Russia’s Arctic Military Build-Up is Real, and You Can See It From Space

Satellite imagery reveals Russian military activity on the New Siberian Islands.

Satellite imagery reveals Russian military activity on the New Siberian Islands.

For centuries, sea ice and forbidding conditions made Russia’s north coast all but impassable to foreigners. The Russian Empire worried about threats on its western, eastern, and southern fronts, but the northern front never really seemed vulnerable. The harsh climate was essentially its first line of defense in the Arctic. During the Cold War, however, the Arctic became a frozen battleground between the Soviet Union and the West. On both sides of the Arctic, militarization ensued. The Americans and Canadians built the Distant Early Warning Line across Alaska, Canada, and even into Greenland. This series of radars was meant to warn of any incoming incursions from the north. For their part, the Soviets built .

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, demilitarization of the Arctic ensued, particularly in the Soviet Union. This development was not by choice: dreadful economic circumstances forced Russia to stop maintaining many of its military installations in the Arctic. The New Siberian Islands were one such place where Russia closed down its research station and a naval base for the Northern Fleet, which had been in operation from 1933-1993.

A new century, a new dawn for the New Siberian Islands

The New Siberian Islands in relation to the rest of Russia.

The New Siberian Islands in relation to the rest of Russia.

After a twenty year hiatus, the Russian military is back in action on these forbidding islands at 75°N. Located off the coast of the Sakha Republic in the Russian Far East, the New Siberian Islands are near potential oil and gas reserves and straddle the Northern Sea Route. It’s therefore unsurprising that Russia seeks to remilitarize these strategically located islands. Paul Josephson writes in his captivating book published last year, The Conquest of the Russian Arctic, that in a speech made in 2012, President Vladimir Putin referenced Stalin’s “legacy of building military industry in the 1930s with his instructions for ‘developing the Navy, first and foremost in the Arctic areas and in Russia’s Far East with the aim of protecting the Russian Federation’s strategic interests.'”

In September 2013, The Barents Observer reported that Russia had begun delivering new personnel and equipment to the old military site on Kotelny Island, the largest of the New Siberian Islands. Photographs from the Russian military of soldiers raising the tricolor over the barren tundra proved their point. In December 2013, The Aviationist explained, “Currently, an air traffic control service is present, along with accomodation, own water supply, a power station and heating. The airfield is not to be a minor one, since it will be able to accomodate landings of planes as large as Il-76 cargos.” Nine months later basically marked the ribbon-cutting ceremony. In September 2014, Russia Today reported that Russia officially reopened a military base on Kotelny Island after it had been closed for over twenty years.

Still, due to a number of factors including Kremlin secrecy, poor reporting out of Russia, and a Western media that is inclined to report aggressive Russian behavior, it’s hard to say objectively whether or not a Russian military build-up is taking place in the Arctic. That’s where satellite imagery comes in handy. Since it shows phenomena on a larger scale than flags simply being raised, it can help reveal whether or not Russia is in fact building bases and increasing the amount of military infrastructure in its Arctic region. In Ukraine, for instance, satellite imagery was able to detect convoys of Russian vehicles opening up a new front.

Leveraging new capabilities in Arctic remote sensing to observe Russian activities

On the whole, useful satellite imagery in the Arctic is hard to obtain. The long periods of winter darkness make it all but impossible for the majority of satellites, which have sun-synchronous orbits (meaning they take images of the earth when it is lit by the sun), to produce useful data in the Arctic year-round. Moreover, even when the sun is shining, the thick clouds and storms prevalent in Arctic weather systems can obscure satellite imagery.

But in the past two years, the availability of useful satellite imagery of the Arctic has improved dramatically thanks to the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (SNPP) satellite. Launched by NASA and NOAA in October 2011, SNPP can acquire data in a range of wavelengths, including the visible spectrum in its Day-Night Band (DNB). All of this imagery is available for the public to download. I’ve written about the wonders of the DNB before, which collects images of the earth at night. Anthropogenic lights from features like cities, gas flares, military bases, and ships all show up in stunning clarity in DNB nighttime imagery.

