The Future of the Arctic

The Future of the Arctic

Chris Wattie/Reuters
from Academic and Higher Education Webinars

More on:


Climate Change

Oceans and Seas

Lawson W. Brigham, distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, discusses the complex ways that globalization, climate change, and geopolitics are shaping the future of the Arctic region, as part of CFR's Academic Conference Call series.

For additional information on the Arctic region, view CFR's InfoGuide on the Emerging Arctic.

Learn more about CFR's resources for the classroom at CFR Education.



Lawson W. Brigham

Distinguished Professor of Geography and Arctic Policy, University of Alaska Fairbanks


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR. Thank you for joining us. Today’s call is on the record and the audio file and transcript will be available on our website,, if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates.

We’re delighted to have Lawson Brigham with us to discuss the future of the Arctic. Dr. Brigham is a distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a senior fellow at the Institution of the North in Anchorage. From 2005 to 2009, he was the chair of the Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment and Vice Chair of the Council’s working group on protection of the Arctic marine environment.

He was a career U.S. Coast Guard officer, serving from 1970 to 1995. He retired with a rank of captain and served at sea in command of four Coast Guard cutters, including a patrol boat, Great Lakes icebreaker, offshore law enforcement cutter, and a polar icebreaker Polar Sea. He also served as chief of strategic planning at the Coast Guard headquarters in D.C., and has participated in more than 15 Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, including the polar seas voyages in 1994, which became the first ship in history to reach to extreme ends of the global ocean.

So, with that kind of experience and background, we’re very honored to have you with us, Dr. Brigham, to talk about the future of Arctic policy. It would be great if you could talk about the ways that globalization, climate change, and geopolitics are shaping the future of the Arctic region.

BRIGHAM: Yeah, thank you, Irina. And good afternoon, everyone. It’s a pleasure to do this for CFR and for all of you.

Let me begin by saying in the early part of the 21st century, there are four things, the way I see it, that are essentially the drivers of change in the Arctic. One, as you all know, is rapid and profound climate change. We hear about it almost every day in reference to the Arctic. Major stories on the melting of the Greenland icecap, which can affect global sea level rise, and certainly the retreat of sea ice, and the melting of the permafrost, the frozen ground around the circumpolar world. All of these and more, affected by anthropogenically driven climate change and rising temperatures. So that’s the first, most visible perhaps, and the one driver that gets a lot of press is climate change. The Arctic is essentially the epicenter of climate change on the planet. So what we see here in the Arctic with twice the elevation of temperatures than lower latitudes is what we may see elsewhere on the planet in the decades ahead.

The second major driver, of course, is globalization of the Arctic. And let me try to explain what I mean by that. It’s really the linkage of Arctic natural resources to global markets today and perhaps longer into the future. And I’m speaking about oil and gas. A USGS study in 2008 suggested that really the Arctic—the Arctic basin is a—and the Arctic Ocean—the whole of the Arctic is a gas province that 30 percent of undiscovered natural gas is in the Arctic. And only 13 percent, as they estimate it, of oil is the Arctic. So really the place is a gas province.

But there are other economic linkages as well. Hard minerals—for example, one-fifth of the world’s nickel is in the Arctic—really is in the Russian Arctic at Norilsk, the industrial complex there, platinum about 15 percent, zinc 10 percent of the world’s storehouse of nickel—high-grade nickel ore—is in Alaska, actually, where the Red Dog Mine produces zinc ore and is carted to—taken by ship to smelters in B.C., British Columbia, and also Southeast Asia. And of course, roughly 10 percent of the world’s fisheries is in the Arctic, the broader maritime Arctic, including the Bering Sea and the Barents Sea, two of the world’s largest, most productive ecosystems on the planet. There are smaller pockets of fisheries and fishing around Iceland and off the coast of Greenland, but the primary producers of international fishing and fishing productivity is Barents and the Bering Sea.

Also, there are rare earths in the Arctic. About a quarter of the rare earths are in the Arctic. There’s a tremendous amount of coal. And also kind of a wildcard, there’s a lot of freshwater in the Arctic, not only in the Greenland icecap that’s melting, but in lakes in Russia and Canada, the United States. In fact, in Alaska, where I live, we send bottled water over to Japan. So there are a lot of economic connections. So that’s what we mean by globalization, using ships primarily to move these cargos out of the Arctic to global markets, but also pipelines, of course, for oil and gas, where they can be built.

The third driver of change is clearly regional and global geopolitics. So even though the diplomats and we all try to separate out the Arctic and keep it delinked to major geopolitical events, like Crimea and Ukraine, there are obviously impacts when—and direct impacts when you have sanctions, for example, and some of those sanctions spread right out to the offshore Russian Arctic. And Exxon had to withdraw, as an example, in its partnership with Rosneft in the Kara Sea. So there are external events, not necessarily the tragedy in Paris or terrorism, but even immigration has some impact, perhaps in the future as more people try to reach Europe, or at least safe havens in parts of the Arctic.

