America was born from pioneers who saw opportunities and seized them. From the early colonies to westward expansion across prairies and up rivers, visionaries moved to regions blessed with an abundance of possibilities. That spirit is in short supply now when the United States truly needs it, as much of the world looks “north to the future” to all that is opening up for our nation in the Arctic region.
Make no doubt about it: The United States is an Arctic nation. The question is, what does the future hold for the US in the Arctic? And are we preparing for the challenges and benefits that are in front of us? Until we make the Arctic an issue of national importance, rather than regional, America’s future there will be severely limited while other countries move ahead.
The Arctic is notable because it’s not bogged down by the inertia of long-standing disputes and entrenched views that make international cooperation in other regions difficult. Eight countries with territory inside the Arctic Circle, including the US, coordinate through the Arctic Council. I attended the council’s ministerial meeting in Sweden in May, and it featured intense, constructive discussions about the future of the region, from economic development to environmental protection.
The region is evidently being recognized internationally as worthy of attention and investment, as evidenced by the admission of six new non-Arctic nations to the council as observers: Japan, China, South Korea, India, Italy, and Singapore. The fact that these countries see the value and opportunities in the Arctic makes it even more important that the US participate fully in the region’s development, leading international policy decisions relating to the Arctic.
It can begin leading by ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. While no nation currently “owns” the North Pole, the Law of the Sea treaty affords each of the five countries that surround it an exclusive economic zone out to 200 nautical miles from shore. The natural resources within a nation’s zone belong to that nation alone.
Parties to the treaty can also lay claim to an extended area out to 350 nautical miles. If the US Senate were to ratify the treaty – and the US is the only Arctic nation that has not ratified – America could lay claim to an area of the Arctic twice the size of California. Ownership in the Arctic is becoming increasingly important as more and more nations look to the region to meet their energy and economic needs, and as a viable shipping route.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the minimum sea-ice extent of the Arctic polar ice cap reached a record low last year – half what it was in the 1979-2000 period. That reduced coverage will allow for increased circumpolar maritime traffic via sea lanes that are open for longer periods of time. Shipping cargo from Europe to Asia via the Arctic can shave thousands of miles, multiple days, and enormous expenses from the traditional route through the Suez Canal.
Russia has already used the Arctic route for supertanker travel to China. Experts say a tanker leaving Murmansk in Russia needs only 22 days to get to Shanghai, compared to the 42 days it would take via the Suez Canal. The route can also save nearly $1 million in fuel costs. Looked at from an environmental perspective, that is 18 fewer days of fuel consumption and emissions as a result of the Arctic shipping route.
Less sea-ice also means greater access to natural resources that were previously covered by the polar cap. The Arctic contains an estimated 90 billion barrels and 1,700 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered oil and natural gas. Of that, 30 billion barrels of oil and 221 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are estimated to lie in the Alaska Arctic Outer Continental Shelf. High concentrations of critical minerals, such as rare earth elements, are also likely to be found.
Admittedly, weather conditions are harsh. But our neighbors in the North are already embracing the opportunities that come with diminished sea ice. Their shipping and resource exploration across the Arctic is growing every year. Meanwhile, the US is woefully behind on infrastructure development, including navigational aids, deep water ports, and search and rescue capabilities.
We have an inadequate number of polar ice breakers that can operate in the harsh Arctic environment – Russia has us beat 33-2, and soon China will have more ice breakers than we do. Even India is looking to construct icebreakers to serve its national interests.
Certainly, reduced sea-ice presents challenges. For example, coastal communities in my home state of Alaska are more exposed to winter storms without the protective sea-ice. The coast line has seen significant erosion as a result – in some cases forcing villages to take steps to relocate their entire communities. It is an issue that will need to be faced regardless of the level of activity in the Arctic, and mitigation steps need to be included in America’s overall efforts in the Arctic.
Fortunately, Washington is slowly awakening to the need to become more engaged in the Arctic. In 2015, the US will lead the Arctic Council. And the Obama administration just released its National Strategy for the Arctic Region – an Arctic policy. The strategy lays out US priorities for the Arctic, such as responsible resource development, national security concerns and greater Arctic understanding. It seeks to coordinate the federal government’s efforts with work underway in Alaska and with the international community.
I welcome that engagement, but the Arctic’s importance demands greater attention, including ratification of Law of the Sea treaty. The path to the Arctic is opening before us. It’s time to write the next chapter in America’s story as a pioneer, Arctic nation.
Lisa Murkowksi is a Republican U.S. senator from Alaska. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.