SNPP passes over the North Pole every 101 minutes. That means it regularly flies over various parts of the Arctic from its orbit 824 kilometers above Earth. The high rate of frequency enables capabilities like ship tracking in the Arctic, as documented by researchers in a new paper published in Remote SensingIn the image below provided courtesy of William Straka, a scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies and the paper’s lead author, a nuclear icebreaker believed to be 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory), is seen making its way southeast. Straka had been tracking the ship for several days and watched it travel to Kotelny Island, where it possibly dropped off some material before leaving again (the actual cargo delivery was not visible in the satellite imagery, as it may have occurred while the satellite was not overhead).

50 Let Pobedy in , . Images courtesy William Straka/CIMSS

50 Let Pobedy just south of the New Siberian Islands, Russia, on October 31, 2014. Images courtesy William Straka/CIMSS

Night light images around Kotelny Island, just to the northeast of the area in the images Straka provided, reveal even more activity, as the time-series image at the very top of this post shows. The animated GIF includes an image taken approximately every 24 hours over the span of six days in late October and early November 2014. (Images before October 30 and after November 5 were too cloudy to make out anything in sharp detail.) In the above animated GIF, it’s possible to see the bright lights emanating from the new base for the Northern Fleet on the northeast corner of the island along with a number of ships moving in the waters just offshore. What appears to be 50 Let Pobedy sails around the islands before seeming to head north.  Interestingly, some astronomical phenomena are visible, too: the aurora borealis also makes an appearance on October 31 and each image is subsequently brighter than the previous as the moon grows fuller each night.

For comparison’s sake, we can see that in July 2013, a couple of months before the Barents Observer reported on the military activity at Kotelny Island, no lights were visible. By contrast, an image taken over the same area in October 2014 shows a bevy of lights both on and offshore.

July 27, 2013: Lights out on Kotelny Island.

BEFORE: July 27, 2013: Lights out on Kotelny Island.

November 2, 2014: Ships and the base are lit on Kotelny Island.

AFTER: November 2, 2014: Ships and the base are lit on Kotelny Island.

Russia is militarizing, but it is not alone

What are we to make of these satellite images? First, they simply show light. Remote sensing is all about indirect measurement and analysis. Since we’re not on the ground, we can’t say for certain that these lights are from military activities. But they may be a good proxy for them. This inference is validated by the news articles reporting on the uptick in military infrastructure and activity on the New Siberian Islands since September 2013.

Second, more analysis of satellite imagery across the Russian Arctic in places like the Kola Peninsula, Wrangel Island, and Cape Schmidt is needed to determine whether a full-scale, region-wide military build-up is really taking place. Until then, all we can say for now from this short analysis of satellite imagery is that Russia is installing a lot of resources on Kotelny Island.

Third, while Russia may be increasing the number of bases and personnel in its Arctic regions, it is not alone. The United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark are all enhancing their northern military capabilities albeit to varying degrees. Rob Huebert, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, argued in the Canadian newspaper The National Post: “The militaries of most Arctic states are taking on new and expanded roles in the region that go beyond their traditional responsibilities, which may create friction in the region.” He even believes that the Arctic Council should begin talking about militarization, which is currently barred from the discussion table.

Lastly, what the satellite imagery doesn’t show are the actual sources of the lights. One of those sources may be a small onion-domed house of worship, of all things. Earlier this month, the Russian Military published a story on its website concerning a new Russian Orthodox chapel on Kotelny Island, which was opened just in time for Orthodox Christmas on January 7. Northern Fleet servicemen on the island can now worship at this small chapel. Priests from Tiksi, a settlement on the Russian mainland not far from the New Siberian Islands, will visit from time to time.

Soldiers and priests in the Russian Arctic? That’s one big difference between contemporary Russia and the atheist Soviet Union.

A Russian Orthodox priest blesses the media at the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad in Kazakhstan in September 2014, a few days before launch. Will this priest bless the soldiers on Kotelny Island soon, too? Photo: NASA

A Russian Orthodox priest blesses the media at the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad in Kazakhstan in September 2014, a few days before the launch of Expedition 41 Soyuz. Will this priest bless the soldiers on Kotelny Island soon, too? Photo: NASA

Landmark UCLA study reveals melting of Greenland ice sheet from top to bottom

The UCLA research team at work in August 2014. Photo: Mia Bennett.

The UCLA research team at work in August 2014. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Many scientists have studied how the glaciers and big chunks of ice breaking off the edges of the Greenland ice sheet are contributing to sea level rise. Yet a new research study led by geographers at UCLA is the first to comprehensively examine how the rivers on top of the ice sheet drain meltwater and contribute to sea level rise. Importantly, the researchers found that current climate models, which do not account for subglacial processes, could be overestimating sea level rise because they do not consider the fact that a significant portion of meltwater is stored inside and below the glacier. Not all of the meltwater, in other words, immediately flows out to sea.

