Q&A: What are your questions about the changing Arctic?

Nov 27, 2018

We're taking your questions regarding The Post's reporting in The New Arctic Frontier, a piece that examines how climate change has opened the Arctic to new economic opportunities and emerging military threats.

Send in your questions for a live discussion at 12:30 P.M. ET on Tuesday, November 27 with The Post's Dan Lamothe and photographers Kadir van Lohuizen and Yuri Kozyrev.

The warming climate has created Arctic waterways in a region about the size of Texas, rich with oil and minerals. China and Russia are using icebreakers to explore the new routes, encroaching on Arctic waters over the U.S. continental shelf.

Lamothe has sailed on one of the U.S. military's two working polar icebreakers and reported on the growing geopolitical debate in the Arctic. Kozyrev and van Lohuizen spent 6 months photographing the Arctic from Canada, Greenland, Norway, Alaska and Russia.

Read The Post's reporting on the topic:
- The New Arctic Frontier - In a changing Arctic, a lone Coast Guard icebreaker maneuvers through ice and geopolitics

Hi all --

This is Dan Lamothe, and I'm a national security writer with The Washington Post. Welcome to our Arctic chat! I have been up to Alaska each of the last two summers to cover Arctic issues, and spent more than a week last year on the USCGC Healy, the U.S. military's only icebreaker traveling each year to the Arctic. I'm joined by Kadir van Lohuizen and Yuri Kozyrev, photographers who spent months this year traveling almost the entire Arctic region.

What kind of equipment did you use, that can work in those conditions?

In March it was still extremely cold and I used a Nikon D5. Later in the Arctic summer the temperatures were not so bad, so the equipment functioned well. Clothing was a bigger issue specially hands and toes

How do you propose such a big project to the editors? Where in your research you can say " now I can propose".

Yuri and I developed the concept together where we would take a 'global' look at the effects of climate change in the Arctic. We established what we wanted to address: new sea routes, impact of tourism, militarisation, mining possibilities etc. When we felt after the research that it could be feasible we proposed it to the Washington Post

If the worst case sea level rise occurs, how many people will become displaced and where would they most likely go?

That is a difficult question to answer since there are many variables, but its clear from the latest IPCC report that we have to reckon with 1-3 meters sea-level rise by the end of the century, which is probably still a conservative assumption. This means that tens of millions or possibly more than 200 million people will have to move away from coastal areas. The question where to go remains largely open

Why did you not mention that the House GOP took away funding for the icebreaker procurement and applied it to the wall? Senate version of DHS funding bill keeps the money, but only enough to pursue construction of 1. The other 5 may not be built b/c they are not funded and parts of GOP views icebreaker funding as supporting the fact climate change exists. Where is your reporting on this?

Definitely aware of the debate you're referencing. I've covered in the past, as well as the Trump administration's openness to using Coast Guard coffers to pay for other projects within the Department of Homeland Security, including the wall.

With that said, Coast Guard officials that I've talked to seem to feel they are in a pretty good spot right now. Funding has been secured for the design of the new ships, and that's a starting point. The president also says often that he appreciates the Coast Guard, which is somewhat reassuring in the service, if nothing else.

As for the climate change science, there are a couple angles to consider. Some deniers acknowledge climate change is occurring, but won't acknowledge it is man-made. Those are individuals that potentially can be swayed to pay for icebreakers on their national security merits, i.e., the ability they provide to have presence in the area of the world where we have limited reach by sea right now.

What capabilities do you feel are most important for a new U.S. icebreaker to have?

The Coast Guard has been clear about the basics of what they want: Three heavy icebreakers and three medium icebreakers. Both kinds of ships have reinforced hulls that allow them to punch throw thick sea ice safely. Heavy icebreakers are needed to go to Antarctica, where the ice is thickest. Medium icebreakers can mostly handle the ice in the Arctic.

Heavy icebreakers can crush ice up to 21 feet thick by most definitions. Medium icebreakers can crush up to eight.

Hi Kadir & Yuri, Can you tell us more about the impact climate change on indiginious cultures? also how you felt they were facing this challenging issue? Was it easy to have access to them?

The impact is large I would say. The melting permafrost makes it very hard to travel specially in the summer months and houses and structures are collapsing due to the melt: the permafrost was the fundament. The early disappearance and late arrival of the sea ice also make the coastal regions very vulnerable for erosions: the sea ice used to protect coast for spring and fall storms with a rising sea level on top of that many coastal towns need to relocate. For towns like shishmaref and Kivalina in Alaska this is already the case. On top of that the disappearing sea ice makes it very difficult for the hunting, which is the livelihood for many communities

There is barely a mention of Canada. Is it that unimportant?

Canada is absolutely important to the Arctic. I'm sure you noticed the many stunning images captured there for this story.

With that said, my story itself focused on the U.S. military's involvement there, and the potential rivals in the region. Canada isn't considered a rival; it's considered a partner. The plans of Russia and China are much less clear.

I was embedded with the Canadian military in the high Arctic, covered some of the indigenous communities and covered some of the mining, so I believe in the images it got the attention


How many icebreakers are needed for US to maintain presence in the Arctic region?