And then finally, the fourth driver of change is the indigenous people that live in the Arctic and their rights and their way of life, sustaining their way of life, the relationship of indigenous people to the Arctic states themselves, the sovereign states. So just in summary, those are the four drivers of great change early in the 21st century. And all of these changes will continue despite the price of oil being down and gas. Likely they will—at least, it’s plausible that those prices will rise and global commodities prices will rise in the future, and to a great storehouse of resources at the top of the world that people will want to buy.

Let me just quickly say something about the Arctic Council, because it maybe help to generate a couple questions. The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum. So that means it’s not a treaty-bound organization, like the Antarctic treaty. It’s a consensus organization of the eight Arctic states. But sitting with the eight Arctic states, as you all know, I think, are six indigenous groups—the Saami, the Inuit, the Aleut, Gwich’in, Russian indigenous people—oh, I may have missed one—but there are six indigenous groups that sit with the eight Arctic states in a roundtable. And all the other players, the non-Arctic state observer countries like France, and Germany, and China, and Japan, Italy, and Singapore, India, Spain, I can’t remember them all here—they sit along with NGO observer organizations and organizations like UNEP. All of those 20 intergovernmental, interparliamentary observer organizations and NGOs also sit outside the ring. So the eight sovereign states are really in control of this Arctic Council.

Now, the Arctic Council is nearly 20 years old. It was established by the Ottawa Declaration at a ministerial meeting in Ottawa, Canada. And so for about 20 years, this body has focused very specifically on environmental protection and sustainable development issues. And you probably all know that the United States is chair of the Arctic Council currently, from May of this year through May of 2017. And the United States chairmanship, the State Department is focusing on—led by the State Department—is focusing on climate change issues, of course, as you might guess. Secretary Kerry, very interested in all the climate change issues as they move towards COP21 in Paris. But besides climate change, stewardship of the Arctic Ocean, marine safety, environmental protection issues. And then the third tier of the three major themes of the U.S. chairmanship is related to Arctic communities, and their livelihood, and opportunities, and a whole range and set of issues.

So the Arctic Council—what the Arctic Council doesn’t focus on, you probably should be aware of that: Fishing, because essentially there are many fishing organizations around the world handling around the periphery of the Arctic, and even in parts of the Arctic. And the Arctic Council doesn’t deal with whaling, even though whaling issues are quite numerous in the Arctic. And it doesn’t, importantly, focus at all, do any of its work on military security issues. There are many other organizations that do that.

I should say that—I think you all know who the eight Arctic states are: Canada, the United States, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway. Those five are all NATO countries, but they’re also Arctic Council members, of course, because they have sovereign territory in the north. And Russia, Finland, and Sweden are Arctic states, of course Russia owning nearly really half the place, half the Arctic. But those three states are non-Arctic states. So when you think about the role of NATO in a place like the top of the world, it’s very complicated because not all the membership of the Arctic Council are NATO members—specifically, Russia, Sweden, and Finland.

So one other thing I should mention, just to give you a sense of what the future might hold—I’ll mention just a plausible future. I mean, most of us are working on all of the issues to keep the Arctic peaceful and to have strong cooperation among the Arctic states. But clearly in the future and the decades ahead, the Arctic states will have to have more engagement with non-Arctic states who are stakeholders and actors interested in resources, interesting in what happens in the central Arctic Ocean, which is a global commons. The storehouse of vast natural resources is not going away. It will be there for a long time. Likely that there will be more resources explored, and that clearly the Arctic will be, I think, in the future very important to global commodities and influential global commodity prices.

Now, several of the Arctic states, and particularly two, Russia and Norway, their GNP is related to Arctic natural resources—Norway in particular where they’re moving their oil and gas exploration and production from the North Sea, where there’s a downtrend, of course, in oil gas, up unto the high north, as they call it, in the Norwegian Arctic. And of course, Russia is tied to natural resources. Clearly, the Arctic will remain and continue to be—to experience profound climate change, despite mitigation and adaptation issues, whatever happens at COP21. Clearly in the near decades to come, climate change will have vast impacts on people and the place.

However, the retreat of sea ice in all the stories out there, and a bit of hype, will not really retool the global trade routes, as many of us that work on this topic. It’s because the place is ice covered eight to nine months out of the year, even at the end of the 21st century. That particular barrier will prevent ships from sailing across the Arctic Ocean, but will limit what you can do economically. So what we see is destinational voyages, that the main voyage is out of the Arctic to global markets.

