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December 23, 2013

5 myths about the North Pole

(Continued)

4. There is no military presence at the North Pole.

While there is no real threat of conflict over the division of the seabed, there still is military activity in the region. And as the ice melts and the Arctic Ocean becomes similar to the other oceans, day-to-day naval activities for the protection of maritime trade will begin to occur there.

There are two trends increasing the strategic importance of the waters around the North Pole. First, Russia has been building improved submarines to carry nuclear missiles. The key bases for these submarines and protective forces are in and around Murmansk, facing directly toward the North Pole. This has already caused the U.S. Navy to ensure that its attack submarines are capable of operating in Arctic waters. So we could see some Cold War habits coming back into play when two navys once again begin to play games of cat and mouse under the ice.

Second, anytime the United States feels threatened by North Korea, it strengthens its anti-ballistic missile systems — and the primary land-based interceptor site is at Fort Greely, Alaska. The United States is in the process of adding more interceptors because of recent actions by North Korea. The interceptors are in the Arctic not because of any U.S. concern about a missile strike from its Arctic neighbors. But their location has not gone unnoticed by Russian authorities, who think U.S. efforts may be directed against them — not rogue states or nonstate actors.

The presence of U.S. and Russian military forces in the Arctic means that in times of conflict and stress elsewhere, the Arctic could easily become involved.

5. The only thing changing at the North Pole is the climate.

There is no doubt that the most dramatic changes in the region are related to the climate. (Many experts believe that the permanent ice cover will be gone as early as 2020.) But at the same time the North Pole is physically changing, exploration of the area is increasing. Improvements in marine technology — led by non-Arctic states such as South Korea — are allowing different types of vessels to enter the region, even in the presence of ice. The ongoing discovery of untapped oil and gas fields in the area is also driving the development of better technologies. In short, the North Pole region is in a state of massive transformation.

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