The Arctic is covered with pure driven snow. The Department of Defense hopes to keep it that way with a new policy that for the first time addresses how the U.S. will respond to the effects of climate change, which have opened up a veritable treasure trove around the North Pole that until recently was inaccessible.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled the military's new Arctic Strategy Friday afternoon during his trip to Canada. The plan seeks to head off potential tensions in the crowded Arctic neighborhood among its residents -- most notably Russia, but all eager for access to massive oil reserves and newly thawed passages for shipping, fishing and tourism.
"President Obama has said, 'The Arctic region is peaceful, stable, and free of conflict.' Our goal is to assure it stays that way," said Hagel, while speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum in the maritime city.
The modern world is inexperienced in dealing with the challenges of global climate change, he said, adding this new endeavor will take place over the coming years and decades, not days and months.
"Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines is a reminder of the humanitarian disaster brought on by nature," said Hagel. "And climatologists warn us of the increased probability of more destructive storms to come."
Warming trends thaw Arctic ice and provide greater access to the Ocean's surface and contents, as well as the oil reserves it covers. The plan will build the framework for military and homeland security responses to national security threats, or more practical contingencies like search and rescue or natural disasters.
Five nations border directly on the Arctic: Russia, Canada, Norway, the U.S. via Alaska and Denmark through Greenland. Russia received special attention in Hagel's remarks, amid a love-hate relationship that has dogged the former Cold War foes.
"We will enhance our cold-weather operational experience and strengthen our military-to-military ties with other Arctic nations," Hagel said. 'This includes Russia, with whom the United States and Canada share common interests in the Arctic."
This creates an opportunity to pursue "practical cooperation between our militaries and promote greater transparency," he said.
Most of the U.S.-Russian interaction in this sphere rests with their respective coast guards, says a senior Defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"We don't have a lot of interaction with the Russian navy in the arctic," he said, adding, "That relationship has been quite positive over the years, and we hope to keep it that way."
The Navy's top officer highlighted the Arctic region earlier this year as among America's most important security priorities for the coming decades.
"The Arctic is a challenge. It's a future challenge," said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, at a defense summit in April.
"The natural resources present in the arctic region are being surveyed currently for exploitation. Virtually every arctic nation has made claims of sovereignty, some quite visible," said Vice Adm. John P. Currier, the vice commandant for the U.S. Coast Guard, at the same event. "They exist on a daily basis and pose a real challenge to our country."
There currently is a "relatively low level of military threat" in the region, according to the Pentagon slideshow detailing the new strategy released Friday. The region is bounded by nations states that "have not only publicly committed to working within a common framework of international law and diplomatic engagement, but have also demonstrated the ability and commitment to do so."
To keep it that way, the military will lean heavily on its much-touted relationships with other country's fighting forces, known as "mil-to-mil relations" to help keep the peace.
But the strategy comes at a time of occasional heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia that echoes Cold War saber rattling. Russia is believed to directly supply the Syrian regime as the U.S. and allies bolsters the struggling rebel forces there. Both countries' warships occasionally cross paths off the Syrian coast.