Also, the trend, as you might guess, and I work on these issues, of increasing protection measures and safety measures for shipping and marine operations in the Arctic, done mostly through the International Maritime Organization, U.N. body in London. And then finally, at least for Americans that are on the line, the U.S. Arctic and the whole of the Arctic has immense strategic and economic importance to our country. But the plausible future looks, hopefully, peaceful. Where there is exploitation of the natural resources, but hopefully that’s balanced by sustainable development and a whole host of protection and safety issues.

I think I should end there, Irina, if that’s OK. And we can begin to field some questions.

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Give queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from the Bush School of Government and Public Service.

Q: Hi, Dr. Brigham. I’m Jamie Berker (sp) from the Bush School.

Could you go ahead and talk about the international law aspects of the Arctic?

BRIGHAM: Sure. I’m not a lawyer, but I know a little bit about it. Surely 60 percent of this place at the top of the world is ocean. So the governing framework, the legal framework, of course, is UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. And as you all know, unfortunately, we have not acceded to the treaty, but all the other eight Arctic states have. But under UNCLOS in Article 76, the coastal states around the whole of the planet are allowed to stretch their seabed claim out beyond the 200 mile EEZ, exclusive economic zone, to even 300 miles-plus.

So that activity is ongoing in a sense of the Arctic states—the coastal Arctic states are exploring the sea bed, in the central Arctic Ocean in particular. Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, and Greenland, and Norway. And you may know that last—earlier in the year, Denmark submitted a claim in the central Arctic Ocean, and so recently did Russia. So there’s a process of submitting your claim based upon science and all the geological information that’s taken to the Commission on the Outer Continental Shelf in New York. And those claims then will be heard by essentially a group of judges in New York. The Law of the Sea applies, of course, even though this ocean is ice covered and a bit more complicated than other places—other oceans in the world.

The Law of the Sea, and freedom of navigation, and innocent passage are all part of navigating the Arctic Ocean. However, in the Russian Arctic they have set of very tight rules and regulations for what they call the northern sea route. And on the Canadian side, the Canadian pollution prevention regulations, within their—what they have claimed as internal waters have also a very tight set of pollution and marine safety regulations. I think many of you know that the United States and many European countries like the U.K. and Germany disagree with our Canadian colleagues on the definition of their straits.

We see their straits which they have declared as internal waters that the base lines they have drawn don’t conform to international law. And the same on the Russian side. The Russians have drawn base lines around the whole of their external islands and essentially closed it off to claim as internal waters where they have complete control of access and limit—can limit navigation and access to their parts. There’s a whole set of conventions at the IMO. SOLAS is the Safety of Life at Sea convention. And MARPOL is the maritime pollution convention. And the new maritime polar code, which has special rules and regulations for the Arctic. So there’s a whole host of legal mechanisms and regimes that apply, not only to the global ocean but, of course, to the Arctic Ocean as well.

FASKIANOS: Great. Next question, please?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Denison University.

Q: Hi. My name is Seamus Appel.

And I wondered if you could speak about whether or not you think that UNCLOS and the Arctic Council and the other regimes that are at play in the region are adequate to govern this and to cooperate together, or whether or not it would be ideal to create some sort of overriding regime that could advance cooperation between all the Arctic nations and deal with issues—economic issues, and security issues, and pollution issues?

BRIGHAM: Well, I don’t think there’s any chance of that. I’m in the school of thought that—you’re kind of referring to having an Arctic treaty that will be all-encompassing. The problem with that, the challenge is that we have sovereign states with, you know, centuries of sovereign state control. And none of the states—none of the Arctic states, the eight Arctic states, are going to give up any of their control over this area. And when you mix in military security issues, and the specter of nuclear weapons comes right out to the fore, and we have two nuclear powers in the Arctic including, you know, the United States and Russia. And they’re not going to discuss those kinds of security issues in this kind of forum—an eclectic forum with indigenous people.

I think the best we’re going to have is the Arctic Council, and the Arctic Council relying on other international organizations, like IMO, WMO, the World Meteorological Organization handling climate change issues, IHO, the International Hydrographic Organization handling, you know, charting and hydrography. And there are a whole host of other international bodies that now are tackling Arctic-specific issues. It is eclectic, but we do have—at least through the Arctic Council have very good cooperation. Recently outside the Arctic Council, the coast guards of the Arctic—all eight coast guards—met at the U.S. Coast Guard academy in Connecticut and signed a new agreement on cooperation on all the practical aspects of maritime law enforcement, some security issues related to enforcement. So there is—there is another body.

But I think it would be very difficult to have an Arctic treaty that would cover all of these topics. It’s a very—you know, it’s a very dissimilar place than Antarctica, where we’ve set aside, essentially, Antarctica for Science and research and for humanity in terms of science. So I’m not one to argue for an Arctic treaty because I don’t believe the Arctic states themselves would give up many of their sovereign rights to have such a treaty.

