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  August 16th, 2016 | Written by

Congress Receives Report on Arctic Issues

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  • Congress hears about Arctic ice issues.
  • Obama ordered coordination of national efforts in the Arctic in 2015.
  • Russian is claiming Lomonosov Ridge that spans the Arctic.

The Congressional Research Service, a bipartisan and well regarded agency that briefs the U.S. Congress on current issues has weighed in on the diminution of Arctic sea ice and the increase in human activities in the region, including trade and transportation.

Alaska makes the United States an Arctic country and therefore has substantial interests in the region. In January 2015, President Obama issued an executive order for enhancing coordination of national efforts in the Arctic. The United States assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in April 2015 and will serve in that capacity for two years.

Arctic sea ice has reached record low levels over the past decade, focusing scientific and policy

attention on the possibility of extended ice-free seasons in the Arctic in coming decades.

“These changes have potential consequences for weather in the United States, access to mineral and biological resources in the Arctic, the economies and cultures of peoples in the region, and national security,” the CRS paper noted.

The five Arctic coastal states—the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark (of

which Greenland is a territory)—are in the process of preparing submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf regarding the outer limits of their extended continental shelves. The Russian submission includes the underwater Lomonosov Ridge, a feature that spans a considerable distance across the Arctic Ocean.

The retreat of Arctic ice could lead in coming years to increased commercial shipping on

two transarctic sea routes—the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage, the paper noted. “Current international guidelines for ships operating in Arctic waters are being updated,” the report said. “Changes to the Arctic brought about by warming temperatures will likely allow more exploration

for oil, gas, and minerals. Warming that causes permafrost to melt could pose challenges to onshore exploration activities.”

Increased oil and gas exploration and tourism, in the form of cruise ships, in the Arctic also increase the risk of pollution in the region. “Cleaning up oil spills in ice-covered waters will be more difficult than in other areas, primarily because effective strategies have yet to be developed,” according to the CRS report.

The U.S.’s limited icebreaking capabilities have been a matter of congressional concern recently and the CRS report noted that two of the Coast Guard’s three polar icebreakers—Polar Star and Polar Sea—have exceeded their intended 30-year service lives, and that the Polar Sea is not operational.

“Although there is significant international cooperation on Arctic issues, the Arctic is increasingly

being viewed by some observers as a potential emerging security issue,” the paper reported.

Some Arctic coastal states, particularly Russia, intend to enhance their military presences in the high north. “U.S. military forces, particularly the Navy and Coast Guard,” the report noted, “have begun to pay more attention to the region in their planning and operations.”