THE BLOG
02/23/2016 07:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Cold War Gets Icy With Russia and US Weapons Build-Up in Arctic

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Image: Yamal-Region TV website

An obscure TV channel in Siberia first alerted us to the fact of a superpower buildup in the Far North. Yamal-Region TV is owned by the government of Russia's Yamal oblast (state), a finger of permafrost land the size of Florida that pokes into the Arctic Ocean. In the native Inuit language Yamal means "the end of the world."

And that may turn out to be the perfect name for it. The Arctic region is controlled by competing powers, including Russia and the U.S., who are now arming themselves to the teeth. The argument is over newly thawed shipping lanes and natural gas ports opened up by the warming climate. In the words of Reuters News Service, they are "Preparing For War."

This short video called "Cold War On Ice" is part of our web series ThisPlanet.TV. It includes a few clips from Yamal's newscasts illustrating the Russian viewpoint on the situation in the Arctic:

Almost every night, Yamal TV's newscast revealed the extent of cold war planning in the cold north:

Ice breakers!

Military bases!

Roads to nowhere (except oil exploration sites)!

Siberia is the richest fossil fuel source on Earth, but it was hard to get at all that oil and natural gas because it lay beneath a whole lot of ice. Its riches include a potential 30% of the world's undiscovered natural gas, and over 13% of its unexplored oil.

Climate change to the rescue! The Arctic just had its hottest summer on record. Eighty percent of the summertime ice cover has melted since 1979, hence the competition for lucrative new shipping lanes in the Arctic, as well as a handful of new natural gas ports. How ironic is it that: if you burn the black stuff hard and long enough, it melts the ice and opens the Arctic to undreamed-of riches?

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Image: Andy Lee Robinson

Damn the melting permafrost and full speed ahead. Russia has already filed a request for the UN to recognize its continental shelf claims in the Arctic. According to an
article in the UK's Telegraph newspaper, Russia's defense ministry is planning an Arctic base that can house 150 soldiers for more than a year with no outside contact. Russian maritime war exercises in the area have been unprecedented in scale including one 'snap exercise' that involved 80,000 soldiers and 220 aircraft.

But Russia wants to play down the buildup. The Moscow Times says:

The apparent militarization of the Arctic is merely a process of normative securitization...Russia reprises its Cold War role and is cast as the villain of the Arctic narrative...Discussion of Russia's 'rapid' militarization is misleading, as Russia's Arctic military might isn't anything new.

The US is hardly convinced. President Obama will be requesting resources from Congress in 2016 to fund 'critical investments' in icebreakers ($3 Billion for three new ships). Reuters reported that the US already operates 41 nuclear powered submarines that can cut through or sail under Arctic ice. And another source tells us that over the last 14 months, most of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies have assigned analysts to work full time on the Arctic.

Obama made it more human, visiting Alaska with a selfie stick, and topping off his Instagram with the snapshots:
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Photo courtesy The White House

And one more thing -- if the Yamal Peninsula sounds familiar, its where Russian scientists discovered giant craters in the permafrost last summer, another probable effect of climate change.

Additional research by Emily Jones for This Planet.