FASKIANOS: Thanks. Let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from the Colin Powell School at the City College of New York.

Q: Hello. So I actually wanted to challenge the statement that the—moving forward into the Arctic is going to be rather peaceful between the nations, because I see as the icecaps are melting and sea levels are rising the territory of the United States is going to look totally different. And countries and islands will disappear eventually. So you will have to deal with a lot of population movement, which again can lead to overpopulation and countries competing for resources. And so I see that, you know, competition between the powerful nations of China, and Russia, and the U.S. will be rather intensified. So the claim to resources in the Arctic is, according to how I interpret it, not going to be as peaceful. So I just wanted to know your thoughts on that argument and that view.

BRIGHAM: Well, I think it’s a relative term, peaceful. Compared to every other place on the plant, except for Antarctica, the Arctic today, and I believe in the future, will be a very peaceful place. Will there be competition for resources? Yes. But the Arctic states themselves will tightly control the regulations and the exploration. But if you want to go out in the central Arctic Ocean, maybe, in the global commons and the international high seas, and search and explore for resources for a couple months out of the summer it’s possible. But technically possible to do, maybe not economically viable.

The notion of vast immigration and migration in the Arctic—well, we’ll see. It’s a harsh environment. Still, despite climate change, a very difficult environment to live under and to prosper. And so I don’t know whether we’ll see large numbers of people moving to the Arctic. But it might be reversed, that we see people moving away from the Arctic. But you’re right. I agree with you in part that climate change over the next century or so and sea level rise will change the dynamic in many parts of the world, if not the entire planet, so—and create new stressors that may be unintended stressors that we don’t know of today. But I still maintain that in the decades ahead, I believe that the Arctic will remain a fairly peaceful place, compared to many other hotspots around the world today.

OPERATOR: Thank you very much. We do have a second question from the Colin Powell School.

FASKIANOS: Sure, go ahead.

Q: Hello. My name is—hello. My name is Catherine Gramero (sp).

And my question is, what have the indigenous groups supported and not supported on the topics of Arctic resources? And why are they only considered the fourth driver on Arctic issues, since they will be the ones who will be most affected by the exploration of resources? And also, that would go in hand with people’s migration because also the migrating population will also need a lot of resources. So that’s going to be an increase.

BRIGHAM: Yeah, let me think about this. Usually you hear, climate change, globalization, and geopolitics. But I think missing in that dialogue about the Arctic is, in fact, the whole spectrum of issues impacting indigenous people. And so maybe I—maybe I erred in adding it at the fourth one, but I don’t mean it in the order or fourth. I mean it in the mix of change agents and impacts and issues related to the future of the Arctic. So the health, and well-being, and sustainability of indigenous people and their way of life is a very key issue for not only themselves, of course, but to the Arctic states, who have the responsibility to make sure that the life of their indigenous people are sustained.

And so, you know, it is—it’s a huge issue. In the Arctic Council, the Arctic indigenous people’s groups, the permanent participants, as they’re called, have supported nearly all of the elements of the studies and participated fully in the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, its oil and gas assessment, Human Development Report. So the whole host of major studies done by the Arctic Council have all had input, all been influenced by the permanent participants there, and their experts—both indigenous and non-indigenous experts that work for the indigenous groups.

So there’s been a lot of input. Industrial development in the Arctic and the rights of—both fishing rights, and offshore rights, and onshore rights is a huge issue for the Arctic states in particular. And the relationship of the Arctic states—sovereign states, and the governments, to indigenous people in their own countries is an evolving dynamic that is very important to the future of the Arctic.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the Howard University School of Law.

Q: Good afternoon. My name is Heidi Surgaway (ph), a student at the law school.

And my question was actually just about the topic that was just raised—aboriginal members of the Council. So you mentioned that aboriginal groups do have representatives, as well as the responsibilities of the Council and the member states. So I was wondering, what are some of the particular concerns that those groups have raised? And also you spoke to the obligations of the states. Are those legal obligations or are these more so just obligations that the state would like to provide the indigenous persons with?

BRIGHAM: Yeah. We don’t call them aboriginal people in the Arctic Council, just to give you a different flavor to this. They’re called the Permanent Participants. And when we refer to them they’re called the Arctic Indigenous Peoples. So it’s slightly different. It probably means one and the same, but we do call them the permanent participants.

Well, sure, there are legal responsibilities of the Arctic states. There are rights issues internal in these countries. You know, in Canada for example—Canada has divested many controls and legal issues to the indigenous people, particularly in Nunavut, as an example.

Trying to think, what was the other issue on that question that you asked? Can I go back to the person?

OPERATOR: One moment, please. They have left the queue, sir.

BRIGHAM: Yeah, OK. I can finish. There was another point there, I think, that she had that I have—that I can’t remember. So I guess we’ll have to move on. If I think of it then I’ll mention it when I answer another question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes of St. Edward’s University. St. Edward’s, your line is now open.

Q: Hi. This is Veronica Adams.

And I was wondering if you could speak of HAARP, the research-based facility in Alaska dealing with radio waves and studying the physics of the ionosphere, and just speak about its purpose and if it’s been shut down or if it’s still active, because I know that the U.S. Air Force has claimed to want to shut this down because of the controversies surrounding if it is being blamed for global warming and natural disasters. So I was just wondering your take on this.

BRIGHAM: Well, I think there’s a movement ahead to have the university take it over—my university, University Alaska Fairbanks. I don’t know where the process is in that—in that takeover, but obviously the research is related to the ionosphere and, from what I know, is no relationship to climate change or disasters or any of that. That’s a bit heresy I think. But nonetheless, it’s a research element, research tool. But I don’t know the status of—it’s a good question, I guess, but you know, it’s not on the frontline of Arctic policy, per se. It may be an important issue to address as a tool to do Arctic science—atmospheric science.

FASKIANOS: Thanks. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Georgetown Law University.

Q: Hello. This is John Bezzen (ph).

I was wondering if you could give me your thoughts on sort of the practical—or sort of the practical policy applications of basically equipment investment. I’m thinking about the U.S. high-endurance icebreakers being very old. And we seem to have difficulty building more, certainly as compared to Russia and their icebreaker feet. To what extent does that lack of investment hamstring the U.S.’s ability to pursue its policy goals as just a big-ticket spending item that’s not really terribly relevant at this point?

BRIGHAM: Well, you’re asking a question directly related to some of those issues. The issue is much bigger than just a couple of icebreakers. The issue is infrastructure in the Arctic. There is no infrastructure—maritime infrastructure in most of the Arctic, except for the coast of Norway, coast of Iceland, and northwest coast of Russia. So infrastructure meaning ports, bases of navigation, environmental protection capacity, oil spill capacity response, search and rescue—a whole host of things, including icebreakers, that we don’t have.

As far as the icebreaker issue is, I mean, who—it’s not a comparison. These are—of course, the U.S. icebreakers are naval ships, being Coast Guard cutters—are naval ships, you know, and law enforcement vessels. But nonetheless, they’re not normally an escort convoy icebreaker. But you’re quite right, they represent both in the Antarctic and the Arctic, it’s the United States visible presence and sovereign presence of the U.S. in these maritime waters both north and south. So it is an instrument of national policy, and an instrument of achieving our national policy, and very visible.

The question of replacing them has been a long—couple decade long issue. And to replace them, you know, is going to require more budget attention to the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard. They are an important component to our maritime power, but the idea that somehow we have to match up with 30 or 40 Russian icebreakers, my answer to that is direct. It’s the United States has 10 battlegroups nominally, and Russia has none. So it’s an apples and oranges things.

Number of icebreakers are related to your transport system, also related to your presence and capability. But for the Russians, nearly all of those icebreakers are used for facilitating and moving cargo ships along an Arctic waterway of which we—really, we don’t have such a waterway. I guess we could have in the future, probably they would be escort commercial icebreakers. The icebreaker issue is a big one. The president when he came to Alaska talked about that. There’s some movement to move the icebreaker acquisition—or at least one icebreaker acquisition ahead in the budget process.

But challenging times for the federal budget. And it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. They are an instrument of national policy and are an important maritime component. The question is how many should we have. And they do operate—at least, America’s icebreakers—operate in supporting our Antarctic interests as well. So it’s, you know, Arctic and Antarctic capacity.

FASKIANOS: Thanks. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the University of California San Diego. University of California San Diego, your line is now open.

Q: Can you hear me?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir.

Q: Oh, sorry. This is Will Fuller (sp) from UCSD. Thanks so much for coming and taking time to talk with us.

I had a question about the northern sea route in Russia. In 2010 there were only 10 ships that used it, and then in 2013 it grew all the way to 71 and everyone got very excited about the possibility of a trade route from China to Europe shortening by 4,000 miles, and the opportunities there to save a lot of time and effort. But then last year, that fell to 53 and the ice sheet didn’t melt nearly as far as everyone thought. You mentioned that you didn’t think it was going to be any more than just sort of—what was it—destinational shipping for resources. Do you ever see a possibility in the near future for that changing, and that actually becoming a viable transcontinental trade route, specifically for East Asia to Europe?

