The tech battle for the Arctic (2021 List)

A new “Cold War” or the setting for WWIII?

The danger zone

It’s no longer clever or amusing to say that things are “heating up” in the Arctic. From climate to political tensions, it’s not going well “up there” and we’re long past the point of fixing it. Now we’re on damage control.

For well over a decade we’ve let glaciers melt, oceans acidify, natural resources be looted, and governance go unchallenged. But now the bill is due and the geopolitics of this space will be determined by technology – and who has the most.

Arctic ice melt and geopolitics

Melting ice means easier access to the formerly frozen Arctic, making it easier to drill for oil. However, there’s no land up there, so how do you build bases or oil platforms? The answer is ships – big ones. And these ships need increasingly specialized equipment to deal with sensitive permafrost.

While the Arctic is warming, extreme weather makes it difficult to safely send humans and equipment. Rapidly forming ice, glaciers, and perpetual darkness in winter all make it hugely challenging to get anything done in the Arctic

Of course, the first question is whether we should be drilling there at all.

Who’s in charge up there?

The U.S., Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden all have a physical stake in the 3-million-square-mile region, but it’s governed by international law.

Of course, that doesn’t keep people from planting their flags on the nearest patch of ice.

And let’s not forget that because of their technological breakthroughs, China is a player in the region as well – at least via countries with access, like Russia. China became an observer nation on the Arctic Council in 2013.

Breaking the ice

Creating vessels that can carry enough equipment to the Arctic and break the ice on their way there is one challenge. Russia not only has the largest fleet of icebreakers in the world, but they’re also the only country with nuclear-powered icebreakers.

Meanwhile, the U.S. only has two operational icebreakers (the Healy and the Polar Star), both of which have serious mechanical issues and are basically research vessels. Three more are being built, but they are years away from being seaworthy – and they’re not exactly “green” technology.

Dual-use technology, from drones to AI

From autonomous saildrones that monitor the area to much-needed advances in Arctic engineering that allow for infrastructure to be built, the race to create new technologies to explore commercial gains in the Arctic should never fall out of the news cycle. Decisions made in one country about what to employ in the region could affect the entire world.

Furthermore, technology once used for biological and geological research can easily become co-opted for military and commercial gain. This dual-use dilemma is something researchers may not have previously considered.

There are very few tech ethicists dealing with the Arctic right now, but their numbers grow as the situation becomes more critical. One of the pioneers in the field, Patrick Lin, highlighted some of the tech challenges to look out for in the future:

…the trend in armed conflict is toward “hybrid warfare” in which irregular forces and tactics, such as cyberattacks and robotics, are part of the playbook. Little attention has been paid to these unconventional, technology-driven aspects in an Arctic war. Beyond wargames, there has also been scant focus on how emerging technologies – such as artificial intelligence (AI), geoengineering, and more – might impact economic interests, territorial claims, disaster response, food security, and so on. Because the modern world is ever more ruled by technology, it makes sense to look at technology-driven scenarios.

As Lin has asked in his scholarship, how can we ensure the technology useful in the Arctic can be used for peaceful, humanitarian purposes?

With so many countries jockeying for power in the Arctic, how do we ensure shared access to resources? Should we allow nations to claim territory?

Can we find a way to ensure cooperation between countries? Is that even realistic with such high stakes?

How do we keep the Arctic safe from destruction?

Further reading:

Patrick Lin, “Artificial Islands, Robo-ships, Sleepless Soldiers. Is This the Future Of the Arctic?” (WeForum, 2018)

(Audio with text) “AI in the Arctic: Future Opportunities & Ethical Concerns, with Fritz Allhoff” (Carnegie Council, 2019)

Charlie Duxbury, “The 5 most important races for the Arctic” (Politico, 2020)

Eric Roston and Blacki Migliozzi, “How a Melting Arctic Changes Everything: The Political Arctic” (Bloomberg, 2017)

Yun Sun, “Defining the Chinese Threat in the Arctic” (The Arctic Institute, 2020)

(Paywalled) Patrick Lin and Fritz Allhoff, “Arctic 2.0: How Artificial Intelligence Can Help Develop a Frontier” (Ethics & International Affairs, 2019)

Op-Ed, “Without a Treaty to Share the Arctic, Greedy Countries Will Destroy It” (Scientific American, 2017)