Climate Change in the Arctic, the Military Consequences and Security Implications

25.3.2024 10:53

The CLIMARCSEC (Climate Change and Arctic Security – Military Implications) project had its meeting in Rovaniemi in March, hosted by the Arctic Centre. This blog opens up the contents of the workshop.

Climate change in the Arctic regions is happening three to four times faster than the global average, resulting in both new risks and opportunities. It gives Arctic and non-Arctic actors easier access, facilitating navigation, resource extraction, fisheries and ecotourism. This development is likely to increase competition among countries and has created a risk of more incidents, miscommunications and potential for conflicts over resources and territory. For these reasons, the Arctic is gaining strategic importance for multinational forces (MNF) mainly within a NATO context. NATO increasingly recognizes the significance of the Arctic and the implications of climate change for security in general as well as the in the Arctic in particular. 

As Finland became NATO’s 31st member in April 2023, the country, together with the other Nordic nations, is now representing NATO in the Arctic region. Finland has joined Norway, and now Sweden, in collectively defending the High North. Finland is familiar with extreme weather conditions and a wide range of temperatures (in the extreme case -40 C in winter and +35 in summer) and has been conducting challenging military operations in the Arctic operating environment for decades. Lessons learned from Finnish cold weather operations and the Finnish knowhow are thus particularly valuable for MNF who seek to improve their knowledge on military operations in the Arctic region. Strengthened cooperation between MNF on military operations is becoming essential due to global warming and increasing geopolitical competition in the Arctic region. They have become more necessary but simultaneously more difficult, complex and costly due to the changing environmental conditions and the related challenges such as difficult ice conditions, small breakaways from icebergs and glaciers threatening to damage ships and to permafrost thaw. The latter can undermine military infrastructure, ports and runways. Resources (personnel, equipment, finances) will be further challenged given the necessity to respond to the compounding effects of climate change on domestic and/or regional environments (i.e. search and rescue and disaster response). The extreme weather conditions will potentially restrict military mobility, survivability and sustainability.  

Various capability and coordination gaps - for example insufficiency in resources and modern weather-beaten equipment, a lack in joint command structures and a lack in a persistent domain awareness from sea floor to space - restrict MNF abilities to address these challenges adequately. Enhancing MNF’s Arctic capabilities requires a robust policy and governance framework and better coordination of MNF policies and activities in order to maintain a strong and effective security presence in the region and to ensure an operational advantage over their strategic competitors. 

The challenges that face the region are considerable, but there are also a considerable number of collaborators and efforts underway to address the implications of climate change in the Arctic. The Joint Chiefs of Staff J7 Directorate for Joint Force Development [1] continues to further their efforts to support solutions to military problems stemming from climate change in the Arctic. The J7 supports the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) and the joint warfighter through joint force development (JFD) in order to advance the operational effectiveness of the current and future joint force. The Allies and Partners Force Development Division (APFDD) provides direct collaboration and integration throughout the spectrum of joint force development and design in order to allow the Joint Staff, its Allies and partners to invest in required initiatives to ensure continued, interoperable and seamless operations together to meet objectives in the National Military Strategy. One of these initiatives is the Multinational Capabilities Development Campaign (MCDC) in which 23 nations and international organizations work together to jointly develop non-material solutions to military problems.   

The CLIMARCSEC (Climate Change and Arctic Security – Military Implications) project is one of eight projects within the current two-year MCDC project cycle 2023-24. It is led by Norway (Norwegian Ministry of Defense and Norwegian Institute of International Affairs) and includes the contributing nations of Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Poland, Romania, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as a number of observers (countries such as the Netherlands and international organizations such as the EU). Each partner nation brings its own unique perspectives, challenges and goals for the project. The project is halfway through a two-year cycle and is currently writing a multi-national concept that aims to provide actionable resources for partner nations.   
Based on the above outlined background, CLIMARCSEC’s focus is on examining the current challenges to the military operating environment caused by climate change and competitive activity in the Arctic and how existing gaps in operational capability and governance of Multinational Forces (MNF) could be closed and future capability requirements be met. For this purpose, the project is working to define the governance and capability gaps and propose multinational solutions that any nation’s defense establishment may use to mitigate the existing and potential gaps in ever changing conditions. Within the wide range of military challenges and capabilities, the project focuses primarily on command, control, communication, and coordination capabilities necessary to lead effective MNF Arctic operations.   

Success will require not just coordination across partner militaries who operate in the Arctic, but coordination with civilian and academic experts from each member state. The CLIMARCSEC group met in Rovaniemi, Finland in February 2024 and were fortunate to be hosted by the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland. The Arctic Centre supported our collaboration and graciously opened their facilities, allowing our first opportunity to have a workshop in the Arctic as we explore the security implications and military consequences of climate change in the region.  The workshop represented the nexus between military, civilian and academic expertise, through the contribution from the Arktikum Science Centre, as well as the Finnish army, NATO CoEs and project partners. This workshop was also notable because the group conducted a Concept Development Assessment Game (CDAG) table-top discussion using two different realistic scenarios in the Arctic (search and rescue operation and freedom of navigation). The CDAG provided a clearer understanding of the challenges for military operations in the Arctic. We are grateful for the Arctic Centre’s continuing collaboration and look forward to jointly solving these whole of government challenges. 


By LCDR Will D. Spoon, USCGR, Joint Staff (J7) - Allies and Partners Force Development Division and Dr. Tobias Etzold, Senior Research Fellow, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

[1] For additional details, see The Joint Chiefs of Staff Directorate for Joint Force Development