US unveils Arctic strategy, but is it keeping pace with other countries?

The National Strategy for the Arctic Region focuses on security, environment, and international cooperation. But with retreating sea ice creating opportunity as well as potential conflict, the US is seen as lagging.

Michael Studinger/NASA/Handout/Reuters
Saunders Island and Wolstenholme Fjord with Kap Atholl in the background is shown in this picture taken during an Operation IceBridge survey flight in April 2013. IceBridge, a six-year NASA mission, is the largest airborne survey of Earth's polar ice ever flown. The Obama administration released new priorities for policy in the region on Friday.

The Obama administration on Friday unveiled its National Strategy for the Arctic Region – three broad priorities it plans to pursue, as opportunities open to drill for oil and gas, harvest minerals, and increase other forms of economic activity at the top of the world.

The priorities in the 13-page document include beefing up defense and other national security activities in the region, as well as the infrastructure to support them; working to safeguard the region's environment; and working with other Arctic nations one on one and through multicountry organizations, such as the Arctic Council, to manage activities in the region in ways that reduce the potential for conflict. In addition, the strategy calls for a push for ratification of the UN's Law of the Sea Treaty, which failed to clear the Senate last year.

Participation in the treaty regime would give the US standing in disputes that might arise with nations that have ratified the treaty over conflicting claims of sea-floor sovereignty.

Given the rising interest in exploiting the region's resources, particularly on the sea floor, the new strategy hits specific themes “we need to focus on to make sure that can happen in a safe and responsible manner,” a senior administration official said at a briefing Friday morning.

The announcement comes at a time when carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are flirting with a level that last existed on Earth 3 million years ago, when global average temperatures were from 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than today's temperatures.

At that time, the Arctic was far warmer. Forests of Douglas fir and hemlock reaching all the way to the shores of an Arctic Ocean. The ocean likely was ice free in the summer, according to a study of the region's ancient environment published in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

No one expects to see hemlock on the shores of the Arctic Ocean any time soon. But the extent and thickness of summer sea ice has been declining dramatically over the past 34 years, when satellites have been gathering consistent records of the ice.

The Arctic Ocean's Northeast Passage, which skims the northern coast of Russia, opened for the first time on record in the summer of 2005. Two German cargo ships with Russian icebreaker escorts took advantage of another opening in 2009, sailing from South Korea to Rotterdam across the top of the world.

The Northwest Passage, which snakes through the Canadian archipelago and along the coast of Alaska, opened in 2007, when the extent of summer sea ice hit a record low. That record was eclipsed during last summer's melt season.

The changes are raising the issue of rights of passage for shipping – whether countries like Russia and Canada can treat these passages as territorial waters, or whether they represent international waterways.

As more of the ocean has been exposed during the summers, the US and other countries have been mapping the sea bottom in great detail to back up claims of jurisdiction over potential oil, gas, and mineral reserves and deposits. By some estimates the region contains 13 percent of the planet's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas.

At the same time, however, the challenges of operating in the region are enormous and expensive to overcome because of the region's harsh climate. Building up an infrastructure to support oil and gas development, stationing Navy and Coast Guard ships for national defense or for quick responses to shipping accidents or oil spills, and supporting the population growth expected to accompany increasing activity at the top of the world are expensive propositions.

The US is about a decade behind other Arctic nations in upgrading its fleet of icebreakers, notes Heather Conley, a policy specialist who focuses on Arctic issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Today's announcement represents an affirmation of past policies rather than a strategy, she says.

“It's a great exercise to reaffirm Arctic policy,” she says. “But we really need to provide a lot more specifics – and budgets. If we want to evolve Arctic infrastructure, that means serious budget resources.”

The document the administration released Friday doesn't say much about that.

“That's the disconnect between a statement of reaffirmation and implementing those to making them come to fruition and holding agencies accountable,” she says.

Before one can even talk dollars and cents, she adds, the US needs a vision for what it wants to do.

“How much do you want to develop? Do you want to have full-bore economic development in the Arctic, or do you really want to preserve and protect? You have to figure that out and figure out the infrastructure plan around that, then put real resources to that,” she says.

And while the strategy emphasized working cooperatively with other Arctic nations, she notes that the US is the only Arctic country that doesn't have a high-ranking diplomat to focus on Arctic issues, she explains.

These and other challenges await the implementation of the strategy. The senior official noted that more-specific directives will be appearing over time, including an effort to assign responsibilities to some 20 federal agencies whose activities currently touch on Arctic issues and activities. 

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