In August 2014, two Norwegian scientists set off with 21 tons of supplies—food, equipment to measure ocean depth, an instrument to clock water currents, computers, and a specially designed hovercraft named Sabvabaa (Inuit for “flows swiftly over it”)—loaded onto a jagged-edged slab of ice about 200 miles from the North Pole. Unlike their cargo, the researchers’ plan was simple: For the upcoming months, the frozen island would float aimlessly, ferrying a then 72-year-old Yngve Kristoffersen and his younger colleague, Audun Tholfsen, around the Arctic, taking them where even icebreakers could not go.
They were there to drill hydroholes through the ice, film the ocean floor, and collect sediment cores that are millions of years old. After weeks adrift, their ice floe eventually led them into an Arctic no man’s land where temperatures can drop to minus 45 degrees Celsius and trigger powerful gales. The two men were alone but for the occasional white fox. That’s why, in October 2014, the hardy researchers were stunned to spot something unmistakable about two miles from their base: visitors.
As the scientists approached lights they had spotted in the distance, they made out the hulking black bow and sail of a submarine poking up through the ice. But before they reached the site, it quickly disappeared. Based on photographs taken by the scientists, the Norwegian team later determined that the vessel was likely the Orenburg, a Russian sub—which carries with it a nuclear-powered mini-sub—used for deep-dive intelligence missions.
The scientists, it turned out, were being watched.
The run-in was anything but coincidental. Like Kristoffersen and Tholfsen, the Orenburg was there to drill into undersea ranges in order to collect geological samples from the Lomonosov Ridge, a little-known underwater mountain chain that rises about 12,000 feet above the seabed and stretches for more than 1,000 miles. Under and around this formation lies nearly a quarter of the Earth’s remaining fossil fuel resources. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds a staggering 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, approximately 90 billion barrels, as well as 30 percent of its natural gas, or about 1,669 trillion cubic feet.
Worth an estimated $17.2 trillion, an amount roughly equivalent to the entire U.S. economy, these resources have been trapped for eons under a dome of ice and snow. But now, with the Arctic warming faster than anywhere else on the planet, that dome is getting smaller and smaller. According to scientists at the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center, about 65 percent of the ice layer above the Lomonosov Ridge melted between 1975 and 2012. In layman’s terms, says Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University, this means one thing: The ice cap is in a “death spiral.”
For the countries that border the Arctic Ocean— Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark (through its territory of Greenland)—an accessible ocean means new opportunities. And for the states that have their sights set on the Lomonosov Ridge—possibly all five Arctic Ocean neighbors but the United States—an open ocean means access to much of the North Pole’s largesse. First, though, they must prove to the United Nations that the access is rightfully theirs. Because that process could take years, if not decades, these countries could clash in the meantime, especially as they quietly send in soldiers, spies, and scientists to collect information on one of the planet’s most hostile pieces of real estate.
While the world’s attention today is focused largely on the Middle East and other obvious trouble spots, few people seem to be monitoring what’s happening in the Arctic. Over the past few years, in fact, the Arctic Ocean countries have been busy building up their espionage armories with imaging satellites, reconnaissance drones, eavesdropping bases, spy planes, and stealthy subs. Denmark and Canada have described a clear uptick in Arctic spies operating on their territories, with Canada reporting levels comparable to those at the height of the Cold War. As of October, NATO had recorded a threefold jump in 2014 over the previous year in the number of Russian spy aircraft it had intercepted in the region. Meanwhile, the United States is sending satellites over the icy region about every 30 minutes, averaging more than 17,000 passes every year, and is developing a new generation of unmanned intelligence sensors to monitor everything above, on, and below the ice and water.
If Vienna was the crossroads of human espionage during the Cold War, a hub of safe houses where spies for the East and the West debriefed agents and eyed each other in cafes, it’s fair to say that the Arctic has become the crossroads of technical espionage today. According to an old Inuit proverb, “Only when the ice breaks will you truly know who is your friend and who is your enemy.”
Thousands of miles from the frigid north, the actual decision on which country gets what slice of the Arctic will be made in midtown Manhattan by 21 geologists, geophysicists, and hydrographers who compose the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, established under the Convention on the Law of the Sea. This treaty is a sort of international constitution establishing the rights and responsibilities for the use of the world’s oceans.