BRIGHAM: Very difficult to see that happening in the decades ahead. Why? Because the Arctic Ocean, despite profound climate change and change in thickness and extent of ice, is still ice covered nine months out of the year. And so it’s an ice-covered place—ice-covered ocean most of that, either fully or partially covered. And so that is in part of the dynamic. So if you have a ship going, let’s say, five, six, knots, or 10 knots, that’s not going to close the time distance scale. You know, you’ll spend a longer time rather than going through the Suez on a more expensive icebreaking ship.

I won’t say it will never happen, but most of us that work on this issue see the northern sea route as a seasonal supplement. Even Russian experts quoted in the Moscow Times a couple years ago mentioned that they thought this is just a—the northern sea route, decades ahead, will be a seasonal supplement to the Suez Canal. There’s a lot of differences of opinions on this. There’s a lot of hype in the media about it, as you suggest. Even the numbers that you had mentioned, 51 and 71, those are erroneous for full transarctic voyages. In fact, there are somewhere averaging about 35 of full transits from ocean to ocean. The word transit is interpreted differently by our Russian colleagues and many of us that deal with this.

But full transits from ocean to ocean, there are roughly 35 in the last couple years on average. And of course, there are 18,000 ships that run on average that go through the Suez Canal, 9(,000), 10,000 through the Panama Canal. So the challenges of a ship going from, let’s say, Shanghai to Rotterdam across the world’s ocean—and if that’s an icebreaking ship, to be able to go through the northwest passage or across or over the top of the world, is going to have to be an icebreaking ship because the place is ice covered most of the time, except for maybe the middle of the summer. So it’s hard to see that a majority of the ships going from, let’s say, Asia to Europe and return are going to use routes across the top of the world.

No one will say never. There will be, certainly, voyages taken by a number of specialized ships. But clearly, we see—those of us who deal in research on this topic—that its natural resource development in tankers, LNG carriers, bulk carriers, are really the future of Arctic navigation, where those ships will take Arctic natural resources out of the Arctic and into the Pacific or into the Atlantic, wherever they’re headed. They may even carry them from, let’s say, Norway, across—one more point, a LNG carrier sailed from Norway to Japan—to part of Japan several years ago in November through the ice, escorted by nuclear icebreakers, and it was a demonstration voyage. So those kinds of voyages have taken place, and we still think that the real driver of Arctic navigation in the future is the development of Arctic natural resources.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Howard University School of Law.

Q: Hello. I just wanted to go ahead and ask the second part of that question. I just wanted to know very briefly, the indigenous persons, or the members of the committees or council, they had mentioned that they were very involved in the different case studies. However, what we were some of the concerns, the unique concerns, to those members?

BRIGHAM: Well, of course, one of the major concerns is the use of the marine waters in the Arctic, and how those uses will conflict, in many senses, or be impacted, impacting marine indigenous hunting, at least in the ocean water. And the concern, of course, by indigenous people of oil spills and unintended damage to ships through the ice and the spillage of oil, et cetera, those concerns are all visibly talked about and exposed in the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment.

In fact, in that study we held, oh, town hall meetings around most of the Arctic. We didn’t have town hall meetings in Russia, but in Northern Norway, and Canada, Greenland, and the United States we had town hall meetings where the indigenous people were able to express their concerns, and also express their interest in natural resource development and longer seasons of navigation to support their communities—remote communities. Because of the ice retreat and a longer season of navigation, many of these communities are able to be supplied earlier and longer during the summertime. So there are some positive aspects that came out of our engagement.

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment was a—probably the most major, most important document ever written about the Arctic and read about the Arctic. It was released in 2004 in Iceland, at the ministerial—Arctic Council ministerial there. And that report—ACIA is its acronym, Arctic Climate Impact Assessment; and everyone should really take a look and see what it says—has indigenous knowledge, indigenous concerns written all over the whole of the document and integrated throughout all of the recommendations and all of this massive assessment that was conducted.

So also the Human Development Report, there have been two, but the recent Human Development Report of the Arctic Council speaks to all of the challenges of living in an environment that is extraordinarily impacted by regional and global climate change. And so I think all of these studies have included many of the views, if not all of the views, of the permanent participants from a whole host of perspectives and vantage points.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Rowen-Cabarrus Community College.

Q: Hello. Good afternoon. My question is in three parts. One is, did you ever imagine to be this far in your field? The second one is, how did your vision begin? And the third one would be, what advice would you give to someone who would want to learn more about the Arctic region?

BRIGHAM: OK. I mean, the first part is perhaps I wouldn’t have envisioned that I would be involved most of my life with issues related to the polar world, but I was fortunate enough, having been a U.S. Coast Guard officer, to sail on icebreakers early in my career, and to the Arctic in particular, first in Greenland, and then sail to the Antarctic, and also sail on icebreakers on the Great Lakes, and also, having gone—had opportunities to work on icebreakers in different parts of the world. So kind of surprised. I grew up on a small island east of Long Island, about 100 miles from New York City in a rural area. But having been in the American military and the American Coast Guard, where we operate ships both ends of the world, I was able to get involved in essentially the marine safety and environmental protection issues, which the Coast Guard is involved with, but particularly for the polar regions.

