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.”
Picture: US Department of Defense photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Tiffini M. Jones, U.S. Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons