Between 2015 and 2035, major environmental shifts in the Arctic will open up maritime passages never before available and bring steadily increasing trade activity to the region – and with it, new domains for terrorism.
Later this month, U.S. President Barack Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Arctic in what the White House has deemed as a trip to “the front lines of one of the greatest challenges we face this century—climate change.”
The landmark trip is yet another testament of the growing importance that the Arctic region will hold as the effects of climate change gradually intensify.
While President Obama’s visit will emphasize the global need to combat widely understood environmental impacts that linger on the horizon, there is also a need to consider how the international community will operate in the emerging reality of a melting Arctic.
One of the most important facets within this new Arctic reality is the steady increase in international trade directed through the region, facilitated by a gradual retreat of formerly untraversable ice.
Several new maritime routes will emerge by 2035 as the Arctic opens up, the most revelatory of which will be the Transpolar Sea Route (TPR), a presently hypothetical maritime passage that will become the most direct route through the arctic as the ice steadily recedes.
According to the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap, the TPR will be navigable 130 days per year by 2030. To put the trade potential of the TPR into perspective, the existing Northern Sea Route (NSR) provides a strong comparison.
One estimate from the South Korean Maritime Institute pins trade along the currently existing NSR at a quarter of all cargo traffic by 2030. At 2,100 nautical miles (nm), the TPR is significantly shorter than the roughly 3,000 nm length of the NSR, and can therefore be expected to take on a considerable amount of traffic as it emerges.
A 27 day trip from Japan to Europe via the Suez Canal can also be reduced to just 16 days by the TPR.
In short, the TPR’s emergence will funnel increasingly more trade through the Arctic and hasten maritime travel significantly — a process which has already begun and will continue in the coming decades as Arctic ice recedes further.
However, as vessels begin to turn North in greater and greater numbers, a new threat will also arise in tandem: terrorism in an especially vulnerable and isolated domain.
The vulnerabilities of the Transpolar Sea Route
Though the threat of terrorism will apply anywhere under the “spotty surveillance“ of the Arctic, the Transpolar Sea Route is especially at risk to these kinds of non-state threats for two reasons.
First, unlike the already existing NSR, the TPR is an emerging rather than an established Arctic maritime route, which means that it presents an entirely new domain which state-actors will have to learn to monitor.
Existing Arctic trade routes already have infrastructure and security protocols in place, but the TPR will in effect be the vulnerable “newborn” of maritime passages to which anti-terrorism measures will need to be adapted. This can take time to devise and implement, and even longer to refine into the kinds of iron-clad monitoring that the TPR will require.
Second, the TPR is out of national jurisdiction and therefore even more isolated than existing Arctic routes, cutting directly through what will by that point be the former Arctic shelf.
This means that the TPR will be naturally prone to gaps in regulation that would otherwise be covered in national waters, and in turn more prone terrorist attacks.
When combined with the fact that the TPR will become the fastest — and, with time, most frequented — trade passage through the Arctic, these two factors make it distinctly at risk to interruptions from nefarious non-state actors.
The Nature of the Arctic Terrorism Threat
While the TPR is unique in its particular disposition towards vulnerability, the harsh environment of the Arctic will remain even after large swaths of ice have melted. As a result, terrorism along the TPR will remain as a low-probability high-risk threat, with different kinds of terrorism varying in their likelihood and impact.
Studies on maritime terrorism assert that there are five types of maritime terrorism: hijacking and hostage taking, attacking ships and passengers, using a ship as a “vector,” using a ship as a weapon, and sinking or disabling a ship to block a choke point or port.
Given the conditions that are likely to persist in the Arctic, scholars agree that terrorist organizations are most likely to use ships in the Arctic as a “vector” – a vessel used to carry weapons – though hijackings and attacks are also possibilities.
Hijackings and attacks along the Arctic would have serious implications for trade in the region, representing an impediment to the freedom of the seas and the free flow of commerce, in addition to the obvious risks to human life.
In the event of the less direct but more likely “vector” variant of Arctic terrorism, trade could also be significantly affected. Should the effort be detected by trade authorities, maritime traffic along the TPR would be slowed significantly, as ships would face increased monitoring and scrutiny.
The likelihood of Arctic terrorism also varies with time, with its potential increased in proportion to increased trade in the region.
Overall transit shipping will grow modestly during the 2015-2030 period, when TPR will work its way towards opening for a full 45 days per year with a 60-70 day shoulder season of partial navigability. This will indeed open the doorway to terrorism, but the still-limited activity will mean that only “vector” terrorism can be reasonably expected.
The period following 2030 is when Arctic terrorism will become a notable risk. The TPR will reach a navigability period of 130 days per year, and, judging by the patterns of existing arctic routes, carry a shoulder season of 35-45 days annually.
Arctic shipping routes as a whole will double in their share of global maritime traffic to 4% in the 2030-2035 period, and tourism and fishing in the region will also rise considerably. Terrorism will likewise be increasingly more likely, with the risk of weapon transportation rising in addition to the possibility of hijacking and attacks.
The emergence of the Arctic as a frontier for international trade will be embraced by the very same governments that will also seek to hinder the cause of its arrival — climate change. It is thus important that, looking forward, major Arctic powers consider how best to combat not only the environment impacts of climate change, but also the ensuing security dilemmas that it will pose.