As North Pole melts, U.S. Arctic policy needs to heat up

Capt. Richard Spear stands at the North Pole in 1989.
Richard Spear
Capt. Richard Spear stands at the North Pole in 1989.
Posted May 19, 2013, at 10:08 a.m.

The recent decision by the Arctic Council, led by the eight nations with Arctic territory, to accept China, India, Japan and three other countries as new observers points to the region’s growing importance. It’s also a sharp reminder of the need for the United States, the council’s biggest player, to do more to prevent a destabilizing Great Game from unfolding at the top of the world.

Behind the Arctic’s intensifying geopolitics are some powerful geophysics. Climate change is causing Arctic ice to melt at an accelerating rate. Last summer, the area of ice covering the Arctic Ocean was about half what it was, on average, from 1980 to 2000. The thickness of the remaining ice had diminished by 80 percent over the same period. The late-summer Arctic could regularly be ice-free as soon as the 2030s, according to some estimates.

Although these developments portend ominous changes in the jet stream, ocean currents and global climate, they also promise great opportunities. With less ice will come more access to oil and gas: The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2008 that the region holds 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil.

Ice-free passage through the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s coast would let ships sailing between Europe and Asia reduce travel time by 40 percent, and trim voyage costs by 20 percent. Moreover, shrinking ice coverage means that the 1.1 million square mile “donut hole” in the central Arctic Ocean — an area not under any country’s jurisdiction — will be partially accessible for commercial fishing.

No wonder countries with no Arctic borders, such as China, want to join the region’s main body for policy making and governance.

Although the council isn’t a formal rule-making organization, it has overseen binding agreements on search-and-rescue and oil spills. As a recent report to the council argues, high on its to-do list should be a mandatory polar code for freight vessels and cruise ships operating in Arctic waters, less than 10 percent of which are charted to international navigation standards.

U.S. leadership will be critical to achieving such goals — and to ensuring a judicious balance between the interests of the Arctic Council’s permanent members, including its indigenous groups, and those of outside nations with a stake in the disposition of the region’s resources.

In 2015, the U.S. will take over from Canada as leader of the council. Before it does, it would be wise to bolster its just-introduced National Strategy for the Arctic Region with a dedicated budget and, as a recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues, a detailed blueprint for coordinating the 20-plus federal agencies that have a piece of Arctic policy making. It also needs to pump up the U.S. presence at the council by making its representative an ambassador, as the other permanent members have done. Oh, and a new heavy icebreaker, to bolster the U.S.’s aging fleet of two, would help.

The best thing the U.S. could do, however, to tamp down a struggle for Arctic resources would be to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, as has every other council member. The failure of the region’s biggest power to join undermines the convention’s effectiveness as a forum for the peaceful resolution of disputes. More practically, it means that the U.S. can’t stake a legally defensible claim to resources extending as far as 600 miles from the north coast of Alaska.

In today’s dare-we-say polarized political climate, a renewed fight for ratification won’t be easy. But to keep the breathless headlines like “Melting Ice Opens Race for Riches and Sea Routes” from becoming harbingers of conflict, it has never been more important.

Bloomberg News (May 17)

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