Arctic region showing the Northeast Passage, Northern Sea Route, and Northwest Passage. Arctic Council/Susie Harder

That route promises shorter transit time between Europe and Asia. Less ice in the Arctic also means more travel time: Liquified-natural gas tanker Christophe de Margerie and icebreaker Yamal left the port of Sabetta at the western end of the route on May 18 this year bound for China – the earliest voyage of its kind on record.

But Russia’s development of the Northern Sea Route, and its changing military footprint across the region, has concerned dismayed other Western countries.

“I watch with interest now the militarization of the Northern Sea Route over top of Russia. I see the melting ice cap, and I’ve seen increasing interest in commercial companies to save fuel … and I see increasing risk in terms of state-on-state conflict,” Vice Adm. Jerry Kyd, British Royal Navy fleet commander, said this month at an event hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Russia cod fish factory Murmansk
An employee at the newly opened Cod fish processing factory in Murmansk, Russia, August 28, 2019 Lev FedoseyevTASS via Getty Images

Outside of military buildup, however, changes in the region have security implications for the communities there, Nilsen said at the February event.

“Last summer, me and my son, we were out in the fjord just outside where we are living [in northern Norway], and he got a mackerel when we were fishing. A mackerel is a fish that you should never get in the Barents Sea,” Nilsen said. “I started to ask around, and yeah, we’re not the only ones.”

Mackerel, typically found in the southern part of the Norwegian Sea, is subject to overfishing and countries in the area have put quotas on it. “But with the species moving further north, you need to renegotiate. You get more mackerel up in the north, well, then you have to bring in Russia,” Nilsen said.

Scientists have said that cod, which prefer colder water, are “now moving away from the western part of the Barents Sea and further to the northeastern part of the Barents Sea … way inside Russian territorial waters,” Nilsen added.

Management of marine resources in this changing environment has been a point of contention in Europe, where fishermen have come to blows in recent years. “There have been some debates … with the European Union and the European Parliament that strongly disagree with Norway,” Nilsen said.

UK England Brexit fishing boat
A ‘Fishing For Leave’ campaign sign for Brexit on a boat in the harbour in Brixham, southern England, October 11, 2018. ROBIN MILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

China, too, is seen as having designs on Arctic fisheries. Beijing has already dispatched fleets of fishing vessels around the world, often running afoul of other governments.

With rapid warming in the Arctic, much of the Arctic Ocean outside the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone of the countries that surround it is now open water in the summer. In 2018, nine signatories, including China, agreed to prohibit unregulated commercial fishing in the central Arctic for 16 years.

Going forward, countries are likely to look to their militaries to help manage those marine resources. The British government is already doing so, Kyd said this month.

“I also see a greater push now from other government departments on the Ministry of Defence, [Department for International Development], and the Foreign Office, particularly in things like protection of marine resources – fisheries are a big one,” Kyd said.

“We did an awful lot of that 20 years ago – one remembers the Cod Wars – but I think as world resource gets ever more competitive … presence, and understanding where we stand in terms of legality and regulation, is going to be critical.”