By Dr. Victoria Herrmann
/ Published October 25, 2021
The confluence of increased global economic connectivity, environmental variability, and natural hazards—all amplified by global climate change—have catalyzed new mobilities in the region’s dynamic littoral spaces. On land, migratory birds, mammals, and insects are temporally and spatially changing their movements as increasing surface temperatures result in an earlier onset for the growing season and the expansion of the northward range of Arctic coastal ecosystems. At sea, rising water temperatures and diminishing sea ice are causing simultaneous changes in the migration and range of marine mammals and fish. And humans—traversing both sea and land as fishermen, subsistence hunters, whalers, tourists, Coast Guardsmen, soldiers, sailors, airmen, ship operators, and coastal residents at large—are responding to these ecological, geohazard, and climatic changes by redrawing their own mobilities. By most any measure—demographics to diseases, economies to ecosystems, ships to species—the Arctic is on the move.
None of these littoral migrations exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are networked together through ecological, societal, and economic interdependencies that hold the potential to exacerbate geopolitical tensions and act as a threat multiplier to the national security of the United States and allied Arctic nations. To advance the security community’s understanding of the complex interface of changing migration patterns requires an inclusive, diverse cohort of researchers capable of integrating science, traditional and local knowledge, and military experience.
The Department of Defense’s recent announcement to establish a new defense department regional center for the Arctic holds the potential to meet that need by fostering international, cross-sector partnerships to jointly advance ideas and to tackle the shared security challenges that exist at the nexus of human, economic, and ecosystem migration catalyzed by coastal environmental variability and natural hazards in the circumpolar north. This article begins with an overview of the current contours of Arctic migrations, followed by an analysis of their implications for national security. It then presents the need for augmented bilateral and multilateral research to address the security consequences of Arctic migrations within and beyond the region, before concluding with a proposed framework to address these research gaps at the regional center. By prioritizing expert network building and multilateral research on the security dimensions of Arctic migrations, the new Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies can develop critical insights about new, uncertain circumpolar mobilities with allies and partners.
Arctic Migrations in a Changing Climate
The movement of species, humans, and cultures has always been a defining attribute of the Arctic. From the hunter-gatherer populations who travelled across Siberia and into Beringia during the Late Pleistocene period, to the twenty-first century Sámi reindeer herders across Sápmi in northern Europe, the Arctic has had a network of intersecting mobilities for millennia. And yet, the accelerated pace of ecological and societal changes today is introducing a new normal for the Arctic with new, and at times unpredictable, patterns of concurrent movement for peoples, economies, and species.1
Global climate change is perceived to be the principal driver of these changes.2 The Arctic region has been warming at more than twice the global average since at least the 1970s, catalyzing process changes, geohazard risks, and slow- and sudden-onset disasters. Rising air temperatures have intensified the hydrological cycle and have increased regional humidity, precipitation, river discharge, glacier equilibrium line altitude, and land ice wastage. Concurrently, a warming Arctic has led to more extreme weather events such as frost droughts, extreme winter warming (a “false spring”), a decrease in sea ice thickness and extent and spring snow cover extent and duration, the warming of near-surface permafrost, and a resultant increase in coastal and riverine erosion. Permafrost thaw, wildfires, and erosion are impacting the mobilities of coastal peoples in different ways. In some instances, sudden-onset disasters like fire and flood have forced communities into emergency evacuations, while other communities are seeking relocation as a response to slow-onset disasters like erosion and permafrost thaw.
These physical transformations also have corresponding ecological consequences, as biophysical disruptions cause cascading effects throughout the trophic levels. Box and colleagues’ “Key Indicators of Arctic Climate Change: 1971—2017” surveys a 47-year period of change in the Arctic to reveal that such biophysical disruptions include increased delivery of organic matter and nutrients to Arctic near‐coastal zones; condensed flowering and pollination plant species periods; timing mismatch between plant flowering and pollinators; increased plant vulnerability to insect disturbance; increased shrub biomass; increased ignition of wildfires; increased growing season CO2 uptake, with counterbalancing increases in shoulder season and winter CO2 emissions; increased carbon cycling, regulated by local hydrology and permafrost thaw; conversion between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems; and shifting animal distribution and demographics.
