Part I: The top of the world is melting even faster than scientists thought. Here’s how we know.
Part II: Vladimir Putin thinks the North Pole belongs to Russia. Find out why he may be right.
Continuous monitoring from ground, air and satellites provides scientists with critical data that helps them understand Arctic change.
By Eric RostonEric Roston and Blacki MigliozziBlacki Migliozzi

A corrosion-proof, titanium Russian flag sways in the currents of the North Pole seabed, planted there in August 2007 by a privately funded expedition. It doesn't mean that Russia owns the pole any more than the Apollo 11 flag means the U.S. owns the moon. But it’s a powerful symbol.

The Arctic story is a tale of sweeping geologic change catalyzing a sweeping geopolitical contest. Melting sea ice is gradually making the Arctic Ocean accessible to economic development. Before the region truly opens for business, however, sovereign governments need to figure out which of them owns what.

Titanium flags aside, it’s a bit unclear at the moment, and no one more than Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking aggressive steps to implement a vision.

Putin is playing two hands at once. He’s the unpredictable international leader who annexed Crimea, is reinvesting in northern security as if the Cold War were coming back, and sits atop a government that, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday, meddled in the 2016 U.S. election. Yet Russia’s Arctic diplomacy has been a pillar of regional stability for the past two decades.

The warming Arctic offers an economic opportunity for nations to access resources. But first, nations must sort out questions of boundaries and access—and Russia did not expand to 11 time zones by missing opportunities such as this.

Ilulissat, Greenland, seen near the icebergs that broke off from the Jakobshavn Glacier on July 24, 2013.
Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Human Arctic

Putin may feel entitled to an outsized Arctic presence because, in both coastline and population, Russia has an outsized Arctic presence.

More than 4 million people live north of Earth's Arctic Circle, nearly half of them in Russia and the rest scattered among the seven other northernmost countries—the U.S., Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. About 500,000 people live among one of dozens of indigenous nations whose ancestry and bonds extend beyond modern borders. Over the most recent generation, many of these communities have banded together into large regional organizations that promote their interests among the international community.

When change or strife touches some part of the world, the political or environmental causes are usually local. Arctic communities facing rapid change are different, because scientists know the causes are not local. Warming is global, and residents of the high north are feeling only the first wave. Politics in the Arctic often aren’t local either. By expanding northward, Putin is setting Russia up to take advantage of new shipping routes and oil deposits, and potentially mix clubby Arctic matters with more high-pitched global affairs.

Arctic Population

Country's Population Within Arctic Areas
Source: Timothy Heleniak, "Arctic Populations and Migration," Arctic Human Development Report

The population data betray Putin’s grand challenge—to boost national economic growth amid a population decline both north and south of the Arctic Circle.

A decades-long push by the Soviet Union to industrialize the Arctic is indirectly responsible for the fact that any international governance is there to begin with. Finland, downwind from Soviet facilities that emitted pollution, gathered the eight Arctic nations together in 1991, with umbrella groups representing indigenous peoples, to figure out an international environmental-protection strategy.

The effort morphed into the Arctic Council, a consensus-driven environmental forum that then evolved still further into a catch-all working group for regional affairs. The efforts of the council may sound mundane to the civilized world beneath the 66th parallel, but they are vital to future life in the Arctic. The council has created oil-spill readiness plans and scientific endeavors, and it has divided areas of search-and-rescue responsibilities among its member nations.

Search and Rescue Areas

Zones established by 2011 Arctic Council agreement

No individual accomplishment of the council is particularly world-altering, but together its achievements have quietly built a modicum of trust and a pattern of collaboration among players that pose a significant counterweight to national aspirations in the region, Russia’s or others'. (The two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council last week passed from the U.S. to Finland.)

Arctic Council Attendance

Eight countries, six indigenous groups and a growing number of observers attend bi-annual Council sessions
Sources: Sebastian Knecht, Berlin Graduate School for Transnational Studies, data originally published in Cooperation and Conflict journal

The Arctic Council has risen in import and attention as the top of the world became a place where developed economies want to play. Everybody wants in. The U.K., a permanent observer to the council, has called itself “the Arctic’s nearest neighbor.” China, which was made a permanent observer in 2013, considers itself a “near-Arctic” nation, even though its northernmost point is about 900 miles south of the circle. Trade and shipping have much to do with their interest. The state observers are all East Asian or West European nations that stand to benefit from shorter marine routes linking them.

Not everyone can join the club. The eight council members denied all observer applicants in 2015, including the European Union. In last week’s meeting in Fairbanks, they allowed in a new national observer, Switzerland, and several organizations, including the National Geographic Society and the World Meteorological Organization.

The state seal of the Russian Federation sits on top of a red and green post marking the Arctic border of the Russian Federation beside the Barents Sea on Alexandra Island.
Photographer: Anna Andrianova/Bloomberg

Who Owns the North Pole?

The Arctic might as well be part of a different planet. In addition to the fact that it’s warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, the region itself challenges general sensibilities of near and far. In the high north, Denmark and Russia are close enough to disagree over which has the right to call the North Pole its own.

This geographic tightness has a way of enforcing the peace.