Both fieldwork and remote sensing were used to develop the models behind their results, which were published in PNAS, a leading science journal, earlier this week. Vena Chu, a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Geography, explained to Cryopolitics, “This is the first big study focusing on the rivers on top of the Greenland ice sheet. It brings attention to how much water is being transferred over the surface down into the ice sheet through moulins – in other words, sinkholes in the ice sheet.”

The fact that there are rivers and sinkholes on top of the ice sheet may come as a surprise to a lot of people. The ice sheet is far from a flat, white, pancake-like sheet. Dr. Laurence Smith, the lead author of the study (and my PhD advisor), instead likens it to “swiss cheese.” Through these holes in the “swiss cheese,” water flows from the top of the ice sheet and down into its inner glacial plumbing system. Chu elaborated, “We’re seeing moulins – these sinkholes – at relatively high elevations, and the water’s flowing into the interior of the ice sheet.”

The melting ice coalesces into flows ranging in size from babbling brooks to rip-roaring rivers that carve waterfalls and canyons into the ice. Most of these rivers terminate in moulins, which either drain at the front or the bottom of the ice sheet, where meltwater can be stored subglacially. The melting happens only in summer, when the ice sheet becomes a dynamic place – what Smith called the “world’s biggest water park.” Chu added, “The rivers are transporting a ton of water, and we’re not seeing any storage in lakes on top of the ice sheet for more than one season. All the lakes that we see are breached – they’re all flowing out.” Once winter comes, the top of the ice sheet freezes up again, and the sapphire rivers and lakes turn snow white.

Rivers and cryoconite on top of the ice sheet. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Rivers and cryoconite on top of the Greenland ice sheet. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Need for further observations

In the data that they gathered, the researchers could not account for all of the water that their models demonstrated to be melting off the ice sheet. Chu emphasized the need for more observations to back up their models. She noted, “While on the one hand, a lot of the water is moving on the ice sheet, we can’t account for all of it in the proglacial rivers. This leads us to believe some of it is being stored subglacially.” As noted, one possible implication of the team’s findings is that existing climate models may slightly overestimate sea level rise. Currently, climate models such as the Modèle Atmospherique Régional, which is incorporated in the set of models used in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) reports, assumes that all of the meltwater is flowing directly into the ocean, but this may not be the case. 

While the UCLA study represents a major advance in understanding the transportation and storage mechanisms of the Greenland ice sheet, the researchers still need to make a lot more observations to better calibrate the model. Plans are already underway for field campaigns and even an ice camp, where researchers live in tents on top of the ice sheet for weeks at a time, in the summers of 2015 and 2016. The findings from the next several years of fieldwork should help scientists to better understand the significant role that the Greenland ice sheet plays in global sea level rise and climate change.

Field notes (and a video) from Greenland


Since Smith is my advisor, last summer, I got the opportunity to travel to Greenland with his research team to participate in two weeks of fieldwork. During my time there, I shot some video footage, which I’ve turned into a short video. I also posted several accounts from my time in Kangerlussuaq, the town in east Greenland where we were based, and up on the ice sheet, which are under the category “Field Notes from Greenland.”

On two different days, we flew in an Air Greenland helicopter about 60 kilometers inland, looking for the ideal rivers to study and drop drifters into. Words can barely begin to justify the experience of flying a couple of hundred feet above huge waterfalls at the front of the glacier, gliding over the sharply undulating crevasse fields, and then following deadly rivers of melting turquoise upstream. It was a terrifying and sublime sight to see some of these rivers suddenly disappear into the ice through a moulin, down into the dark depths of the ancient ice sheet. One of our most memorable adventures involved flying extremely low over a river filled with white-water rapids and waterfalls – so low that the helicopter began to rattle. Some of this fly-over is captured in the video above. Our flight had a purpose, of course: we were trying to take hundreds of photographs of the river with DSLR cameras mounted on the side of the helicopter in order to map it.

Remembering Alberto Behar

Alberto Behar (R) and Daniel Nichita (L), who together helped design much of the UCLA team's research equipment. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Alberto Behar (R) and Daniel Nichita (L), who together helped design much of the UCLA team’s research equipment. Photo: Mia Bennett.