According to the U.S. military, six new ones are needed. At least three would be heavy icebreakers, capable of pushing through ice up to 21 feet thick. Three others will likely be medium icebreakers, which handle ice up to eight feet thick. That depth is more common in the Arctic.

I'm wondering if the photographers can tell us a little bit about how they envisioned this piece? Many photographs you see from the arctic only show melting glaciers but your pictures go way beyond this.

We felt that it was important to take a more 'global' approach. Yuri working in the Russian Arctic and me covering the 'western' Arctic. We wanted to look at the effects of climate change from different angles both possibly positive or negative: new sea routes, militarisation, tourism, mining, oil and gas industry. We wanted to show in this way way more and show the impact it has on the Arctic, but also way beyond

As you must be very much aware of climate change and its consequences, did your production trip pay special efforts on 'being green' (compensating CO2 for flying, or using less polluting means.... any thing else?

Yes we did, but at the same time we realise that our travels are contradicting what we are trying to say...

I believe Antartica is sort of a shared land among major countries for science? But it sounds like the Arctic area could become a free for all as different countries stake a claim for oil/mining rights? Is there any chance of getting shared status in the Arctic?

I guess we can only hope for some kind of agreement but for now it seems to be pretty much up for grabs. Part of the issue is that Antarctica is a land mass and the Arctic is basically a floating ice shelf

I am concerned about militarization of the Arctic, should that be a concern?

Yes, it absolutely should be concern. In context, it's worth noting that the Arctic is still years away from having major militarization, and perhaps never will. But melting ice is creating an opening for new competition, and how that is handled in the future will be important.

Hi Yuri, I was very struck by all of the different facilities and places that you photographed in Russia. Can you tell us a little bit about how you were able to gain access to these places and people and a little bit about how how Russians feel about all the Arctic activity?

It is always hard to get access to the oil and  gas sites, facilities. It doesn't matter where in Russia, USA or  China. Most of people I met there while working on this project at  the  far north of Russia are proud to be there and being  involved at the projects.

Hi Kadir, congratulations on this body of work. Given the geologic record on cyclical climatic changes, what can be done in order to understand and convince everyone once and for all that it's a serious situation? People who live inland and get their news through their social media newsfeed may not be as informed as you are. The melting of ice may free up previous unreachable land, and a new waterway for commerce. Is the impact going to be as bad as we think it's going to be? -Hugo Navarro from Guatemala (Via-PanAm Guate)

There are some positive effect on the changes, but I also believe that the melting of the Arctic will affect us all. The pole being kind of our airconditioner and its disappearance will only make things worse: the oceans will warm up quicker and sea currents will change or even cease to exist. The big question is also: who owns and controls the Arctic, which can be kind of a frightening thought....

Dan, Was there any conversation or concern that China, beyond just being interested, would go as far as doing some of what it's doing in the South China Sea, manufacturing islands, aggressively posturing naval stances, etc?

The Pentagon is obviously tracking the militarization of the South China Sea, so I think it's fair to say that there is at least a concern that at some point, the same tactics could be used elsewhere.

Caveat, though: the folks I interview still see the shift in the Arctic taking place over many years. I don't think we're at risk of any kind of flashpoint soon. It's more the trend that is worth tracking, in the Arctic and elsewhere.

What is your prospective on what goverment will control new sea routes- Russia to Northern Europe that are currently being tested and may become a commercial norm. And what effect will that have on national power and control of commerce? Thanks

I believe this remains a big open question. The Arctic is an ocean when it melts and who will actually control or own it? Territorial or international waters which are defined by maritime laws seem to apply less to the Arctic.

The Danish military has a military base in northern Greenland. Is there any plan for the US and Denmark to coordinate military and intelligence gathering efforts with regards to the Arctic region.

The United States and Denmark already are partners -- both are founding members of NATO. The United States already coordinates with Denmark in a number of ways as a result, and the U.S. Air Force actually has one installation, Thule Air Force Base, in Greenland.

I pointed this out in the story, but Denmark is among the nations interested in greater collaboration with the United States in the Arctic. One thing on the table is a new "Arctic Challenge" exercise, which will likely test air-to-air combat skills in a training environment.

I was in Churchill in 2005 to see the annual polar bear migration to the Hudson Bay. Now I hear the town is in jeopardy because of the melting and massive rains that the train can no longer reach Churchill. This is a town where you either have to fly or take a train, there are no road to Churchill. Most people are trapped as they can't afford plane fare and the prices of everything has skyrocketed. Have you heard anything about that?

Yes I did: it seems that a private company is rebuilding the railroad and developing the port. The railroad was suppose to reopen already, but I haven't heard it did happen. It does show how difficult the terrain is in the Arctic and the melting permafrost is actually often not making it any easier.

How much of such a project is prepared in advance, and how much room do you leave for the unexpected?

We feel its crucial to leave room for the unexpected, but I must say that logistics in the Arctic are a complicating factor: it makes it hard and often very expensive to travel and therfor change travel plans. In the end not much went as we expected, but that probably improved the reporting

Should the US build more icebreakers, considering the climate?

