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2018:  JAN | FEB | MARCH

The Arctic Heats Up
In Policy Circles

Aileen Torres-Bennett,
Managing Editor,
Sea Technology magazine

Evidence that the Arctic is becoming a hot topic in the government town of Washington, D.C. was clear this summer with the occasion of two Arctic-focused events. One was the Wilson Center Arctic Circle Forum, which took place June 21 to 22, and the other was the Symposium on the Impacts of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations, which took place July 18 to 20, marking the seventh time the symposium was held.

According to the 2016 Arctic Report Card created by NOAA, the average surface air temperature for the year ending September 2016 is by far the highest since 1900, and new monthly record highs were recorded for January, February, October and November 2016. After only modest changes from 2013 to 2015, minimum sea ice extent at the end of summer 2016 tied with 2007 for the second lowest in the satellite record, which started in 1979. Spring snow cover extent in the North American Arctic was the lowest in the satellite record, which started in 1967. Clearly, it’s getting warmer in the Arctic, and the Arctic is a barometer of climate change.

Right now, the closest thing to a governing structure for the Arctic is The Arctic Council, which is an intergovernmental forum comprising the member states of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S., as well as Arctic indigenous groups. The goal is to foster cooperation on sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.

Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Paul Zukunft spoke at both the Arctic Circle Forum and the Arctic Symposium this summer, emphasizing the importance of the Arctic to the U.S. At this point in time, the Coast Guard, which has been operating in the Arctic since 1867, really carries the ball on Arctic issues for the U.S. While The Arctic Council creates policy, it is the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, established October 2015, that implements policy.

The Arctic is a harsh, remote region, and less than 5 percent of it is measured according to modern methods, as Zukunft has pointed out. One of the primary concerns in the Arctic is the warming temperatures and diminishing sea ice, which could lead to environmental refugees as sea level rises with the changing climate.

In the short term, with the Crystal Serenity cruise ship making a historic voyage through the Northwest Passage in 2016, the Coast Guard has been preparing for the possibility of large-scale civilian disasters in the region. In September, there will be a search and rescue exercise conducted by the Arctic Coast Guard Forum.

The number of icebergs is increasing in the Arctic, and they are coming into the shipping lanes, causing navigation hazards. In April 2017, The AP reported that more than 400 icebergs drifted into the North Atlantic shipping lanes in the course of one week. Global warming was a possible cause of this unusual phenomenon, which caused ships to decelerate to crawl speed or travel hundreds of miles on detours.

The Coast Guard has been advocating to replace the tiny, aging fleet of icebreakers. Only one heavy icebreaker exists, and it’s about 40 years old. Zukunft has been trying to get the funds to build at least one new icebreaker, with the goal of vessel completion by 2023. At the symposium, he said the Coast Guard needs three heavy and three medium icebreakers, and industry has stepped forward to help, but funding continues to be an issue. In contrast, Russia has 40 icebreakers, and in 2020 they will deliver Russian ice-breaking corvettes, he said. New U.S. icebreakers will enhance U.S. presence in the Arctic and support activities such as national defense and fisheries enforcement.

In addition to equipment, managing the Arctic also requires data. “We need science to inform decisions,” said Zukunft, who uses a planning factor of 6 ft. sealevel rise. From climate monitoring and predicting to oil spill management to fisheries management to defense to tourism, science and industry have the chance to play major roles in the opening of this new frontier.

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