The idea for sticking DSLR cameras out the side of our helicopter came from Alberto Behar, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Scientist, ASU professor, and co-author of the study. Alberto tragically passed away on January 9, and the PNAS paper is dedicated to his memory. Many of the results from the paper were found thanks to equipment specially designed for the team’s research by Alberto, who employed everything from high-tech drifters to rubber duckies to unlock the secrets of the ice. He was a father of three, scientist, engineer, and explorer with a big mind and big smile. Alberto knew how to turn up the heat when the pressure was on and how to kick back when we had a moment to relax. I worked with him in the field in Greenland this summer, and after a long cold day on the ice, I remember laughing with him when I discovered that he had found – and eaten – all of the chocolate chip cookies I thought I had secretly stashed in the back of the helicopter.

Alberto’s loss is a tremendous one for polar and space research, and we will dearly miss him as we try to carry on his legacy.

The UCLA team and company right before our first day on the ice in August 2014.

The UCLA team and company right before our first day on the ice in August 2014.

Study: All Arctic oil and gas must stay in ground to restrict warming to 2°C

Photo: Matteo Della Torre / Flickr Creative Commons

Photo: Matteo Della Torre / Flickr Creative Commons

Scientists have realized for some time now that the extraction of fossil fuels must dramatically slow down if the global temperature rise is to be kept under 2°C. A new study in the science journal Nature, however, is the first to specify and quantify which regions of the world need to cool it on the oil, gas, and coal. Christophe McGlade and Paul Elkins of the University of College London’s Institute for Sustainable Resources created a complex model that, after dividing the world into sixteen regions, considers factors such as the cost of production, the estimated size of reserves and production trends, and the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the combustion of oil, gas, hard coal, and lignite.

In order to limit climate change, by 2050, the sheikhs of Saudi Arabia would have to dial down the drills, keeping 38% of oil reserves in the ground regardless of whether carbon capture storage technology is used or not. Prime Minister Stephen Harper would have to call up the oil majors in Alberta and alert them that three-quarters of the country’s oil – most of which is locked up in the Athabasca tar sands – will have to stay put. In the Arctic, 100% of oil and gas reserves must remain undeveloped. McGlade and Elkins assert:

“We estimate there to be 100 billion barrels of oil (including natural gas liquids) and 35 trillion cubic metres of gas in fields within the Arctic Circle that are not being produced as of 2010. However, none is produced in any region in either of the 2°C scenarios before 2050. These results indicate to us that all Arctic resources should be classified as unburnable.

Perhaps ExxonMobil, forced out of its joint project with Rosneft in Russia’s Kara Sea by U.S. sanctions on dealing with Russian energy companies, actually made a head start in the right direction when it got out in October. Russia, however – arguably the Arctic country most dependent on developing Arctic oil and gas especially as production declines in the older fields of west Siberia – will not be happy with McGlade and Elkins’ findings. But then again, Russians might not worry too much about continuing to drill and thereby bringing about a temperature rise greater than 2°C. A December 2009 Gallup poll found that only 36% of Russians considered global warming to be a serious personal threat. Somewhat surprisingly, the North Americans topped the chart. It might be interesting to see whether there is any correlation between policy decisions on Arctic oil and gas made by the governments of the eight Arctic Council states and perceptions of climate change at the individual level within each country.

If national governments in the Arctic heeded the researchers’ recommendation to the oil and gas in the ground, one also has to wonder whether there would be as much of a frenzy amongst the Arctic coastal states over claiming as vast continental shelves as possible. There are other motives at work aside from natural resources such as a desire to own the North Pole, but the possibility of owning the rights to the seabed are also significant.

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What future for Arctic oil in a climate and capital-constrained world?

In their strongest statement, at the end of the paper, the UCL scientists effectively conclude that we need to forget peak oil. There’s actually too much for us to burn without dramatically raising global temperatures. Instead, we need to think about peak production and realize that it must be behind us. McGlade and Elkins argue:

“These results demonstrate that a stark transformation in our understanding of fossil fuel availability is necessary. Although there have previously been fears over the scarcity of fossil fuels, in a climate-constrained world this is no longer a relevant concern.”

