By Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor, U.S. Helsinki Commission,
Dave Zwirblis, Coast Guard Fellow, Office of Chairman Roger F. Wicker,
Neal McMillian, NOAA Fellow, Office of Chairman Roger F. Wicker,
and Alanna Schenk, Intern, U.S. Helsinki Commission
The Arctic region—with its rapidly growing ecological, political, and economic importance—is almost as large as Africa, yet it is often overlooked in critical policy debates. As an Arctic nation and one of two nuclear powers within the region, the United States is central to Arctic development and maintaining the stability of the region.
Despite including all eight Arctic nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been largely dormant when it comes to Arctic issues. However, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) includes a Special Representative for Arctic Issues, Ola Elvestuen of Norway, and has passed resolutions on the Arctic at its Annual Sessions, including as part of the 2010 Oslo Declaration and the 2013 Istanbul Declaration.
Given the growing importance of the Arctic, the OSCE has many opportunities to increase its engagement in the Second Dimension—its portfolio of economic and environmental issues—in ways that would supplement the work of the Arctic Council, the primary intergovernmental actor in the region.
In the near future, there likely will be a significant rise in human activity along the Northern Route. As sea ice melts, new shipping lanes are opening up offering unprecedented access to trade routes, natural resources, and even tourism opportunities. For example, the CRYSTAL SERENITY, a 1,000 passenger luxury cruise liner, is conducting a first of its kind month-long Arctic cruise through the Northwest Passage in summer 2017.
Increased maritime traffic and engagement stemming from these economic opportunities present numerous new challenges for the Arctic nations. The Arctic region remains underdeveloped and lacking in critical infrastructure. The absence of continuous and robust U.S. and international community assets means response to any type of transportation or environmental disaster in these remote areas would be extremely slow and difficult to execute.
Additionally, only 4.7 percent of the U.S. Arctic and 9 percent of the total Arctic waterways are charted to modern navigation standards. Any increase in economic development and shipping in the Arctic will require cooperation from all stakeholder nations to build up the emergency infrastructure and provide the icebreaker vessels necessary to conduct pollution response and cleanup, search and rescue, and maritime security operations.
Currently, the U.S. Coast Guard only has two polar icebreakers in operation. These vessels break channels through the ice to maintain shipping lanes, perform search and rescue and law enforcement operations, and act as platforms for scientific research. The Coast Guard’s oldest icebreaker and only one capable of heavy icebreaking, the POLAR STAR, was commissioned in 1976 and is operating well past its intended service life. If this vessel were to break down, it would be a single point of failure in the United States’ ability to protect its sovereign interests throughout the Arctic.
According to a 2011 Coast Guard assessment, the agency will need a minimum of six icebreakers to fulfill its statutory missions in the polar regions. In an effort to recapitalize its aging icebreaker fleet, the Coast Guard plans to award a contract to a U.S. shipbuilder in 2019 with anticipated delivery of the first vessel by December 2022.
Other Arctic nations, including Canada, Sweden, Finland and Demark have limited icebreaking capability as well. Russia currently owns and operates a fleet of more than 40 icebreakers.
Ensuring that the increasing economic activity in the Arctic region is sustainable can only be achieved if the Arctic nations become fully engaged as soon as possible. It is imperative that this infrastructure is developed responsibly and sustainably with regard for the Arctic land and people—whether it is through low-effect shipping, sustainable shipping lanes, or science-based marine management. Throughout this economic development, engaging and involving the native Arctic peoples will be vital to integrate Arctic communities into the global economy during this time of rapid change.
The way that the Arctic nations respond to the changing climate and its respective perils and possibilities will shape the world’s response to climate change and the future of international cooperation. Science and technology in the Arctic present opportunities for this collaboration.
The Arctic is an emerging hotbed for scientific research. Much is still to be learned regarding ice sheets, under-ice conditions, glacial dynamics, polar ecosystems, and biodiversity. In the face of rapid ecological changes, it is vital for the international science community to come together to gather baseline information and develop the infrastructure to monitor the ecological changes.
Based on temperature changes and shifts in food regimes, species are moving around the Arctic, shifting from territorial waters into the newly accessible Arctic high seas. While commercial fleets have yet to coalesce in the high-seas Arctic, the international community has the unique opportunity to develop governance frameworks and complete baseline studies in anticipation of the new fishery. In 2015, five Arctic nations—the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark, and Norway—agreed to halt high seas fishing in the Arctic until research gaps on the condition of the emerging fisheries were better understood.
Oil spill prevention and response as well as search and rescue are areas where infrastructure is minimal in the Arctic. Emergency response efforts are hindered by an absence of basic logistical support and infrastructure. Furthermore, while private companies have invested in infrastructure related to oil and gas exploration and extraction, this is not sufficient to fulfill infrastructure needs and additional investment will be required.