Home North pole ice Russian geopolitical strategies in the Arctic are complicated by the rapid retreat of glaciers to remote islands

Russian geopolitical strategies in the Arctic are complicated by the rapid retreat of glaciers to remote islands

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Russian geopolitical strategies in the Arctic are complicated by the rapid retreat of glaciers to remote islands

Alexandra Land, an island in the Franz Josef Earth archipelago that lies at 80 ° N in the Arctic Ocean, is home to Russia’s northernmost military installation. The Nagurskoye air base is of great importance to Russia due to its location in the High Arctic, an area that has received increased attention in recent years as international tensions and military activity in the region intensified. Much of this change is due to massive sea ice melting, which opened up the Arctic Ocean to shipping as well as oil and gas exploration. The melting glaciers that surround Nagurskoye free up land space for human infrastructure while simultaneously increasing runoff in nearby streams and accelerating the thawing of permafrost, which could destabilize infrastructure foundations and profoundly disrupt landscapes.

Military activity on Alexandra Land was first established by the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, when a dirt track served as a small air base, next to a weather station. Its use declined dramatically following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but was restored in 2008 following Russian interest in protecting its long northern coastline. and its vast energy and mineral resources, as well as to better monitor the passage on the Northern Sea Route. (NSR), which connects Europe and East Asia. In 2013, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced plans to form more permanent military installations on Alexandra Land, including a new, larger air base as well as support facilities. The base was designed to support a greater range of military aircraft, including bombers.

The island is located at 85 ° 45 ‘N, near the North Pole. Much of it is covered with ice, and the few ice-free areas are made up of permafrost. It lies in the NSR Passage, with the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard 260 kilometers to the west and the Russian coast 360 kilometers to the south. It is home to two significant ice caps, the largest lunar ice cap and the smaller Kropotkin ice cap, which during the 1990s covered 74% of the land area. There are numerous lakes throughout Alexandra Land which are fed by glacial meltwater or seasonal thaw of permafrost.

Map of the Russian Arctic showing the location of the Franz Josef Land Archipelago. Credit: Andrey Glazovskiy, Jens-Ove Näslund and Rolf Zale.

Warming air temperatures have accelerated the melting of glaciers in recent decades. Warming is particularly striking in the Arctic due to polar amplification; the region has warmed twice as fast as the world average over the past 30 years. A to study found that the mass loss of glaciers across the Earth Franz Josef doubled between 2011 and 2015 compared to the 1953 to 2011 average. The increase in meltwater feeds the lakes located a few kilometers from the base of Nagurskoye, increasing their volume and potentially modifying their configuration, which could spill over onto the airstrip, causing problems there for military operations. On the other hand, retreating glaciers will open up ice-free space on the island that could be used for Russian military infrastructure.

Permafrost underlies much of the ice-free land on which the air base is located. Stephen Gruber, a geoscientist at Carleton University who has conducted research at a number of high latitude permafrost sites (but not in Russia) mentioned that no matter where you go in the Arctic, big changes will happen in the world. over the next few decades due to warming. Gruber noted that many man-made structures in the Arctic, such as the Alexandra Land Air Base, will undergo changes, some of which were unexpected, as current practice was based on past experience, which has not been discounted. implicated by long-term warming and melting ice. .

In an interview with GlacierHub, Alexander Sergunin, Russian national, professor at Saint Petersburg State University and author of Russia in the Arctic, said “I don’t see specific implications of climate change, such as waging arctic states or military tensions, but I think climate change requires cooperation rather than confrontation.” Now that the Biden administration has returned to the Paris Agreement, Sergunin believes the major players in the Arctic can cooperate on the issue of climate change. When Biden and Putin met in June for historically significant talks, Arctic issues were discussed, and although resolutions were unlikely to be found, the two leaders expressed interest in cooperating.

A large glacier on Rudolph Island, Franz Josef Land. Credit: Oceanwide Expeditions.

Russia’s interest in the Earth Franz Josef stems from its desire to strengthen territorial defense in the Arctic, through its exclusive economic zone, and improve the control of activity in the NSR. The archipelago’s location makes it a useful location for retaining power in the Arctic and increasing oversight of international activity, particularly that of NATO forces. A recent article by the Center for Strategic and International Studies speculates that the recent growth of Nagurskoye Air Base suggests that Russia is looking to expand its future military and offensive capabilities, to extend the geographic reach that could be reached by planes from Alexandra Land to United States and other NATO bases in the Arctic. However, in his interview, Sergunin said that “the mission in the Arctic has changed from the time of the Cold War. Now the main mission is the protection of the exclusive economic zone, Russian sovereignty and the management of non-traditional threats such as illegal migration, pollution and smuggling. ”

A map showing the estimated range of the aircraft from Nagurskoye Air Base on Alexandra Land. Credit: Danish Defense Intelligence Service.

Offering a different perspective, Rasmus Bertelsen, political scientist at Norwegian Arctic University and of Nordic nationality, explained “looking at this air base, it is very important that we in the West do not only think about the offensive potential, but from the Russian point of view, how useful it is to defend the Arctic Russian”. Due to the central location of Alexandra Land, he added “they [Russia] can really defend much of the Arctic Ocean from Nagurskoye.

In addition, Bertelsen believes that the questions surrounding geopolitics in the Arctic are essentially centered on nuclear weapons. “Russian nuclear weapons are based in the Arctic, so conventional forces largely serve to protect nuclear forces,” he explained. This concern explains why Russia is keen to build a stronghold out of Alexandra Land, while the declining sea ice opens the Arctic Ocean to NATO forces, Russia must protect its nuclear submarines. “The Nagurskoye base is incredibly useful in defending these waters where Russian missile submarines hide,” Bertelsen told GlacierHub.

An expedition passing through Rubini Rock on Franz Josef Land. Credit Ko de Korte / Oceanwide Expeditions.

The Russian military’s modernization program, which included the expansion of the Nagurskoye station, is in line with the efforts of other Arctic nations. “Russia had a special military modernization program, in general, but also in the Arctic in particular, it started in 2007 and is almost finished,” Sergunin told GlacierHub. From Sergunin’s point of view, “Russia is trying to restore its armed forces that we [Russia] before, to make them more capable of dealing with new threats and the cold climatic conditions of the Arctic, but that is all, Russia does not plan to use military force, it does not plan to conduct operations in the ‘Arctic itself’.

The rapid loss of sea ice that has long acted as a physical barrier to Russia’s northern coast is now opening the High Arctic to increasing maritime activity. The biggest and most worrying change in the arctic cryosphere due to climate change is the loss of sea ice. “The Northern Sea Route is part of the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone; currently, many parts of the area are covered with ice even in summer, ”explained Sergunin. But that is likely to change with global warming, opening up the area to international ships, which worries Russia. “Russia is extremely keen to develop international shipping on the NSR, but the double-edged sword is that the less sea ice there is, the more vulnerable Russia becomes,” adds Bertelsen.

A typical view of the Earth Franz Josef, threatened by the rapid melting of glaciers. Credit: Ko de Korte / Oceanwide Expeditions.

Melting glaciers on Earth Franz Josef will present challenges for infrastructure and human activities on the archipelago, which have proven to be extremely important for Russia’s strategy in the High Arctic. Increased meltwater runoff and thawing permafrost threaten the longevity of Nagurskoye Air Base on Alexandra Land. Coupled with the threat of sea ice decline opening Russian waters to international ships, this small island deserves attention as climate change complicates the cryosphere in a region of enormous geopolitical importance.


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