Although approved in 1982, after nearly a decade of meetings and conferences, the convention did not go into force until 1994; since then, it has been what sets limits on offshore mining. The treaty also regulates a country’s exclusive economic zone—how far from its shoreline a nation can legally fish and tap the minerals under the seabed. Thus, beyond the 200-nautical-mile limit of this zone, none of the five Arctic Ocean countries has the right to touch the enormous body of mineral wealth below the ice. The treaty, however, allows any nation to lobby for up to 350 additional nautical miles, and sometimes more, if it can prove that an underwater formation is an extension of its dry landmass.
Today, nearly 170 countries have ratified or acceded to the treaty, but the United States has yet to do so. In fact, out of the five Arctic Ocean nations, the United States is the only outlier. Upon the convention’s inception, President Ronald Reagan’s administration, with its free-enterprise philosophy, could not “as a matter of principle” sign on to something that encouraged a “mixed economic system for the regulation and production of deep seabed minerals,” wrote Leigh Ratiner, one of the U.S. negotiators for the treaty, in a 1982 Foreign Affairs article. One of Reagan’s attorneys general, Edwin Meese, later went so far as to call the treaty “a direct threat to American sovereignty.” Despite its being signed later by President Bill Clinton and having the backing of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama—as well as the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Navy leaders, environmental groups, and the oil and shipping industries—conservative Republican senators continue to argue that the agreement would somehow subjugate the U.S. military and business interests to U.N. control.
If Vienna was the crossroads of human espionage during the Cold War, it’s fair to say that the Arctic has become the crossroads of technical espionage today.
Each Arctic Ocean country, upon ratifying the convention, is allowed 10 years to present scientific proof to the commission that its continental shelf extends beyond its exclusive economic zone. In December 2014, when it became the latest to submit bathymetric, seismic, and geophysical data to the United Nations, Denmark joined Russia and Canada in the fight for a piece of the Lomonosov Ridge. And though this has been an expensive contest for all involved, costing each country millions of dollars, the tactics at times have been cheap, if not utterly bizarre.
The first to approach the U.N., in 2001, Russia asserted that it had ownership not only of the North Pole, but also of an area amounting to about half the Arctic. To symbolically emphasize this point six years later, a Russian submersible carrying Artur Chilingarov, an avid explorer and then deputy speaker of the Duma, planted a rust-proof titanium Russian flag on the ocean floor 14,000 feet beneath the North Pole. The event triggered an outcry from Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay. “This isn’t the 15th century,” he said. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’” Chilingarov shot back: “If someone doesn’t like this, let them go down themselves … and then try to put something there. Russia must win. Russia has what it takes to win. The Arctic has always been Russian.” Adding to the political theater, soon after the flag-planting ceremony, the Russian air force launched cruise missiles over the Arctic as part of a military exercise.
Not to be upstaged by Moscow’s flag stunt, in December 2013, the government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared that Santa Claus is a Canadian citizen and announced plans to claim ownership of the North Pole. “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic,” Harper had said in a 2007 speech at a naval base outside Victoria, British Columbia. “We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it.” The idea, according to Harper’s “Northern Strategy,” is to assert Canadian presence in the Arctic by “putting more boots on the Arctic tundra, more ships in the icy water and a better eye-in-the-sky.” But some Canadians think the prime minister has gone too far. “[N]ow Harper has become the Putin of the Arctic,” chided Heather Exner-Pirot, managing editor of Arctic Yearbook, in a 2013 blog post.
To meet its 10-year deadline, Norway filed its arguments to the U.N. in 2006, claiming that its seabed extends into both the Atlantic and the Arctic oceans in three places: the Loop Hole in the Barents Sea, the Western Nansen Basin in the Arctic Ocean, and the Banana Hole in the Norwegian Sea. But depending on the outcomes of various expeditions underway, including Kristoffersen and Tholfsen’s work on the ice floe, the country might return for a piece of the Lomonosov Ridge. It’s banking on some flexibility baked into the treaty: As long as a nation meets its 10-year deadline, it isn’t penalized for follow-up submissions.
When Denmark presented claims to the U.N. that the Lomonosov Ridge is the natural extension of Greenland—a self-governing Danish territory with the nearest coastline to the North Pole—it also offered the commission evidence that now overlaps with studies presented by Russia and Canada. And this could prove to be drastically more complicated than it first might seem.
Given that the commission generally meets but twice a year, the pace at which it moves is anything but fast. For example, at the 30-year anniversary of the Law of the Sea treaty, the U.N. published a progress report stating that since the commission was formed in 1997, various countries around the globe, including those that border the Arctic, had submitted 61 claims to define new borders in the world’s oceans. However, in that same time, the commission had only managed to issue 18 sets of responses. In recent years, the 2012 report highlighted, the commission’s workload had “increased considerably,” and member countries had indicated plans for 46 future submissions.
