Inside a small building surrounded by a gate on a military base in Anchorage, Alaska, sits one of North America’s most important first lines of defense.
Maj. Christopher Perham unlocks the gate that leads in, followed by a series of doors.
“This is the base of our operations here,” Perham says.
He’s part of the Alaska Air National Guard in the 176th Air Defense Squadron. But he works for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD, which is headquartered thousands of miles away in Colorado.
“We have approximately 40 operators on a day-to-day basis that conduct the mission,” Perham says. “We have several sections. We’ve got identification. We have surveillance.”
The patch on his uniform puts it this way: “Eyes of the North” — a reference to the mission here, watching for threats every hour of every day.
Critical to that mission are radars that scour the skies, seeking and finding threats. Russian “Bear” bombers, which disappeared in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, have returned to the skies nearing NORAD allied U.S. and Canadian airspace in the last decade. Fighter jets, including F-22 Raptors on this base, stand at the ready. They could potentially shoot down bombers if they venture into sovereign areas.
To avoid that, a vast defense identification zone — a buffer of international airspace — surrounds the coastlines of the two countries.
Since 2007, identifications and intercepts have resumed. Each year since then, there have been about 10 positive identifications of Russian bombers in the identification zones and six intercepts, according to the U.S. Air Force in Alaska.
2019 is shaping up to be a lively one for intercepts. Among the incidents so far this year were two separate events in a single day in mid-May when more than half a dozen Russian bombers and fighter jets were tracked by NORAD and then intercepted off the coast of Alaska.
The Bears look like pencils painted silver with wings and four propellers attached. Though the design is decades old, the Russian bombers are shockingly fast and lethal, with the potential to fire nuclear weapons that could level a city. For those reasons, the intercepts can be tense, Perham says, but they are also measured, even a little cat-and-mouse, with protocols in place meant to de-escalate confrontations and avoid misunderstandings.
“There’s never been any bad blood,” Perham says. “When we intercepted the Bears off the coast of Alaska and they were on their way to California, they sent a transmission that said ‘greetings on your national holiday,’ when they flew against us on the Fourth of July.”
The return of Russian bombers and fighter jets highlights the ongoing importance of the radars to NORAD’s abilities to detect and deter threats. They were built in the 1950s as part of what was known as the DEW, or Distant Early Warning, a line of radars that stretched for 3,000 miles across Alaska and Canada to guard against nuclear assaults on North America by aircraft using the Arctic as a shortcut.
Now the radar stations themselves are threatened, not from the skies above, but from the environment.
Melting sea ice and thawing permafrost threaten the foundations the sites sit upon. Storms may become harder to predict and surges could bring destructive flooding or other damage in a harsh, remote and unforgiving landscape where fixes and rebuilds can be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible.
The culprit is climate change.
A North Pole With No Ice
The National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder has tracked the extent of Arctic sea ice for decades. A graph shows ups and downs over the years since 1979, but the line between then and now is clearly going down, showing a steady decline of sea ice. The latest measurements only confirm the trend. In April, the extent of sea ice hit a record low.
What does it mean? It’s possible that in the next decade or so, the North Pole will be watery during the summers. That’s according to Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the data center.
“Generally speaking, I think we’ll see a point where the North Pole will be ice-free,” Meir says, adding that a decisive factor some years could be the pattern the wind is blowing.
An ice-free North Pole would be limited to summers, he says, when the Arctic makes its annual tilt into the sun, but there is no precedent for it.
For NORAD, the situation poses a challenge.
“There’s increased erosion activity around the coastal areas of Alaska and some of the sites need to be — have their coastal areas remediated for the erosion,” says U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere, who oversees NORAD in Alaska.
That means millions of dollars in construction. The price tag for protecting just one radar site, the Cape Lisburne Long Range Radar Station on Alaska’s northwestern coast, is $48 million. The work includes building a mile-long sea wall made of stone in an effort to thwart the sea and keep storm surges at bay.
The Threat Of Climate Change
It’s not just radars that are becoming expensive. Climate change is an increasingly costly proposition for military properties. Many former defense and government officials are now calling climate change a national security crisis, one they claim is worsening under President Trump’s watch.
Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is among the president’s critics.
“Everything you read, all the science that you see, is that we have underestimated the speed at which this is going to happen,” Mabus says of climate change.
“This is not theoretical. This is a danger today.”
In March, Mabus was among more than four dozen former high-ranking military and national security leaders to sign an open letter to Trump. Signatories included former admirals, generals and secretaries of state and defense who wrote that “climate change is real, it is happening now, it is driven by humans, and it is accelerating.”
The group was responding to reports that Trump has created a new team to review military intelligence documents and to question instances where climate change is mentioned.
“It’s like, ‘We don’t like the facts so we’re going to muddy the waters. We’re going to try to change the science here,’” Mabus says. “They’re not going to be able to change the science here.”
Radars in the Arctic are not the only military assets in peril, Mabus adds. He points to the massive naval base in Virginia, which supports U.S. operations around the world.
“If we don’t do something to reverse or slow the sea level rise, the largest Navy base in the world — Norfolk — will go underwater,” Mabus says. “It will disappear, and it will disappear within the lifetimes of people alive today.”
The U.S. Department of Defense, in its own report, “Effects of a Changing Climate,” in January identified 79 military bases, installations and stations at risk because of climate change. Threats include drought, wildfires, expanding deserts.
In the case of the Alaskan radars, flooding and thawing permafrost are of concern.
A Military Universe
A small two-propeller plane takes off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. The occupants, U.S. Air Force Col. Dan Lemon and his staff, get a glimpse of North America’s highest peak, Mount Denali, as it rises from the clouds. Then, the plane veers west. Their destination is Tin City Long Range Radar Site, which sits on the Bering Strait.
“On a clear day, you can see Russia from there,” Lemon says.
Nameless mountains and frozen rivers stretch into the horizon below. As much as the plane is buzzing over the middle of nowhere, it is at the heart of a strategic universe first envisioned in the late 1800s as the endgame of the Wild West. The United States purchased Alaska from Russia for $7 million in 1867 and the state’s strategic value grew from there.
In a little-known chapter of World War II, the Japanese invaded and occupied Kiska and Attu, critical islands in the sprawling Aleutian chain, and it took bloody battles to remove them.
To demonstrate why such a remote and harsh land is so critical to American interests, the U.S. Air Force shared a map. It places Anchorage at the center of the world, showing flight times to foreign cities using a trans-Arctic route. Berlin is just nine hours away. Moscow and Beijing are only about eight hours away.
Melting sea ice illuminates the map in a new way. The shipping industry is expected to grow rapidly as Arctic passageways open up for part of the year, shaving thousands of miles off merchant trips, with the potential to soon turn the Bering Strait, the closest point between the United States and Russia, into a bottleneck.
Tin City, USA
The plane bounces down softly on a gravel landing strip at Tin City, which isn’t a city at all. There’s a long-abandoned tin mine somewhere amid the drifts of snow, just beyond the boxy military installation. This radar is far from the shoreline where cold, black waters quietly kiss the shore. It is perched high atop the steep, cone-shaped mountain that looms over the installation, and looks like a golf ball from the runway.
Two of the contractors who live on the site in shifts that last months greet the colonel and his crew. The skies are blue and around this time of year, close to winter, it is about 8 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It’s about normal,” says contractor Jeff Boulds.
He’s wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and says the coldest months are January to March, in the dead of winter.
“It can get to 20 below,” he says.
Contractor Tom Broughton, whose job is to keep the radar running and providing a constant picture to the military, takes crew members in his pickup across the choppy road that heads to the installation.
“I believe when they first installed this site, it took 200 people to run it,” he says, “and through automation and streamlining, it’s down to four — two mechanics, myself and a services tech.”
About a year or so ago, Lemon recalls a huge storm that iced over the door that leads to the radar room. Troops had to be called in to hack away at it. Anytime there’s a problem with radars, there’s a problem at NORAD too.
“They don’t like sites being down and we try to get them back up for them,” he says.
To get to the radar, the colonel and his staff hop into a red tank-like vehicle called a PistenBully. Lemon describes it as a mini bulldozer that can carry passengers up the single-lane road and switchbacks that lead to top.
