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Alaska leaders call for Arctic action before it's too late

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
At a conference last week in Washington, D.C., Alaska leaders urged the government to move quickly on matters of Arctic policy. USCG photo

In his keynote address to the Ice-Diminished Arctic Conference in Washington, D.C. last week, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell told those gathered to discuss the changing state of Arctic waters that early theories by bloggers were that talk about the Arctic was happening behind closed doors -- that secret plans were being laid out to dominate the region.

"But they overestimated our government," Treadwell said. "In reality, few people were paying any attention to the Arctic."

Today, however, they are, he said, thanks in part to symposiums like the one held this week.

The meeting, co-hosted by the U.S. National/Naval Ice Center (NIC) and the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC), addresses the changing state of Arctic sea ice and associated environmental conditions that are impacting naval, maritime and other critical activities in the region.

"Today, it's fashionable," Treadwell said. "And guess what, bloggers? Our deliberations here are out in the open."

The symposium, the fifth of its kind, focuses on bringing nationally and internationally recognized experts on Arctic observations, climate change and marine operations. National and international dignitaries, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Mark Begich and Treadwell were to speak at the symposium, which ran through Thursday. The conference was organized in part in response to the decreasing Arctic sea ice, and the changes resulting from that loss, including increased shipping traffic through Arctic seas. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates more than 400 vessels traveled through the Bering Straits last year, and expects more this year, bringing up a wide variety of concerns, from national security to environmental safety.

Treadwell noted that the recently released National Arctic Strategy Report was "not very specific," and real needs present themselves already in the Arctic, such as an ever-pressing need for shipping guidelines. While Alaska has urged itinerant vessels traveling through Arctic waters to adopt voluntary compliance with oil spill laws, the program is still voluntary. Treadwell repeated his request for a vessel routing system in the Bering Strait to prevent collisions and groundings, and noted that adopted agreements through the Arctic Council are providing the groundwork for policy.

Treadwell, along with Murkowski, said it was critical that the United States sign the Law of the Sea Treaty, which allows coastal states to adopt and enforce non-discriminatory laws and regulations for the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from vessels in ice-covered areas. The code points specifically to places where severe climate conditions create hazards to navigation and pollution would cause major harm.

"I agree, the document has its flaws," Treadwell noted. "But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let's work out those issues and let's get a seat at the table."

In her presentation, Murkowski addressed the increased traffic through the Northern Sea Route, which drew 46 vessels through what were largely impassible waters only a decade ago. Murkowski said that the number of transits heading from East to West nearly doubled from 2011 to 2012 -- from 11 (out of 41 total) to 21 (out of 46 total). The number of transits that were "in ballast" also dropped from 15 in 2011 to 6 in 2012. 

"These numbers suggest that the Arctic route is becoming part of a shipping network, rather than a one-way, one-time event," Murkowski noted. "When it comes to circumpolar navigation in the Arctic, regardless of which route is taken -- the Northern Sea Route, the Northwest Passage, or perhaps across the pole if we see an ice-free summer, they all converge on one end at the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska. As these routes become increasingly more viable and more user friendly, I personally believe that there is great potential for an Arctic transshipment facility along the Aleutian Chain."

Murkowski imagined, as many on the chain have, a cargo facility in Adak or Unalaska, allowing ice-strengthened ships to focus their travel in Arctic waters, rather than continuing on to Asia, a leg of the transit that could be accomplished by less fortified vessels. But the expansion doesn't come without risks.

"Whether a hub is developed or not, however, the level of maritime traffic is likely to increase and we are woefully behind in our infrastructure needs; from navigational aids to deep water ports and search and rescue capabilities," she said. "We need to be more creative in how we address these deficiencies."

Murkowski suggested that the answer to such deficiencies in times of federal belt-tightening will likely be partnerships with non-federal public entities, as well as the private sector.

Another topic on presenters' minds this year was international relations in this time of ever-expanding movement and development in the Arctic.

"The Arctic is not presently subject to the type of long-standing disputes and entrenched views that make international cooperation in the region difficult," she noted. "Quite the opposite. The Arctic is so new to the international arena that we are still in the process of drawing up the rules of the road."

When the United States takes over as Chair of the Arctic Council in 2015, these international policy decisions will be important to address, she noted.

Treadwell noted that studies have identified a critical deficiency in the Arctic: a lack of infrastructure projects and logistic centers.

"The point is this: We need to prepare for a new ocean, yes," Treadwell said. "But we also need to prepare to do business successfully. We need cooperation and competition."

This article originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.