US needs to break the ice

Last month, Mother Nature accomplished what only an exceptionally capable heavy ice breaker could have otherwise done. Shifting winds freed two ships that were stuck in the Antarctic—the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy (with all of its 52 passengers) and the Xue Long, a Chinese icebreaker sent to rescue the Shokalskiy but which ultimately was stuck in ice itself. Had the weather not cooperated, and barring suitable assistance it’s safe to say the stranded would have remained that way for some time.

These two ships were in safe water, well provisioned, and had capable crews so there was seemingly no immediate risk of grounding or running out of supplies. But at sea, and particularly in some of the harshest and most remote areas on Earth, that can change very quickly.

Ice can be a very tricky and powerful adversary—notably when we’re talking about melting or receding ice in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The problem is that ice is not a binary factor of nature. It is easy to think of an area as either frozen or not. But this is seldom the case when talking about the extremes of the poles. The Arctic has generally seen less ice these last few summers, but the reduction is not homogenous. While the majority of the Northern Sea Route’s roughly 3,000 miles may be open at one point, the Northwest Passage above the U.S. and Canada may not be, and vice-versa.

Even more concerning is the fact that areas that appear clear may not be so after a few short hours following a wind shift. When receding ice fields that measure in the hundreds of square miles begin to move, those movements can take beset vessels wherever the winds and currents choose.

And the concern extends far beyond ships merely being inconvenienced through delay. As a trapped vessel approaches land, submerged pinnacles or other obstructions can easily open the ship’s hull as it is raked along the bottom. The resultant release of hazardous materials such as fuel or cargo can be catastrophic, especially into the remote and pristine environments in the polar regions.

What exacerbates the challenge here is the lack of resources to confront it, particularly U.S. resources. Before the United States reactivated the Coast Guard’s lone heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, in late 2013, the country had not possessed such little capacity to access ice restricted areas since before World War II.

But the return of one icebreaker is not a solution, rather another problem. The history of ice breaking is littered with cases of vessels becoming beset or disabled (that history now includes the Xue Long). Should the Polar Star become disabled while operating in ice, who would come to the rescue of the rescuers?

The United States has a strong national interest of being able to project our presence into the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The Arctic in particular is widely seen as one of the more promising pockets for economic development, given its large projected amounts of mineral deposits, fishing, natural resources, as well as oil and gas—the U.S. geological survey projects that up to 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves are in the Arctic.

But this isn’t just about business. Deepening our presence in the polar regions is also a natural extension of our historical desire to project American influence when and where we choose, including in the most remote regions of the world. To do less in this time of rapidly expanding Arctic opportunities—both commercial and geopolitical—is to risk relinquishing our own course and allowing others to set it for us.

All of this means that it is time we increase the country’s heavy ice breaking capacity.  But expanding our sphere of influence in the Arctic and Antarctic means more than expanding our icebreaker fleet.

The Arctic Council, an organization of nations with territory in the Arctic, is admirably leading the way in developing this region in a peaceful manner. It has also indicated that it will look to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for guidance on how nations and businesses should manage themselves on the seas and the accompanying environment.

Unfortunately, the United States has yet to ratify the treaty, and as such will work from a position of tremendous disadvantage. Without treaty ratification, the United States lacks the legal basis necessary to effectively contest decisions and promote our interests within the world community. The business community has also shown an unwillingness to exploit the commercial opportunities in the Arctic unless legal rights, including guidance on how to settle disputes between nations and businesses, are established.

The United States will assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015. We should seize the opportunity to display strategic and legal legitimacy with our international partners by ratifying the Law of the Sea treaty.  By demonstrating an important commitment, through a treaty we were instrumental in developing, we can show the United States to be a reliable and predictable partner.  Such an important and long overdue act would be a historic jumping off point for what will likely be decades of detail oriented negotiations surrounding the use of the Arctic.

There is a sense of inevitability that the United States will put forth new ice breaking capabilities and develop the necessary policies as the country engages in an unprecedented approach in the polar regions. But the choice is between doing it before we are cornered by the fallout from an environmental catastrophe, ecotourism cruise ship tragedy, or when another nation claims significant legal right to resources that could have been ours; or doing it afterwards.

Waiting is a suboptimal approach to say the least. Ultimately, it is a question of when we decide. Not if.

Cashin is a U.S. Coast Guard captain and military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.