She’s Investigating Climate Change in the Arctic as a National Security Issue


Marisol Maddox spent three weeks this summer aboard a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker traveling inside the Arctic Circle. She was prepared for minus-20-with-wind-chill temperatures and brisk 20-plus-hours-a-day sunshine, but the cold temperatures never came. What stood out to her most was something she did not see, even at close to 75-degrees-north.


In fact, the region experienced an extraordinary heatwave during the month preceding her journey, with temperatures reaching into the 90s. So much for the minus-20 outfits.

“We recorded record-high water temperatures,” Maddox said. The water was so warm, she said, “the chief scientist on board, Dr. Robert Pickart from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, had to add a new color to his temperature scale.”

Maddox is studying climate change as a national security issue in the Master’s in International Security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. She’s also a research contractor at the Polar Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which helped fund her excursion on the 420-foot USCGC Healy. This was an excursion to see firsthand the results of a warming ocean on Alaskan soil and the seas surrounding it. What she saw, and didn’t see, were indicative of concerning trends regarding global warming, which acts as a threat multiplier by impacting multiple sectors of society.

“This should not be a partisan issue,” Maddox said. “This is about the need to implement appropriate policy to mitigate massive risk.”

“Marisol Maddox is a pioneer,” said Ellen Laipson, director of the International Security program and the Center for Security Policy Studies at the Schar School. “She has demonstrated a deep commitment to this increasingly critical topic of security implications of climate change. Her exciting adventures outside the classroom will bring some great ground-truth to our classroom discussions.” 

Maddox was already familiar with the looming disastrous consequences of the thinning and retreating ice on the indigenous populations of Alaska, including culture-changing consequences for subsistence hunters. The loss of food sources for humans also reduces the food for wildlife, which also finds a diminished livable habitat. In other words, there is less food for anyone or anything in the region.

“And those subsistence hunters,” she added, “are Alaskans. They are Americans. We are talking about a homeland security issue for people who have co-existed with the land for thousands of years.”

Until recently in the high north, year-round ice extent was much greater. The past few years have seen an ice-free Bering Strait in the winter. As sea ice retreats, new ocean routes are opening, with the potential to provide faster and cheaper access across the top of the world. That might be good news for luxury liners and shipping companies that have the potential to save time and money through a shorter northern route, but the lack of resources in the vicinity—from communications capabilities to emergency response assets—is worrisome for those charged with assuring safety, primarily the Coast Guard.

“With climate change accelerating, as opposed to being a linear process, what does that mean for Coast Guard’s ability to meet their mission set?” Maddox asked, pointing out that one of the Coast Guard’s missions is search and rescue. “More cruise ships are planning Arctic voyages with 1,000-plus people on board, and because of the tyranny of distance in the Arctic region, the ability to rapidly respond to an emergency event is very limited right now…Where are you housing first responders, much less any civilians that need to be evacuated? How are you evacuating that many people?”

The Healy’s main mission is to support research, and Maddox was not alone: There were dozens of scientists on the ship from around the world, gathering data, deploying sensors, and tracking the changes in the region.

“Scientists on board detected the northernmost recorded sample of a harmful algae bloom,” she said. “They were able to use that information to alert local indigenous communities that this was a public health risk and that they should avoid subsistence activities in that area.

“This is a small example of why we need sustained observation in this region,” Maddox said. “We can’t detect it if we aren’t there.”