At a panel discussion in December 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual “Arctic Report Card,” compiled by 141 scientists from 15 countries. The report revealed several findings that – even to those aware of the rapid changes occurring in the region – were startling:
- The Arctic ice is melting faster than ever. The minimum Arctic sea ice extent in September 2012 set a new record low. At 1.3 million square miles, the summer ice sheet was half the size it was 30 years earlier, and 20 percent smaller than in the previous record-low year of 2007.
- It’s snowing less in the Arctic. A new record-low snow extent for the Northern Hemisphere was set in June 2012.
- The Arctic tundra is greener. From 2003 to 2010, the length of the Arctic growing season increased, and a University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) study in April revealed that the tundra’s aboveground biomass had increased nearly 20 percent over the past 30 years.
- Arctic wildlife and the structure of the Arctic food chain are changing rapidly. Recent measurements of massive phytoplankton blooms below the summer sea ice suggest that existing estimates of biological production at the bottom of the marine food chain may be 10 times lower than they should be. At the top of the food chain, however, several species were in trouble, including the lemming and Arctic fox.
- Greenland’s Arctic sea ice and glaciers are melting at a record rate, and sea level rise has accelerated in the region.
“Arctic Report Card” co-editor Martin Jeffries, Ph.D., a UAF professor of geophysics and Arctic science adviser at the Office of Naval Research, said the record-setting year, and the pace of climate change in the Arctic, will inevitably change the way people think about the region. “Popular perceptions of the Arctic as a distant, icy, cold place that has little relevance to those outside the region are being challenged,” he said. “As snow and ice retreat, the marine and terrestrial ecosystems respond, and talk of increased tourism, natural resource exploitation, and marine transportation grows.”
While such rapid change has alarmed some observers who fear its environmental consequences, the U.S. Coast Guard, as the lead federal agency for ensuring maritime safety, security, and stewardship in the Arctic, focuses on activities within its power to protect the health and safety of people and natural resources. As former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad W. Allen was fond of saying: “I’m agnostic to the science on climate change. All I know is there’s water where there didn’t used to be, and I’m responsible for it.”
In shaping its approach to working in the Arctic, the Coast Guard is keeping its eye on the way changing Arctic conditions are affecting human behavior now – and are likely to affect it in the future.
Opportunities and Challenges
As it recedes, the Arctic ice opens up a world of possibilities:
- Energy and mineral wealth. The region holds an estimated 15 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, and 30 percent of the world’s natural gas – roughly $1 trillion worth of energy resources, available for an Arctic nation to claim as long as it can prove they lie on an extension of the nation’s continental shelf. The United States’ potential territorial claims cover an area the size of California.
Corporations such as Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips have already invested billions of dollars in research and exploration of offshore Arctic oil deposits, and, after receiving approval by the U.S. Department of the Interior to begin exploratory drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, Shell sent an ice-reinforced drilling rig, the Kulluk, and a flotilla of support vessels to the Beaufort Sea to begin pilot holes for one or two exploratory wells.
The longer ice-free seasons have also prompted discussion of the potential for mining manganese nodules from the seafloor, along with cobalt, copper, and nickel. Arctic Alaska is already known to be a mineral-rich environment; the Red Dog mine, in the remote western Brooks Range, is the world’s largest-known zinc deposit, a significant source of lead, and the region’s leading employer. The mine’s shipping port, about 55 miles west on the Chukchi Sea, is now available only about 100 days a year, but with the changing climate, the port is expected to become increasingly available – which may invite an expansion of mine operations, as well as an increase in prospecting for other treasures – gold, copper, coal, and zinc – now hidden in the Brooks Range.
- Industrial transport. Shipping transits through the Bering Strait – from Russia’s Northern Sea Route, and to a lesser degree from North America’s Northwest Passage – have increased over the past decade; commercial summer voyages are now routine along Russia’s Siberian coastline as the distance between commercial megaports in Europe and Asia, compared to the traditional Suez Canal route, is reduced by 4,000 nautical miles.
The increasing availability of Arctic shipping routes, if it continues, promises to trim all the costs, risks, and CO2 emissions associated with longer voyages, and to bring other advantages as well: avoiding the taxes and levies associated with canal transits, for example, and avoiding areas of the world known for social and geopolitical instability.
Summer shipping through the Northwest Passage, which winds through the narrow straits of the Canadian archipelago, is made more challenging because of the way the world rotates: The counterclockwise gyre, or ocean current, tends to jam ice floes into these straits and block passage. But according to John Oliver, Ph.D., S.J.D., the Coast Guard’s senior ocean policy adviser, if the projection of an ice-free summer Arctic proves true in several years, it will open up a straight shot across the North Pole. “Then you can ship it directly from Murmansk [Russia] to Churchill [Canada] in a tow bus into the Hudson Bay,” he said. “That would connect the European/Asia rail system with the North American rail system and that would be the shortest way for ships to proceed.” A single container ship, using the polar route to reach New York City from China, could save up to $2 million on fuel and Panama Canal tolls.
- Fisheries. Alaska’s sub-Arctic fishing industry is the nation’s most productive, taking in about 11 million pounds of fish every day and accounting for more than half of the nation’s living marine resource production. Historically, there has been little interest in fishing the waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, but the melting ice, and the northward migration of certain fish species, such as salmon, into warming Arctic waters raises the possibility that these seas may hold valuable fish stocks worth harvesting.
Since 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service has barred commercial fishing north of the Bering Strait until more is known about the rate and likely duration of sea ice loss – as well as about how commercial fishing activities might affect Arctic ecosystems and the traditional lifestyle of Alaska Native populations.
Several nations, including Norway, already allow commercial fishing in the Arctic. If and when U.S. regulations allow it in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, the Coast Guard will be responsible for enforcing all applicable regulations in these waters – 196,000 square miles of ocean, stretching from the Bering Strait to the northern Alaska/Canada border. For now, the service is responsible for enforcing the moratorium and keeping all commercial vessels, foreign or domestic, from fishing in these waters.
- Tourism. In the short term, by far the greatest increase in human Arctic activity in recent years has been in tourism. Many more tourists are visiting the region aboard cruise ships, especially along Greenland’s west coast, and the number of Arctic visitors – pleasure cruisers, ecotourists, and adventure tourists – is expected to increase.