Biology and ecology researchers have focused on the range shifts and biodiversity redistribution in fish, sea birds, and marine mammal populations and assemblages;3 on change in predator-prey systems in coastal spaces used by both terrestrial and marine species;4 and on the northward expansion and shifting plant species composition of boreal and tundra vegetation.5 The changing movements of species and ecosystems catalyzed by the Arctic’s physical transformations are not isolated. Though their velocity, spatial, and temporal mobilities are distinct from one another, changes in Arctic coastal range, biodiversity redistribution, predator-prey adaptations, and vegetation expansion not only overlap, intersect, and interact with one another, but are also transforming the mobility patterns of the Arctic’s human systems in new, and at times uncertain, ways.
Why Security Implications of Arctic Migrations Matter
The Arctic’s changing physical and biophysical processes detailed above have direct and indirect effects on the food, economic, health, human, and national security of the Arctic’s coastal residents and littoral Arctic nation-states. In one example, the confluence of marine changes illustrates the far-reaching security implications of Arctic migrations at both the local and national scale. At sea, the distribution shift of ice-associated marine mammals, the northward expansion of temperate marine mammals, and the interaction between these two changes are resulting in competitive pressure and greater risk of predation, disease, and parasitic infection for some endemic Arctic species that in turn impact the food security of Arctic residents.6 These changes cause variations in access to, availability of, and quality of traditional food resources—affecting the quality of diet for the Arctic’s Indigenous coastal communities.7 Beyond nutrition, impact to subsistence hunting and fishing for Indigenous communities negatively influences the spiritual health, resilience, intergenerational cohesion, and economic sustainability of Arctic Indigenous coastal communities. Changes in fish and marine mammal species (often with cascade effects) mean different temporal and geographic mobility patterns of hunting and fishing for the Arctic’s Indigenous coastal populations. Commercially, climate change, ocean acidification, and resultant changes in marine productivity are restructuring projections in fisheries’ catches, revenue, and sustainable management in the Arctic. Estimates suggest that the Atlantic-Pacific fish interchange enabled by Arctic warming will change 39 percent of global marine fish landings.8 Where the once-inhospitable environmental conditions in the Arctic formed a barrier separating most marine organisms in the North Atlantic from those in the North Pacific, by 2100, up to 41 species could enter the Pacific and 44 species could enter the Arctic because of shifting temperatures.
This increased activity in the marine economy has cascading impacts on the need for more robust and resilient port city infrastructure, migrant labor, and coast guard support. Locally, Arctic residents, fishermen, mayors, and subsistence hunters are the first responders to any maritime security threat in American Arctic and Subarctic waters. As need for emergency response and management rises, it is critical for maritime security operations to provide technical, financial, and communication support for these first responders in an era of increased commercial shipping and cruise tourism.
As commercial fish stocks alter their migratory patterns because of changes in the geophysical marine environment, they give rise to national security concerns.9 As contended by blue economy scholar Dr. Andreas Osthagen, “Arctic states—or their respective Arctic regions—are heavily dependent on fisheries as a source of economic wealth and food security. States are thus willing to go to great lengths to protect their sovereign rights in their economic zones.” The United States is no exception to this rule. Seafood harvested in the state of Alaska accounts for roughly 60 percent of total US seafood harvests, between 5 to 6 billion pounds annually.10 The potential security and conflict concerns around species migrating out of US waters necessitate proactive research into migration modeling and augment networks of allied security scholars, practitioners, and coast guards.
While climate change in the Arctic is the primary driver of new mobilities and associated security challenges, it is not the sole driver of changing, increasing movement within and across the region.11 The intensification, deepening, and broadening of international ties in the Arctic, primarily occurring in coastal cities, concurrently affect economies, cultures, built environments, and natural systems.12 Increases in polar shipping, Arctic tourism, foreign infrastructure investment, and the study of global climate change itself are changing the movement of southern migrant labor, invasive species, technologies, and human visitors into the circumpolar region while simultaneously changing the mobilities of Arctic residents to capture the economic opportunities in port cities brought by new arrivals. Regionally, the availability of better health care, education, employment, and connectivity in Arctic coastal cities also incentivizes rural residents to urbanize, establishing a dynamic web of rural-urban mobilities.