This existing backlog does not bode well for settling matters quickly in the Arctic, especially now that those claims are becoming even more complex. Denmark seemingly attempted to reduce some of this wait time by petitioning the commission to recognize only the scientific merits of each of the country’s claims. Once these are established, according to Denmark’s submission, the Arctic nations will determine for themselves where the final boundaries will be drawn—a right allowed under the treaty.
In some ways, this tangled, bureaucratic system has worked out for the polar countries, perhaps even enabled them. Over the past few decades, they have happily assumed something akin to Arctic squatters’ rights, taking special liberties to explore the ocean’s bounty while simultaneously expanding control, both mechanical and human, as the ice continues to shrink. With or without a U.N. decision, the Arctic countries likely aren’t budging anytime soon.
Today, woven tightly into the very fabric of Arctic life is espionage: Technicians eavesdrop on civilian, government, and military communications, radar signals, and missile tests. They also conduct surveillance photography of any military equipment, ports, or bases. In December 2014, during a news conference in Moscow, Col. Gen. Viktor Bondarev, the head of Russia’s air force, noted that there had been a dramatic increase in foreign spy flights, including ones in the Arctic. “In 2014, more than 140 RC-135 flights have taken place, compared to 22 flights in 2013,” he said. But the same goes for the Russians, according to defense officials: NATO intercepted more than 100 Russian aircraft in 2014, three times more than the year before.
Russian President Vladimir Putin views the far north in a vehemently nationalist light. “The Arctic is, unconditionally, an integral part of the Russian Federation that has been under our sovereignty for several centuries,” he said in 2013. To put muscle behind this statement, in March 2015 the Russian military launched a massive five-day show of force in the Arctic involving 38,000 servicemen and special forces troops, more than 50 surface ships and submarines, and 110 aircraft. Two months earlier, the first of about 7,000 Russian troops began arriving at a recently reopened military air base at Alakurtti, north of the Arctic Circle; 3,000 of them will be assigned to an enormous signals intelligence listening post designed to eavesdrop on the West across the frozen ice cap.
More than a dozen additional bases are slated for construction. In October 2014, Lt. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, head of the National Defense Management Center, told the Russian Defense Ministry’s public council that Moscow plans to build 13 airfields, an air-to-ground firing range, and 10 radar posts. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed the council, “In 2015 we will be almost fully prepared to meet unwelcome guests from east and north.”
Eavesdropping on the Russians across the North Pole is a Canadian listening post so high in the Arctic that it’s closer to Moscow than to Ottawa. Known as Alert and located on the northeast tip of Ellesmere Island in the territory of Nunavut, it is just 500 miles from the pole and is the northernmost permanently inhabited location in the world. A welcome sign declares, “Proudly Serving Canada’s ‘Frozen Chosen.’”
There, in some of the harshest weather on Earth, staffers maintain critical antenna networks used to intercept key Russian signals containing Arctic troop movements, aircraft and submarine communications, and critical telemetry from missile tests and space shots. In recent years, as technology advanced and the Russian buildup began, Canada moved hundreds of earphone-clad operators to Leitrim, a listening post near Ottawa; at this base, several satellite dishes eavesdrop on military and commercial communications satellites.
Canada shares its intelligence from Alert and Leitrim with its close partner, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), and the United States reciprocates through its Thule Air Base in western Greenland. More than 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle and more than 60 miles from the nearest Inuit village, Thule is not just one of the world’s most isolated facilities, but also one of the most highly classified. With a trio of bulbous igloo-like radomes on a wind-swept cliff about three miles from the base, personnel in a gray, windowless operations building send operational commands to more than 140 satellites in orbits from 120 miles to 24,800 miles above the planet.
Among the satellites the station controls are those that fly over Russia and its Arctic bases every 90 minutes, taking detailed photographs with cameras capable of spotting objects on Earth only a few inches long. Technicians feed directions to satellites about 20,000 times a year on average, said unit commander Austin Hood in a 2012 article in Airman, a U.S. Air Force publication. In addition, the station sends commands to many of the NSA’s eavesdropping satellites with instructions on which frequencies to monitor, such as those for telephone communications and Internet data.
In 2013, concerned about the possibility of Russian drones in the Arctic, the Canadian government produced a classified study that explored the possibilities and limitations of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Unless “UAVs gain aerial refueling capabilities,” it reported, Russia could not spy in Canadian Arctic territory. And though Canada has orbited Radarsat-2, a synthetic-aperture radar surveillance satellite capable of seeing through clouds, in order to keep track of events and military movements (including in the Arctic), this technology apparently wasn’t stealthy enough for the country: In August 2014, defense employees began carrying out experiments to test the feasibility of developing drones for use in the Arctic.
