The Arctic is Heating Up

By Rob Denaburg, M.A. Candidate, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

Canada’s Arctic region and the country’s claims of sovereignty in the area are becoming increasingly relevant. Due to frigid temperatures and a thick layer of ice impeding travel, the area has historically faded in and out of the political spotlight.

More recently, climate change and the resulting rising global temperatures have been accelerating the melting of polar ice. Reports indicate that the Arctic has been warming rapidly over the last decade, at a rate that is three times the global average.  This has simplified access and travel through the Arctic, allowing access to untapped resources, but also leading to a number of security concerns.

There are a number of security issues that have received attention lately – human, environmental, traditional, etc. – and each are worthy of an entire post on their own. What I plan to focus on, however, is a concern that has received much less attention – the terrorist threat in the Arctic.

First, let me dispel any images of a parka-clad al Qaeda cell in Nunavut organizing operations. The argument isn’t that there are terrorists currently operating in the Arctic, but rather that the current lack of effective surveillance, security and communications infrastructure in the region makes it vulnerable to organized crime and terrorist activity. To date, a number of concerns have been highlighted.

It has been suggested that the Arctic could be used as an entry point into North America. After the events of 9/11, border security became a primary issue for the defence of North America, and – due to the continental geography – Canada bears most of the burden of border security in the north.

Huebert notes that if our northern borders are not securitized to the same extent as those in the south, they would become a vulnerability, and that terrorists could potentially exploit this weakness.

For example, in the post-9/11 era, increased airport security has become an accepted reality in North America… unless you live in the Arctic. Outside of the territorial capitals, there is no security screening required to board an aircraft.

A 2008 Parliamentary research report noted that – on top of the concerns of terrorists entering North America via the Arctic – there exist fears concerning these organizations transporting “illegal weapons, including biological and chemical devices.” If we lack the capacity to properly patrol and inspect ships making use of this newly accessible global route, it could result in the illegal transport of dangerous weapons and/or materials that pose a threat to global security.

Finally, while the Arctic region is not densely populated, and a terrorist attack occurring in the North itself is fairly unlikely, the lack of capabilities and surveillance in the area makes what little infrastructure does exist in the region fairly susceptible.

There is some credence to this speculation. There was an assessment prepared by the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre (ITAC) – composed of a number of departments and agencies, including Canada’s intelligence community – of which certain parts were obtained under the Access to Information Act. The report, titled “The Canadian Arctic: Threat from Terrorists and Extremists,” notes concerns about the region’s susceptibility to terrorist activity. The report also points out that al Qaeda has mentioned Canada as a potential target on multiple occasions.

What, then, can we do to address this issue? The defence against a potential terrorist threat wouldn’t require extensive military capability so much as it would a viable means for surveying and patrolling the region. Some argue, however, that not only are Canada’s military capabilities inadequate, we don’t even have the communication infrastructure to support increased activity. This communication infrastructure should be Canada’s main priority in terms of increasing essential capabilities.

Ultimately, this threat seems to be a potential black swan as defined by Nassim Taleb: an event characterized by “rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.” The idea of terrorist activity in the Arctic currently seems somewhat far-fetched, but another major terrorist attack on continental North America on the scale of 9/11, or worse, would certainly have extreme impact – while some people scoff at the idea now, should it occur, they will all say they should have seen it coming.

Let’s make sure that we actually do. 

Question: In a time of fiscal austerity and a shrinking defence budget, is it worth it for Canada to increase its commitment to Arctic sovereignty and security by investing in important infrastructure? Or are the concerns minimal enough that an incremental or even reactionary approach will suffice?


Photo by  NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Categories: Arctic Security

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s