As physical changes, biophysical shifts, and increased connectivity all challenge Arctic ecosystems, settlements, and economies to adapt to new patterns of movement, Arctic researchers, local leaders, and security practitioners have observed, studied, and analyzed these regional variations. Despite the important interactions, interdependencies, and intersections of the drivers and security consequences of changing patterns of coastal mobilities, Arctic migration research is isolated by disciplinary barriers. Research projects, capacity-building initiatives, and academic publications are often narrow in scope, focusing on a single driver or effect in human or natural systems through linear pathways that limit their application to strategic security decision-making.
The Need for Bilateral and Multilateral Research on Arctic Migration and Security
Current research and capacity-building projects on Arctic migrations are isolated into discipline-specific research communities. At their broadest point, these disparate research initiatives focus on issues such as: (1) sovereignty and governance consequences for Indigenous peoples; (2) climate change impacts on communities, including public health, cultural heritage, climate-induced displacement, forced relocation, and urban colocation; (3) species redistribution and range shifts, under which there are several sub-communities of ecology, biogeography, macroecology, evolutionary ecology, marine biology, and terrestrial biology; (4) infrastructure and engineering adaptations to permafrost thaw, disasters, and climate conditions; (5) cascading disasters, search and rescue needs, and national security interests in the region; and (6) the increased development of port cities, tourism, public finance, shipping, and energy development.
While research and capacity-building projects that focus on the changing structure and function of the Arctic’s individual components are important contributions, the failure to examine changing Arctic mobilities within a holistic view toward national security creates gaps in understanding the processes and interactions between components within the system at large. Interactions between the Arctic’s social, economic, and infrastructure systems and hydrological, atmospheric biological, and geological systems that result in changing coastal mobility patterns are bidirectional. They are characterized by a two-way dynamism of nonlinear interactions such as feedback loops, thresholds, and time lags that vary across Arctic spaces and timelines.13 Providing security leaders, nation-states, and local stakeholders an understanding of the tradeoffs, synergies, and feedbacks that exist between these networked systems of mobility is critical to ensuring that decisions are based on the best available knowledge of all interrelated components.
There is a documented need to bring the Arctic’s disparate research communities together, and in particular to “encourage more research on how species will move and interact in cold environments, the consequences for biodiversity, and animal and human health and wellbeing,” so that cooperation can “facilitate rapid response, and maximise the use of limited research and management resources.”14 More generally, “Constructing approaches that emphasize an integrative framework and comprehensive methods for understanding complexities of human-nature interactions is an urgent and growing priority.”15
A Framework for Multilateral Migration Research at the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies
A stated goal of the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies is to build strong, sustainable international networks of security leaders with US allies and partners. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin noted:
The center will support the U.S. Interim National Security Strategic Guidance direction to work with like-minded partners and across the interagency to pool our collective strength and advance shared interests. It will address the need for U.S. engagement and international cooperation to strengthen the rules-based order in the region and tackle shared challenges such as climate change.
Given both the security challenges of and opportunities for cooperation presented by Arctic migrations, the Center’s leadership might consider the drivers and security consequences of new Arctic migrations as an inaugural research topic. Such a research focus could help facilitate productive communication, exchange, and collaboration between allied partners, stakeholders, and security practitioners. And, by engaging civilian scientists and Arctic researchers involved in the National Science Foundation’s Navigating the New Arctic funding program alongside the security community, the Center would also provide a US-led international synthesis effort and forum for dialogue capable of leveraging existing and future US and international research investments.
The Arctic Security Studies Center can coordinate a network of security leaders and researchers studying the shifting mobility patterns in the Arctic resulting from the double-exposure of climate change and globalization, to advance the United States’ understanding of the security impacts of coastal environmental variability-induced migrations. To accomplish this, four objectives can guide the implementation of such multilateral research and development capacity:
1. Synthesize current research, knowledges, and projects on Arctic migrations across disciplines and identify disciplinary gaps in knowledge that impact geopolitical tensions, military operations, and national security.
2. Identify transdisciplinary linkages, intersections, and interactions between extant research produced by the US defense and civilian research communities.
3. Prioritize research topics on the migration of Arctic peoples, economies, cultures, and ecosystems catalyzed by environmental variability and natural hazards that hold the biggest potential to impact national security.
4. Link siloed research communities related to Arctic migration research, scientific initiatives, security studies scholars, Indigenous knowledge holders, and engineers working independently on migration topics into integrated, interdisciplinary teams to maximize cooperation and eliminate unnecessary duplication of efforts.