This is a common question: Why build more icebreakers if the ice is actually melting? The reason the military sees is that solid ice melting actually creates more places to worry about, rather than less. New sea passages will likely open up, but they'll still have ice floes in them that are treacherous.

Another question sometimes posed: Why does the United States need to worry about this? Why not just stay out of it? The answer you'll hear from people tracking the issue is that if the United States doesn't prioritize the issue, someone else will, and it might not get the outcome it wants. There is a lot potentially at stake.

I know US forces have trained in Scandinavian countries to gain experience and learn how to be successful in those environments - are there similar exercises planned or ongoing with some of those European partners in Alaska?

It's a work in progress, but yes. One spot you'll probably see it first is in how air forces for the nations involved integrate. There's a desire for greater coordination in air-to-air combat training.

The U.S. also already hosts some small number of exchange officers in Alaska, but it's worth pointing out that the needs are different. The U.S. military wants to train in places like Norway so that it can renew and gain experience in frigid environments. The Scandinavian militaries already have that. They're instead looking to build proficiency in using new weapons systems and better understanding how the U.S. military does its work. There is a lot of value potentially on both sides of the equation.

I notice when you were asked about the number of ice breakers need for US presence, you quoted the US Militiary. Is there a misalignment between the US Navy and the US Coast Guard with competing missions and for dollars? US Coast Guard is not the navy nor is it DoD (in peacetime). Does the US Navy really have a large concern on how many icebreakers that are needed?

Great question. A couple of points:

The Coast Guard *is* a part of the U.S. military. That's often confused because it is not a part of the Defense Department. It's still a military service though, even if it gets its funding from Homeland Security.

With that caveat, I think you hit on something really important: Future roles for both the Navy and the Coast Guard in the Arctic as the region warms.

In summer 2017, I visited the Coast Guard's icebreaker in the Arctic for about 10 days. We joined them off the northwest coast of Alaska, and then traveled a few hundred miles north. The only weapons aboard were small arms. That's not going to cut it in a conflict where potential adversaries have missiles or something similar on their Arctic fleet.

The question becomes what role should the Coast Guard and Navy each fill there? Navy vessels now aren't hardened in any serious way to contend with major ice floes. Coast Guard vessels are more typically focused on law enforcement and science.

Mentioned this in the story: The Coast Guard and Navy are both in the process of developing new Arctic strategies. In the Navy, that's coming even though they did so just a few years ago. We may get hints in those documents on which roles each service expect to take for years to come up north.

I saw a show where Capt. Franklin (British Version) tried to find the Fabled NW Passage and all of his boats and crew were lost. Is it available for commercial shipping now or would a normal tanker need help?

In te Arctic summer it is opening up, but it remains a tricky passage and often assistance of an icebreaker remains necessary. Predictions though are this will change and will become a (commercial) shipping route frequently used.

I wonder what kind of an impact such a project makes on you as persons. Can you stay positive despite what you encounter?

To some extent we can, because people are living with the circumstances and have a much better understanding how to adapt, something many of us lost. Nevertheless it has a huge impact on local communities and this is hard to witness.

I don't understand why Russia would be upset that we may increase our presence in Norway. Is there some indication that they plan to invade in the future?

There's no indication that they *will* invade. But in light of Russia's adventures in Ukraine and Georgia, there are concerns that they someday *might* invade. That's a point I've heard in other countries, too, like Poland. As a result, they're open to new collaboration with the United States that they might not have if circumstances were different.

Hello, Can you comment on the state of methane release from the Arctic permafrost? I haven't heard much about it lately. Is there expected to be large stores of methane released in the near future as the Arctic warms? Will the release be enough to make a noticeable difference in greenhouse gas forcing? thanks

I am not able to give you accurate figures, but the release is suppose to be enormous and has gotten too little attention in my opinion

What does it mean when China claims "near Arctic" status? and is that a legitimate claim under international law or is it once again China stealing territory?

Most experts and military officials I have talked to about this believe it was China injecting themselves clearly and forcefully into Arctic politics. While their country is nowhere near the Arctic, they have ambitions, especially when it comes to using sea routes that may open as ice melts and potentially harvesting natural resources. Basically, the point is this: "We're here, and we're going to remain involved."

Hi all --

This concludes our Arctic chat. Thanks again for the many great questions! We're sorry we were not able to answer them all.

In This Chat
Dan Lamothe
Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post with an emphasis on the Pentagon and the U.S. military.
Kadir van Lohuizen
Kadir van Lohuizen traveled to Canada, Greenland, Norway and Alaska for this project. Van Lohuizen is an Amsterdam-based freelance photojournalist and a founding member of the social documentary photography agency NOOR.
Yuri Kozyrev
Yuri Kozyrev traveled extensively across the Russian Arctic for this project. Kozyrev is internationally recognized for his photojournalism and a member of the social documentary photography agency NOOR. He began his career documenting the collapse of the Soviet Union for the Los Angeles Times.
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