Why the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency Has Eyes on the Arctic

NGA Director Robert Cardillo

NGA Director Robert Cardillo National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

NGA’s focus on the North Pole could allow the agency to go even more open source.

Almost by definition, the North Pole is not thought of as a global hot spot. It's an area typically only recognized come holiday time. But as the polar ice melts, the Arctic is becoming a nexus of geopolitical tensions, over subjects as diverse as penguins and Ukraine.

The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, a Pentagon division that provides maps to the spy community, is closely monitoring the situation. New transportation routes and energy reserves are rising to the surface.

And because all the commotion has economic and not just military ramifications, NGA Director Robert Cardillo sees the Arctic as a place that could bring his agency out into the open. Again.

Since taking office last fall, the lifelong intelligence analyst has garnered attention for pulling the curtain off certain geospatial data, such as maps of the Ebola spread.    

"To me, I think the Arctic is a wonderful place where we should be thinking about our next piece of open code," Cardillo said in a recent interview with Nextgov. "A great deal of what’s known about the Arctic is unclassified. We don’t have a rich history of classified intelligence collection in the Arctic, because -- guess what? -- it wasn’t a priority.

Now it is. President Barack Obama in a May 2013 Arctic National Strategy outlined "strategic priorities" for the Arctic region, that call for, among other things, a greater awareness of activity in the region as well as charts and scientific research to better understand the landscape. That would include NGA’s geospatial intelligence -- insights derived from pairing satellite imagery with historical data sets.

"I’m not going to dive into the, ‘Why is the Arctic warmer than it used to be?' but I know it is," Cardillo said. "And I know there’s less ice up there now, and I know there’s more ship traffic now. I know there’s more potential for natural resource exploitation then there ever has been before. Those facts have driven state actions. Russia, as one of the claimants for the resources and maritime navigation and control, etc., has made decisions based upon those changing facts. Some of those decisions are military based." 

Some observers compare the situation up North to the 1980s Cold War, no pun intended. 

"Although Moscow isn’t threatening the West with anything near the number of warplanes deployed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, its air sorties around Norway have increased dramatically each year since 2007," Jeff Stein wrote in Newsweek last month. Late last year, "military construction crews began refurbishing a string of Cold War-era bases on islands in the Arctic."

The United States seems to be preparing for more aggression from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Last year, the Army’s Northern Warfare Training Center in Black Rapids trained 1,300 personnel to maneuver on the frozen ground, Stars and Stripes reported last week.  

Polar Bears vs. Polar Drilling

Aside from the potential for tactical clashes, there are disagreements pitting U.S. industrial operators, who are pursuing the Arctic's fossil fuels and new shipping waterways, against U.S. environmentalists, who worry about the ecological risks of drilling. 

"Underneath all of that is an economic decision," said Cardillo, speaking from inside NGA’s Springfield, Virginia-based headquarters, which is shaped like a giant eyeball lens. It's estimated the Arctic region holds 13 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 30 percent of its natural gas.

Venues for hosting public geospatial intelligence on the Arctic might include Apple's app store, the code-sharing site GitHub and NGA.mil, where interactive viewing tools are powered by Esri mapping software. The site currently serves up unclassified data sets to aid Ebola relief efforts.

NGA’s first app, Anti-Shipping Activity Messages, or ASAM, details incidents of hijacking on the high seas all over the world. The underlying code for the app, which was released last fall, also is available on GitHub.

"We’re all in on GitHub. We’re very proud of our page," Cardillo said. "Not that we want to introduce piracy into the Arctic -- but there’s a certain appetite for general situational awareness that I would think we could and should play." 

While NGA has unique access to panoramas of Russian military construction up north, it remains to be seen whether site locations would be made public.

"I’m encouraging our team to create conditions and the context so that our policymakers and decision-makers can have a better footing to think about employment of resources, deployment of diplomatic engagement, potentially, security-related actions, whether it’s just to protect or it’s to project, in some cases we project force throughout the world to ensure safety of navigation, for example," Cardillo said.

I Can See Russia from My House

The Arctic is where allies Canada, the United States, Greenland, Iceland and Norway come in closest proximity to Russia, Military and Aerospace Electronics pointed out earlier this month, in describing several international efforts underway to surveil the region.

Among the cutting-edge explorations is the Arctic Earth Observation and Surveillance Technologies program, run by the Research Council of Norway. The Norwegians are trying out new satellite and drone surveillance equipment to better understand environmental changes at the pole. 

"As the ice retreats, new fishing zones are opening up, and -- most importantly -- so are shipping routes that trim thousands of miles off voyages, saving enormous amounts of time and money" for transporting all kinds of resources, Foreign Policy In Focus researcher Conn Hallinan said this past November. Moscow and Beijing have negotiated a $400 billion oil and gas deal, which China expects will generate Arctic energy development profits and Moscow anticipates will relieve the pangs of Western sanctions over Ukraine fighting.

Yes, China and Ukraine have a stake in the land grab, even if they aren't visible on an Arctic map.

Cardillo said he likes to show people polar projection maps “because it’s very disconcerting, it destabilizes your mind. When you look at the North Pole at the center of a projection, it looks very unfamiliar,” he said.

At first, gazers say, “’Wait a minute, the United States isn't that tiny. It doesn’t sit on the edge on the Earth like that. We’re at the center of the world.' You get those reactions,” Cardillo said. But they also “clearly see Alaska and Canada and Norway and Russia  -- what I like about it is the way it changes your thinking about it."

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.