Consequently, territorial disputes have so far been dealt with bilaterally and in good faith. As recently as 2010, Russia and Norway finally agreed on where their waters part. Even in the final days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the U.S. were able to come to an agreement over maritime boundaries in the Bering Strait.

Possible points of tension remain, not the least of which is that U.S.-Russian boundary. The scale of Russian military and economic activity—driven in part by a national mythology and pride rooted in its northern identity—means that, regardless of U.S. policy, there is competition for Arctic power and resources. Benefits accrue to early movers, and the U.S. is not one of them.

Russia and China are investing in the Arctic. “That will affect U.S. waters, coastlines, and peoples, and we’re not preparing,” said Heather Conley, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The U.S. has forgotten why this region is so important.”

All nations, in the Arctic and elsewhere, can claim an “exclusive economic zone,” or EEZ, that extends 200 nautical miles from shore. Nations have the right to explore the waters and seabed within their EEZs—but not the surface, which is considered international water.

A treaty ratified by 168 countries, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, governs how they should figure out which nations have rights to what. Russia in 2001 made the first-ever legal claim to seafloor rights beyond its EEZ under the convention. After its vision was rejected, the Kremlin resubmitted it in 2015. Denmark has also filed a North Pole claim, and Canada is expected to do the same, perhaps within a year.

Arctic Exclusive Economic Zones and Claimable Areas

Russia's posture here has been courteous and diplomatic. In a position to claim rights all the way up to Canada's exclusive economic zone, Russia chose not to, perhaps to avoid potential provocation.

Russia's Arctic Trefoil military base on Alexandra Land Island, a part of the Franz Josef Land Archipelago.
Photographer: TASS\TASS via Getty Images

Russia, Full of Surprises

Russian officials’ rhetoric about its Arctic presence, coupled with military re-entrenchment, has been less diplomatic. It’s the flipside of what Heather Conley of CSIS has called the “maddening duality” of Russia’s strategy.

Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister and director of Putin's Government Commission for Arctic Development Issues, has called the 1867 sale of Alaska a “betrayal of Russian power status” and has said that the Kremlin has a “right to reclaim our lost colonies.”

The harsh words are partly political theater for a domestic audience. But from the Kremlin’s perspective, there is real concern. In the five-and-a-half centuries since Russia first annexed Arctic coastline, no leader has faced the disappearance of a critical natural defense: sea ice. Putin’s decision in 2014 to create a brand-new northern strategic command, build (or rebuild) dozens of military facilities, and bulk up the nation's submarine fleet reflect a perceived change in Russia’s security needs. The nation doesn’t have many friends in the region. Five other coastal nations are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Russian reconnaissance unit members of the Northern Fleet's Arctic mechanized infantry brigade conduct military exercises near the Lovozero settlement.
Photographer: Lev Fedoseyev/TASS via Getty Images

An Arctic country since the 1867 purchase of Alaska, the U.S. gives less attention than one might expect to northern affairs and its largest swath of coast, which stretches 6,600 miles on both the Pacific and Arctic oceans. Americans may not be giving their “fourth coast” due attention, according to a growing chorus of researchers and policymakers—including the Pentagon and State Department under the previous U.S. administration. Russia's behavior “warrants close attention to the region on the part of the United States," according to a recent report by the Rand Corporation.

The U.S. styles itself—and many others see it—as the most powerful nation in the world. And the most powerful nation in the world has so far chosen to abdicate a formal diplomatic role in the quest for Arctic economic rights.

The country’s involvement, or lack thereof, in Arctic affairs has been limited by a dispute that’s different from the standard political skirmishing—one between the executive branch and the Senate. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both supported Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty, which provides the framework for countries’ maritime claims. Not joining the treaty, the White House has argued, might prevent the U.S. from gaining access to economic resources it could otherwise claim rights to. Conservative senators have balked at ratification, citing concerns about national sovereignty. It is unclear what strategy the Trump administration holds.

In practice, the U.S. lives up to the letter of the law, even though it is not a part of the pact.

As it stands, the Arctic is a picture of stability, enviable by many other parts of the world. The stability is enforced in part, and at least for the moment, by a topic the Arctic Council is unable by design to even raise: military strategy. The U.S. advocated in the mid-90s that the Council be prohibited from tackling hard-security issues. As a consequence, there are important conversations for the great powers to have about the Arctic and security, but no obvious forum to have them in.

U.S. nuclear missiles on submarines in the Barents Sea could reach Moscow in 15 minutes. The six Delta IV submarines maintained by Russia’s northern fleet can each carry 16 submarine-launched ballistic missiles and together deliver 800 nuclear warheads.

The complexity of the Arctic will grow as it attracts more economic attention—particularly, perhaps, as more dots are filled in on this map.

Arctic Military Facilities

Russia
Norway
Denmark/Greenland
Canada
U.S.

The rule of law is the foundation on which economies operate. It's in no one's economic interest to de-stabilize the high north. “Military and economic concerns are deeply intertwined in the Arctic,” wrote Stephanie Pezard and three RAND Corporation colleagues in March, “and ... these concerns can, at times, lead to apparently disjointed Russian policies in the region.”

While the Cold War is long gone, Cold War rules still apply in the Arctic: Everything is fine. Just make no sudden movements—and hope there's no accident or misunderstanding along the way.