The advice that I would give you is to study and do work in whatever field interests you. Particularly I tell my students that to focus on environmental issues would be a good field, because there will be many more opportunities as our country and the world grapples with climate change, and adaptation, and mitigation, and all of these issues. Whether you’re a lawyer or a natural scientist, or an executive in a company we’re all going to have to deal with sustainable development issues. And the Arctic is in that mix because, as I say again, the Arctic is really the, you know, harbinger of things to come on the planet in many different dimensions, when you consider climate change.

I think there was a third part to this and I’m not sure I know—remember what it was. Maybe the operator could put this person back on the line or have them in the queue.

OPERATOR: One moment please. Rowen, your line is now open.

BRIGHAM: Yeah, yeah, thanks.

Q: I think the answered it, but it was—the first one was, did you ever imagine to be in your position?

BRIGHAM: Yeah, yeah.

Q: And then it was, and how did you envision it? And then the third part was what advice you would give. So I believe you answered those three.

BRIGHAM: Yeah, maybe how would I—how I envisioned it. I mean, of course, it’s evolutionary, as the more deeply you get—I mean, this is a very—the topics that I deal with, Arctic marine transportation, and safety issues, and protection, I mean, it’s still complex subjects, but very narrowly focused on one region of the planet. Although I do work on Antarctica as well, really I focus my experience and my background on the Arctic, just by the fortuitous opportunities I had going to the polar region. I would say that if you ever had, or any of the students, ever have a chance to sail into the Arctic or visit the Arctic by plane or whatever, I would take that opportunity to see this extraordinary place, and the Antarctic as well, because I think by having that field experience—nothing can replace that experience, I think, for—of the Arctic and the Antarctic.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from the University of Southern Mississippi.

FASKIANOS: Are you there?

BRIGHAM: Yes, I’m here.

FASKIANOS: Yeah, so no. Maybe we can go to the next question.

OPERATOR: The next question is from the University of Southern Mississippi. Your line is now open.

Q: Can you hear me now?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir.

Q: Excellent. Great. So two questions for you. Number one is given the Arctic situation, and considering that you argue that natural resources are going to be the primary driver, do you see the geopolitical situation as one of defense-related activities taking primacy prior to mineral extraction, namely hydrocarbons? Or do you see multinationals going in there with hydrocarbon extraction, and then defense following to protect those resources as they’re being extracted? So where do you see sort of the chicken and the egg playing out? And then number two is, are there other analogies to other regions of the world outside the Antarctic that would come into play that you would use for scenarios, or war gaming, or theory building regarding the Arctic? Thank you.

BRIGHAM: Well, I mean, the Arctic Ocean is a place of operation of nuclear icebreakers—nuclear submarines today by Russia, and the United States, and the U.K. And so it is a waterway used by naval vessels today—maybe not surface vessels like they’re around the rest of the planet. So as far as the chicken or the egg as far as defense leading, I think it’s natural resource development, global companies coming to the Arctic, multinationals that will drive, you know, exploration and development.

Whether some of this can be done in Russia without technical help, without technical transfer, particularly for the offshore, is still an open question. And whether, you know, it does relate in some sense to the sanctions that we have today limiting technology transfer and putting sanctions on individuals. And so how long that is maintained and how long, you know, that process continues is an issue. But, I mean, defense planning, I’d look at the U.S. DOD strategy for the Arctic.

And it talks about environment, and knowledge of the environment, and potential collaboration with other countries and other entities. And so I don’t see, at least in our documents—United States documents—a ramp-up of capacity and capability. The Navy’s—the U.S. Navy’s road map is pretty clear about investment in research and understanding the environment, and the changing environment. It does talk a little bit about the future possibility of operating naval vessels in the Arctic. But really, I don’t see a turn towards the Arctic by the U.S. defense structure.

On the other side, in the Russian Arctic, of course, you probably read recently that Russia’s building up some small garrisons and some small bases on two of the remote islands in the Russian Arctic. They had bases there in the Soviet era. And so, I mean, there is movement afoot. And in the northern part of Norway, certainly there is a rejuvenation and an enhancement of capacity for our Norwegian friends.

The second part is analogies to the Arctic, other than in the Antarctic, which is not an analogy as you suggested. It’s hard to say where other parts of the world where we can have cooperation on one hand, and then dealing with external influence of things like Crimea and other geopolitical events. I mean, I don’t know where else on the planet there is this type of place where we can have fairly high-level and very close cooperation, and yet tension that relates to other parts of the world, and then, you know, its influences essentially some of the politics of the Arctic.