The response? Three months later, in November, a Russian government spokesman announced that Moscow will build a drone base slightly south of the Arctic Circle and just 420 miles away from mainland Alaska. When completed, this base will make Russia the only country to have this technology in the Arctic skies.
Norway is also becoming nervous about Russia. In March 2015, around the same time that Moscow showed off its 38,000 troops, Norway acted similarly, dragging out 5,000 soldiers and 400 vehicles for its own Arctic military exercise. But rather than spying on Russia with satellites, Norway is putting its spies to sea. In December 2014, Prime Minister Erna Solberg christened the $250 million Marjata. Built for the Norwegian Intelligence Service and expected to become operational in 2016, the vessel will be among the world’s most advanced surveillance ships, according to information released by the Norwegian military.
“The new Marjata will be an important piece in the continuation of the Intelligence Service’s assignments in the High North,” Lt. Gen. Kjell Grandhagen, head of the service, said in a statement. He also told a Norwegian newspaper that the Marjata’s task “will be to systematically map all military and some civilian activity in areas close to Norway.” Designed largely for eavesdropping on Russian communications and other signals, according to the Norwegian government-owned news service NRK, it will also identify things like the frequencies of Moscow’s radar systems—information that is critical in order to jam them should hostilities break out.
Beneath the Arctic ice, the United States and Russia remain adversaries, vestiges of the Cold War. Since the USS Nautilus first slid under the North Pole in 1958 and the USS Skate became the first to surface there less than a year later, U.S. submarines have completed more than 120 Arctic exercises.
With 72 subs, the United States has an advantage in numbers over Russia, which has about 60. But Russia is debuting a new generation of vessels that are far quieter and much more difficult for U.S. defense systems to detect. According to an article in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, the “alarmingly sophisticated” Russian fleet “will likely dramatically alter the world’s future geopolitical landscape.” The author, veteran submariner Lt. Cmdr. Tom Spahn, said the armament on the Yasen, Russia’s new fast- attack submarine, includes supercavitating torpedoes that can speed through the water in excess of 200 knots, about the equivalent of 230 miles per hour. This “makes her truly terrifying,” Spahn wrote. The new Russian subs, that is, will be stealthier and far deadlier than any ever known.
One evening in November 2014, U.S. radar operators spotted six Russian aircraft—two Tu-95 “Bear” long-range bombers, two Il-78 refueling tankers, and two MiG-31 fighters—heading toward the Alaskan coast. They had entered a U.S. air defense identification zone, airspace approaching the American border where aircraft must identify themselves, and they were getting closer when two U.S. F-22 fighter jets were dispatched to intercept them. About six hours later, Canada detected two more Russian Bear bombers approaching its Arctic airspace. Like the United States, Canada scrambled two CF-18 fighter jets to divert the bombers within about 40 nautical miles off the Canadian coast.
Although the Bears are designed to drop bombs, they are also used to collect intelligence and eavesdrop on military communications. This was most likely their purpose in flying close to the U.S. and Canadian Arctic coasts. To be clear, Moscow wasn’t doing anything Washington doesn’t do itself: The United States regularly flies its RC-135 aircraft—a variant of a Boeing 707 that sucks signals, from radar beeps to military conversations to civilian email, from the air like a vacuum cleaner—near Russia’s northern territory.
As the planes get closer, spying becomes bolder. And though this strategy might be necessary for Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway as they vie for supremacy in the new Great Game, this isn’t a strategy that is necessarily logical for the United States, a country not party to the Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Even if the Senate were to ratify the treaty, it is likely that, by the time it submits its claim to the commission, much of the icy region will be accounted for. And given the rightward turn in Congress, the odds that the treaty will be ratified during the Obama administration are slimmer than ever. In the words of one U.S. Coast Guard admiral quoted about the Arctic in a 2010 Politics Daily article, “If this were a ball game … the U.S. wouldn’t be on the field or even in the stadium.”
In the next few years, as the Arctic Ocean opens for business, American spies will still be busy feeding directions to satellites that spin over the North Pole, while the United States’ polar neighbors will be busy exploiting the resources beneath it and leading convoys through the ice in new shipping channels above it. With this kind of Arctic strategy, in other words, the United States will remain frozen in another era.
James Bamford (@WashAuthor) is a columnist for Foreign Policy and the author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. He also writes and produces documentaries for PBS.