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  April 5th, 2016 | Written by

Shipping and Exploration Opportunities Open With Arctic Sea Changes

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  • Low levels of Arctic sea ice bring the possibility of ice-free seasons coming about within decades.
  • Ice-free seasons in the Arctic have consequences for increased shipping activity and national security.
  • Arctic warming will likely allow more exploration for oil, gas, and minerals.

The melting of Arctic sea ice, thanks to climate change, has led to increased human activities in that region, and has heightened interest in, and concerns about, the region’s future. The United States is an Arctic country and has substantial interests in the region.

On January 21, 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 on April 24, 2015, and will serve in that capacity for two years.

At the request of leadership, the Congressional Research Service recently released a policy paper on the subject, “Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress,” written by Ronald O’Rourke.

Record low levels of Arctic sea ice over the past decade have focused scientific and policy

attention on links to global climate change and the possibility of ice-free seasons coming about in the Arctic within the coming decades. These changes have potential consequences for weather in the U.S, access to mineral and biological resources in the Arctic, the economies and cultures of peoples in the

region, including the possibility of increased shipping activity through two different routes, and national security.

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

which Greenland is a territory)—have made or 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 diminishment 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. “Current

international guidelines for ships operating in Arctic waters are being updated,” the CRS report noted.

Changes to the Arctic brought about by warming temperatures will also likely allow more exploration

for oil, gas, and minerals. “Warming that causes permafrost to melt could pose challenges to

onshore exploration activities,” said the report. “Increased oil and gas exploration and tourism,” in the form of cruise ships, “in the Arctic 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.

Large commercial fisheries also exist in the Arctic. “The United States is currently meeting with other

countries regarding the management of Arctic fish stocks,” the report noted. “Changes in the Arctic could affect threatened and endangered species.”

Two of the Coast Guard’s three polar icebreakers—the Polar Star and the Polar Sea—have exceeded

their intended 30-year service lives, and Polar Sea is currently not operational. On May 12, 2011,

representatives from the member states of the Arctic Council signed an agreement on cooperation

on search and rescue in the Arctic.

“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 report concluded. “Some of the Arctic coastal states, particularly Russia, have announced an intention or taken actions to enhance their military presences in the high north. U.S. military forces, particularly the Navy and Coast Guard,

have begun to pay more attention to the region in their planning and operations.”