U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy, which is one of only two icebreakers that the U.S. currently operates. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

By Andrew Freedman
22 July 2013

(Climate Central) – With Arctic sea ice thinning and shrinking rapidly in recent years, the US military and scientific agencies are scrambling to cope with the looming prospect of a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean.

With Arctic sea ice thinning and shrinking rapidly in recent years, the US military and scientific agencies are scrambling to cope with the looming prospect of a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean.

At a meeting in Washington last week, top US Arctic officials at the Coast Guard, Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and other agencies acknowledged that the US lags behind other nations in dealing with the rapidly changing Arctic environment. The agencies are facing serious deficiencies in the ability to map the sea floor and develop enforceable environmental policies, as well as construct onshore infrastructure that would be used for search and rescue and oil recovery operations. Currently, not a single Navy surface ship is even capable of navigating the ice-covered waters.

There is also a big void in diplomacy, and how the US will deal with other countries on issues involving the Arctic.

The US has not ratified the United Nations agreement that irons out how countries make claims to offshore Arctic resources. That’s despite the agreement having the overwhelming support of the military and both political parties.

Ratification of the treaty, which is known as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS, has been a top priority for national security officials for several years, but it remains stalled in the Senate due to a handful of senators’ concerns that it would compromise US sovereignty.

The sweeping changes taking place in the Arctic are only just beginning to force policy discussions and strategies in the US and among the eight Arctic states. On land, spring snow cover has been plummeting in recent years, permafrost has been melting, and average surface temperatures have been rocketing upward at twice the rate seen in most other regions of the world. At the same time, the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice cover that has existed year-round for all of modern human history is swiftly transitioning into a seasonally open ocean.

In the past two weeks alone, Arctic sea ice extent has plummeted from the 11th-smallest on record for this time of year, to the fifth-smallest, due to a stretch of favourable melting conditions. Compared to the 1981 to 2010 average, sea ice extent on July 15 was 409,000 square miles below average, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

During the first two weeks of July, ice extent declined at a rate of 51,000 square miles per day, which was 61 per cent faster than the average rate of decline over the period 1981 to 2010, NSIDC said.

Last year, Arctic sea ice extent declined to the smallest ever observed in the satellite era, and studies have indicated that it was very likely the smallest extent on record, based on observations taken by Cold War-era submarine cruises under the Arctic ice pack.

Accompanying the swift environmental changes has been an unprecedented increase in human activities in the Arctic, and these have prompted Arctic states, working through the Arctic Council, to strike cooperative agreements on matters such as conducting search-and-rescue operations as well as responding to oil spills. The eight member states are: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US. 

The rapid decline of summer sea ice cover has permitted some shipping companies to take advantage of shorter shipping routes, primarily along the so-called Northern Sea Route straddling the northern coast of Russia, although some transpolar shipping has taken place as well.

According to Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who addressed the conference on Tuesday, Northern Sea Route transits have jumped from 0 in 2007 to 46 in 2012. Last year’s shipping activity had an international flavour, with vessels flying the flags of Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands making the trip. “These numbers show the Arctic is truly becoming part of a shipping network,” she said. [more]

In rapidly changing Arctic, US is playing catch-up

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