In each of these objectives, it is imperative to not only include but also provide research leadership positions for Indigenous knowledge holders. This extends beyond a research group focused on migration and security. While there has yet to be an appointment of an executive director of the Center, once in place, the leadership of the Ted Stevens Center must work at large to bring Indigenous expertise and experiences to the research and work conducted therein. As the Center advances toward the goal of building a more inclusive dialogue on security challenges in and beyond the Arctic, its inaugural leadership should consider how it can ensure every conversation and project made to focus on Arctic security is guided by a combination of local and national leadership.
Widening the Security Perspective for a Climate-changed Arctic
People across the world have experienced a rapid transition into a new, more dangerous normal. COVID-19 has redefined how we calculate risks to our health—to our very lives—daily. In 2020, residents of the US had to assess the safety of going grocery shopping and of hugging our loved ones. Humans are resilient, and the past year has proven our individual and collective ability to adapt—but not without sacrifice and immense loss. COVID-19 has shown each of us what living in a new, more dangerous normal is like, and what it takes to operate securely in a time of enormous uncertainty. It’s given us just a glimpse of what it is like to live in a climate-changed Arctic, where residents calculate climate risks daily—not in some far-off future, but today. For America’s northernmost citizens, for the world’s northernmost residents, climate change is already an everyday, life-threatening reality. And as climate change catalyzes new patterns of intersecting mobilities of ecosystems, people, and economies, the region’s move into the Anthropocene allows for an unprecedented opportunity to understand the mechanisms that drive migration, address the security challenges of those contemporary movements, and seek solutions that will create a resilient, secure future.
To ensure that future, it is incumbent upon those tasked with our national security to safeguard American lives in the Arctic against those aforementioned climate impacts, and to become an Arctic nation that leads—not follows—in a rapidly changing region. This is no small task. The United States is often described as the reluctant Arctic nation. With historically inadequate investment in Arctic leadership and a lack of sustained funding for resilient civilian and military infrastructure, the United States lags behind every other Arctic state. For the United States to lead in the Arctic, it requires three considerations: (1) what further knowledge is needed to understand the security consequences of this new normal, and how to equip the US security community with such knowledge; (2) how to build effective networks with civilian scientists, stakeholders, and allied partners on critical security research; and (3) whose voices are needed to bolster proactive US Arctic leadership. Building out global leadership through the security challenges of Arctic migrations at the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies can directly address these three considerations and develop more effective military-civilian and cross-border strategic partnerships.
US residents will leave their new pandemic normal after COVID-19, but Arctic residents will continue to live in a dangerous state of emergency. Developing US research capabilities to understand and address new, uncertain Arctic mobilities that may act as threat multipliers to the many dimensions of Arctic security—from local food security to national maritime security—is critical not just for the Arctic but for every region across the world. From catalyzing more frequent cyclones to intensifying wildfires in the American West, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic—it affects us all.
Dr. Victoria Herrmann
Dr. Herrmann was previously the president and managing director of The Arctic Institute. She is currently on a year-long sabbatical to complete a fellowship and will return to The Arctic Institute in Fall 2022. Victoria has testified before the US Senate, served as the Alaska review editor for the Fourth National Climate Assessment, contributes to The Guardian and Scientific American on climate policy, and was named one of the most 100 influential people in climate policy worldwide in 2019 by Apolitical. She has published in many peer-review journals, and her expert opinion has appeared on CNN, BBC, and NPR among others.
As an assistant research professor at Georgetown University, she served as the inaugural principal investigator of the National Science Foundation–funded Arctic Migration in Harmony: An Interdisciplinary Network on Littoral Species, Settlements, and Cultures on the Move, a major international initiative to integrate discipline-isolated research on changing Arctic migration patterns and advance knowledge on the movement of peoples, economies, cultures, and ecosystems catalyzed by environmental variability. She serves on the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States’ Board of Directors, on the Steering Committee of the Climigration Network, and as an IF/THEN Ambassador for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She was previously a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, a Fulbright Awardee to Canada, a Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the National Academies of Sciences, and a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge, where she received her PhD in geography.
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15 Jianguo Liu et al., “Complexity of Coupled Human and Natural Systems.”
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