So it’s an interesting and an unusual environment. It is hard to create scenarios and do scenarios, planning for the Arctic because it is complex. And very holistic look at—you have to take a holistic look at all of the different drivers. And there are many, as I’ve suggested.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Next question comes from Naval War College.

Q: Yes. This is Lieutenant Colonel Brandon Gregoire, United States Marine Corps.

Sir, you’ve alluded somewhat to the question I had, but it goes back to the Russian presence and buildup in the Arctic. You seem to portend a future of a relatively peaceful environment, which I guess dovetails with current national security strategy. But looking at the increase in SSBM patrols, increase in their naval infantry, snap military exercises, it might tend to indicate something a little bit more nefarious or hostile from the Russians. Can you comment on that, please?

BRIGHAM: Yeah, I guess. I mean, maybe that’s the interpretation of many. My interpretation is that Russia needs and will pursue selling natural resources to the world. And, yeah, they have a dilemma. I mean, they can build up a military presence, create friction and problems. Nobody’s going to buy all the stuff they want to sell. So if you have an area and an ocean of friction, and problems, and limiting navigation, I don’t know how you move all those natural resources to global markets. And that’s part of Mr. Putin’s strategy. All the Russian documents that I’ve seen focused on natural resource development, marine transportation, waterway—natural Arctic waterway.

I don’t know about the trends. I mean, surely we see some new nuclear submarines in the Russian fleet and this what I think is modest buildup on the islands. The small garrisons are really not—I mean, they’re for presence. So you make a decent point. It is a different perspective. But I think that it’s economics driving the future of the Arctic. And we can close it off, surely we all could do that for business, but I don’t think that’s in the interests of many of the Arctic states, number one state being Russia, maybe two right behind it Norway.

So if you want free flow of trade and engagement with multinational corporations and development and technology transfer, you can’t create a place of friction. So it is a dilemma for whatever the Russian Arctic strategies are. It is a complex route for them to pursue. But my sense is that they’re pursing the route of engagement with the world and selling of natural resources to—on the global commodities markets.

Maybe one more question.

FASKIANOS: Yes, sir. Next question comes from St. Edward’s University.

Q: Hi. Can you discuss how climate change and the globalization of the Arctic has affected Arctic security, especially for the indigenous people?

BRIGHAM: Well, it’s a good question. I mean, it’s a food security issue. I don’t think that marine transportation has affected maybe much yet because of the numbers of traffic. There has been some impact, of course, I suspect. But much of the Arctic navigation today has been in ice-free seasons. And hasn’t—now I’m thinking of coast of Alaska in particular. I guess in some areas of you have and would have fairly massive buildup of oil and gas exploration offshore, then the intense number of ships that support these rigs would have direct impact on indigenous hunting and whaling, et cetera, and so special rules and regulations have to be developed to mitigate those impacts.

So I think—on the land side, I guess there are places in the Arctic, I’m not—I focus on the marine side—but there are both positive and negative examples of industrial development on the land side. One positive is the Red Dog Mine Complex in Alaska, where that land-side development, in connection to the sea during the summertime of operations where large bulk carriers come and pick up the zinc ore and carry it away, has been quite successful. Economically lucrative to the folks that run this complex in northwest Alaska. And so there are indications and examples where what we might call the globalization or industrialization of the Arctic has been conducted in safe and sustainable ways.

FASKIANOS: Great. I think we are now out of time. So, Lawson Brigham, thank you very much for sharing your insights with us today, and to all of you for your questions. I apologize to those of you who we couldn’t get to. But we’ll have to have you back, Lawson.

BRIGHAM: Yeah, thank you very much. Thank you, everyone, for the great questions.

FASKIANOS: If you haven’t had a chance to look at our InfoGuide on climate change—or, I’m sorry—on the Arctic, I encourage you to do so. Lawson contributed to that, so please have a look. Our next call, and the final one of the semester, will be on Wednesday, December 2nd, from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m., Eastern Time. Rachel Vogelstein, senior fellow and director of the Women in Foreign Policy program here at CFR will discuss working—talk about working in foreign policy circles.

So in the meantime, please follow CFR’s academic outreach initiative on Twitter at @CFR_Academic for new information on resources and upcoming events from CFR. And thank you again for being with us today.


This is an uncorrected transcript.

Top Stories on CFR


Israel has made eliminating the threat from the Gaza-based militant group a central war aim, but it’s not entirely clear at what point that condition will be met.  


Outright seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s hundreds of billions in frozen assets is currently off the table, but it is still possible to obtain large sums for Ukraine from the interest income on these assets.