It is time to invest in the Arctic
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The Arctic is undergoing dramatic changes. It is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, causing the polar ice cap to shrink rapidly. Today there is less ice in the Arctic Ocean than at any time in human history.

The melting will likely continue and even accelerate in the coming decades; indeed, the Arctic Ocean could soon become completely free of sea ice in the summer months for the first time in 100,000 years. The melting ice opens new routes for trade and allows access to commercial opportunities, but also causes sea-level rise and threatens coastal communities across the globe.

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Despite U.S.-Russia tensions over the last few years, the eight Arctic nations — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States — have cooperated in the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum that addresses Arctic issues, finding common interests in protecting the environment, promoting sustainable development, and ensuring better living conditions for the people of the Arctic.

 

As the Arctic Council chairmanship passes from the United States to Finland this May, the United States must continue to safeguard its interests in the Arctic and shore up its strategic investments there. The United States, through Alaska, is a significant Arctic nation with important strategic, economic, and scientific interests in the region. In fact, with 6,640 miles of coastline in Alaska, this “fourth coast” is greater than all of the other U.S. coastlines combined.

We recently led a study for the Council on Foreign Relations to examine challenges and opportunities in the Arctic in the face of changing conditions there. Our task force found that the United States risks falling behind other nations, such as Russia and China, which are increasing their investments and activities in the north.

As a first priority, the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress should protect funding for the Coast Guard, our nation’s primary maritime security force, and secure its budget for new cutters, which are vital security assets.

The United States today is outmaneuvered in icy waters by Russia, which has numerous icebreaking vessels, and China, which is building a third icebreaker. In contrast, the United States operates only two icebreaking ships — one heavy icebreaker and one medium-weight icebreaker—to serve both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Funding and building new, state-of-the-art icebreakers would allow the United States to assert its sovereign presence in the polar regions.

Among the major opportunities in the region is the potential for more navigation. Russia’s northern coast is no longer perennially encased with ice, and ships already pass through the Northern Sea Route each summer, an efficient way to transport goods between East Asia and Europe. The Northwest Passage along the coast of North America is more ice-bound, but last summer a luxury passenger cruise ship made a much-heralded and historic journey from Seward to New York City. It is likely that maritime activity through and around the Bering Sea will increase in the coming years, necessitating better search and rescue capabilities.

The melting ice and permafrost also allows access to valuable natural resources, including significant oil and gas deposits. Low oil prices have discouraged international oil companies from investing in Arctic extraction, but is only a matter of time before they start to tap into the vast energy resources there.

Indeed, Russia has already moved forward to lay claim to new energy sources. As companies start looking again at exploration work in the Arctic, it will be important to protect against potential oil spills and minimize the impact on indigenous communities.

The United States can secure its rights to subsea resources on the extended continental shelf by ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). While ratification has been previously blocked by the U.S. Senate, we believe that the Trump administration will find value in asserting U.S. interests in the global commons.

The United States has long been a leader in science, and robust data collection and research is needed in order to fully understand the profound changes in the region and allow the United States to make smart and strategic plans. Retaining funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will be important, since it provides invaluable information for businesses and researchers alike.

Finally, the infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic is woefully inadequate. There are few roads, no deepwater ports, and insufficient telecommunications. Due to the drop in oil prices, Alaska is suffering from a sluggish economy, and public-private investments in strategic infrastructure are sorely needed. If the United States aspires to be a great Arctic nation, it will need to significantly modernize and enhance its capabilities in the region.

The United States can and should bolster its infrastructure and assets in the Arctic, safeguard its strategic interests, defend its national borders, protect the environment, support indigenous populations, and maintain its scientific and technological leadership. Smart investments now will pay off as the Arctic faces an increasingly ice-free future.

Admiral Thad Allen (Ret.) is former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Christine Todd Whitman is former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and governor of New Jersey, and Esther Brimmer is executive director and chief executive officer of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. They are the co-chairs and director, respectively, of the CFR-Sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. Strategy in the Arctic.


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