“I think this vehicle is out of the movie ‘Transformers’ or something,” Lemon jokes.
After a harrowing ride, including a moment where part of the tread hung over the edge of the road, the PistenBully rests on a ridge next to the door that leads to the radar room. The entire outside is blasted with ice and a contractor chips some away as he opens the door. Security is high, with several secure doors that lead into the main room. There, when asked how powerful the radar is, Lemon and a contractor decline to answer, saying that information, and most other information about the site, is classified.
Working in a remote place like this, the contractors say, isn’t for everyone. Some might see it as too lonely, but as Arctic sea ice melts, it might start to feel different.
The Russians In The Arctic
In his 2017 address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, President Vladimir Putin called a thriving Arctic critical to his country’s future. By 2025, Putin says, Arctic shipping could grow by 10 times. He promised that his country has, and will have, the best fleet the Arctic has ever seen.
It’s not just a shipping shortcut that’s bringing attention to the Arctic, it’s the potential for incredible riches. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates the Arctic holds 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, a third of the world’s undiscovered gas, and about $1 trillion in gold, platinum and other minerals. As ice melts, those resources will become easier to exploit.
As Russia builds up bases and military operations in the Arctic, some officials are expressing concern, like U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.
“Everyone’s up there but us,” he said at a recent defense conference in December, alleging that the Russians have five strategic air bases in the Arctic and 10,000 special operation troops.
Spencer, who could not be reached for comment, noted the U.S. has been able to send submarines under the Arctic ice for decades. Using the phrase “peace through presence,” he hinted that’s not the same as placing a warship in a region.
Yet U.S. ships are not built to navigate to the Arctic and Russia has an armada of icebreakers whereas the U.S. has just two. Ships that can carve pathways through the ice become even more important as sea ice thins because they help keep shipping lanes open amid moving ice.
“The Russians have 40 icebreakers, some of which are nuclear-powered, and they’re building 13 more, many of which are weaponized,” says U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan. “So they’re on this.”
Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, adds that “as the sea ice is receding, our strategic interests as a nation, and to be honest, our sovereignty as a nation become increasingly important.”
Mabus, the former U.S. Navy secretary, recalls where he was in March of 2016. He was at the North Pole in a submarine that surfaced days after the sun returned to the Arctic after the long, dark winter.
“At the time that we did, the ice is usually 8 to 12 feet thick right at the North Pole,” Mabus says. “It was about 8 inches thick when we came up. And so there was an ice pilot on board who said that he had never seen ice that thin at that high a latitude.”
If nothing is done to slow or reverse the loss of ice in the Arctic, Mabus fears that conflicts will rise in the Arctic.
“The very notion that (the Russians) are spending all this effort in the Arctic, I think, makes it a far more dangerous place,” Mabus says. “It is no longer the case, like it was for a long time, that the Arctic was pretty much non-political. And it was because you just couldn’t get there much. There wasn’t a way to exploit those minerals on the sea floor or there weren’t any shipping lanes. Now because of climate change there is. And so the chances of encounters that may go wrong go up and they go up more dramatically the more the ice melts.”
The golf ball-shaped radar fades in the distance as the PistenBully descends the switchbacks. The vehicle’s treads aim around a bend and then come to a stop at a grand vista of the Bering Strait. As Col. Lemon and his staff hop out for a look, contractor Jeff Boulds points at two specks right in the middle of the water — islands.
“It’s hard to tell, but the little dot there out in the front, that’s Little Diomede and the big part, that’s Big Diomede Island,” Boulds says. “Little Diomede is America. Big Diomede is Russia.”
Beyond that, if you squint your eyes, are mountains that seem to go forever. It’s the Russian mainland.
Radars in the Arctic Circle still serve as a tripwire to tell the operations center in Alaska, and ultimately NORAD in Colorado, whether a threat is on the way. They’re still the early warning system first envisioned in the 1950s.
Only now, a new challenge has been added to the military’s checklist: make sure climate change doesn’t shut down the eyes watching over the north.
This story was produced as a collaboration between KUNC and Reveal. Listen to the entire episode of Reveal’s podcast, which confronts growing threats from climate change around the globe, here.