So if we are to believe the authors of the Nature study, preserving the stability of the global climate means not drilling in the Arctic for the welfare of society and the environment. But if that isn’t convincing enough, the logistics and economics are against it, too. It’s not just a climate-constrained world, but an infrastructure- and capital-constrained, one, too.

In just the span of six and a half years, the world has gone from excitement over a potential black gold rush in the Arctic sparked in part by the 2008 publication of the United States Geological Survey’s Circum-Polar Arctic Resource Appraisal (which estimated 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas, of which 84% lies offshore) to scientists warning that all these vast reserves must stay in the ground. Epitomizing the hubris of drilling for oil in the Arctic, the cover story of the New York Times Sunday Magazine on December presented a gripping account of the blunders, cut corners, and bad luck that led to the wreck of the Kulluk, Shell’s mobile drill ship that had participated in the ultimately doomed forays to explore for oil and gas in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas north of Alaska. Some might call Shell unlucky in having to deal with sea ice that lasted longer than anticipated, thus shortening the operating season, thirty-foot swells, and stormy weather. But that’s the Alaskan Arctic – and there, bad luck is often a result of bad preparation. If we can never prepare enough to safely drill in the Arctic, then perhaps we shouldn’t drill at all. From a pure logistics standpoint, the sheer difficulty of operations in the region mean that it’s safer – and saner – to refrain from drilling in the Arctic.

Investments in oil, gas, and coal may be risky for additional reasons. Talk of a “carbon bubble” has led leaders such as the Canadian-born governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, to warn in a letter to the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee that “vast majority of reserves are unburnable.” One of the riskiest spots of all for potential investors could be the Arctic, particularly if 100% of reserves end up being left locked under the melting ice and turn into what Carney and others have termed “stranded carbon.” ConocoPhillips and Statoil have decided not to drill in the region for now, while Total has also spoken out against Arctic drilling (despite hypocritically purchasing Arctic oil). Chevron cancelled its plans in the Canadian Arctic last month, citing “economic uncertainty in the industry.” In March, Shell will decide whether or not it will go ahead with its plans, years in the making and billions in the hole, to drill offshore Alaska. 

From the perspective of current supply and demand, too, the numbers are against drilling. The price of WTI oil hovers a hair about $50 a barrel, but the break-even price for many Arctic projects starts at $90 a barrel. The price of oil will rise again, and with it, there will inevitably be calls by oil majors announcing that they are ready and prepared to take on the Arctic. Shell will announce, “Let’s Go!” as it did with this ad it put out a few years ago, complete with a toy polar bear, that Greenpeace later mocked.


ShellAdThe pipe dream of a global consensus against Arctic oil

Some might say that we in the West cannot decide how development will proceed in other parts of the world. For instance, the argument is sometimes made that we cannot deny the billions of people in China and India the right to burn energy and emit carbon in the same manner that many Western countries did earlier this century. Likewise, in the Arctic, some might say that we cannot prohibit indigenous peoples from developing non-renewable resources on their land if they are in favor of it. And indeed, we cannot. But the deeper question to ask is why governments in places like Greenland are issuing licenses for oil and gas development in the first place. In short, this active encouragement of a deeply risky activity is due to the extension of international markets and the global race for natural resources into the earth’s most distant reaches.

This extension has denied indigenous peoples the right and the space to choose alternative economic livelihoods, for the spread of these market forces is worldwide – hence the word “globalization.” For people in places like Nunavut and Greenland, winning increased self-determination, sovereignty, and even perhaps one day full nationhood is a victory and a major step forward from colonialism and paternalism. But it is also a harbinger of something else: the transformation of a people into a settled, orderly, and willing participant in the global market, a system that is fueled by the extraction of non-renewable resources.

It’s hard to turn down the lure of oil and gas once it comes spouting out of the earth. It will ultimately take a regional or even global consensus to leave all the oil and gas in the Arctic in the ground, and that consensus is probably is just a pipe dream. Yet if the day comes where all of the oil majors choose to stay away from the Arctic, a regional consensus will also be needed to ensure that alternative and meaningful economic livelihoods not dependent on the extraction of non-renewable resources can be sustained in the Arctic. Groups such as the Arctic Economic Council, formed last year, should take the helm and begin preparing for truly sustainable economies in the Arctic rather than just taking a green paintbrush to the status quo. 

In 2014, the Arctic Council published the “Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic.” What the council should really begin working on is an agreement on cooperation on preparedness for and response to a post-oil Arctic.