The question of the Arctic Ocean becoming seasonally ice-free as a result of climate change is no longer one of "if" but "when." And while environmentalists and scientists may bemoan the consequences for polar bears, ringed seals or weather patterns, many governments see opportunity.
One opportunity is shortened transit times for cargo vessels, particularly from Atlantic to Pacific (and vice versa) via the Northern Sea Route across the top of Russia, and to a lesser extent via the fabled Northwest Passage through Canada's Arctic archipelago. A recent study concluded that the Northern Sea Route could become completely navigable for part of the year by mid-century at latest.
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As a result, noted Alaska's Democratic Senator Mark Begich last week, even decidedly non-Arctic nations are among those putting regionally-appropriate infrastructure in place.
"Russia, China and even India are building icebreakers," he said to the audience at a Symposium on the Impacts of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations in Washington, D.C. "India!" he repeated for emphasis.
(As Begich pointed out, his own appeals for new U.S. icebreaking capability are frequently met with responses along the lines of "I thought the ice was melting; why do we need icebreakers?" But the ironic reality is that, as ice breaks up and becomes mobile each spring, and as pathways become available, ice-capable vessels will be more of a necessity than when thick multi-year ice was essentially impenetrable year-round.)
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Already, there is an increase in maritime traffic in the region. In 2010, for example, the administrators of the Northern Sea Route granted permission for four vessels to transit the icy seaway. Last year, that total had risen to 46. So far in 2013, the figure is 204.
Of particular interest to the United States is the fact that virtually all such traffic will, at the beginning or end of its journey, transit through the Bering Strait, the 60-mile-wide funnel of water and ice between Alaska and Siberia. The safety and environmental issues that raises ensure, said Begich, that "the United States Coast Guard will be a key player in the Arctic."
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Despite the federal government being in a period of fiscal belt-tightening, Begich emphasized that "we can't do what the federal government likes to do, and shift resources. This is going to require additional resources," to provide, for example, greater ice-breaking and command-and-control abilities in the Alaskan Arctic.
That point was underlined by Vice Admiral Peter Neffenger, U.S. Coast Guard Deputy Commandant for Operations, who told reporters at the symposium that the changing Arctic "is like the world has opened up a new subdivision, but the infrastructure isn't in place yet."
Key to being able to predict and respond to changes in human activities in the Arctic Ocean, added Rear Admiral Jonathan White, Oceanographer of the U.S. Navy, is that "We need to understand the Arctic Ocean as well as other oceans. And we don't."
The rate of change, however, while swift, is not so rapid as to engender a panicked response, added White: "For the Navy, an ice-diminishing Arctic presents a challenge, not a crisis. If the Navy is going to operate in the Arctic, what is it going to take? What are the modest investments we can make? What kind of vessels are we going to need? What kind of fueling operations?"
Neffenger added that that approach was the same one that the Coast Guard followed with the development and publications of its new Arctic Strategy.
"We wanted to get away from, ‘Buy us an icebreaker.' In the near term, we have what we need to figure out what the next steps are going to be," he said. But, he added, there was no doubt that those next steps were coming, and that they would need to take place soon to respond to a rapidly changing region.
"From our perspective, the Arctic has always been a place you could go," he said. "Now it's a place where you have to go, from a maritime governance perspective. For us, this is not an abstract academic discussion."
A small-boat crew from the 225-foot Coast Guard Cutter Juniper, in Pond Inlet, in Nunavut, in the Arctic, Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. The ship's crew was on an Arctic deployment to enhance interoperability with international forces and to provide the experience of working and responding to incidents in the harsh Arctic environment. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Cynthia Oldham