VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The Arctic is often characterized as global warming’s canary in the coal mine. Climate experts warn that Arctic glaciers are retreating and are likely to melt completely during the hottest months of the year if current trends continue over the next two or three decades. The Coast Guard is watching this closely. It anticipates increased duties patrolling the Arctic region — a tough task considering that two of its three polar icebreaking vessels are set to be decommissioned in less than a decade, said Adm. Thad W. Allen, the service’s commandant.
“This is a significant issue that needs to be addressed in the next two years,” Allen told National Defense in a November interview at the annual Coast Guard conference. “We now have a territorial sea and a contiguous zone and an exclusive economic zone that are going to require some kind of Coast Guard presence and a response capability.”
The Coast Guard is the only U.S. military service with polar icebreaking vessels in its fleet. Both the Polar Star, commissioned in 1976, and the Polar Sea, commissioned in 1978, have about seven years of operational life remaining, and there are currently no plans to replace them, Allen said. The third icebreaker, the Healy, was commissioned in 1999 and is mainly used to transport researchers.
“We need to conduct what we call a mission analysis on what our future icebreaking requirements are going to be,” Allen said. “There has to be a national policy discussion about icebreaking requirements in the Arctic.”
Pablo Clemente-Colon, chief scientist at the National Ice Center, presented a number of charts at the conference that showed that in recent years polar ice sheets have retreated farther and faster than ever before. The ice center provides climate-change data to the Navy, Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and in October the center issued a news release that says sea-ice levels were lower in the last three years than at any other period since 1979, when it began keeping such records.
“It’s difficult to predict what sea routes will be open and what sea routes will be closed each year,” Clemente-Colon said. “But as the reduction continues, it’s foreseeable that we will have a transpolar route opening.”
Allen put it this way: “There’s open water where there didn’t used to be.”
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, which dwarf all other countries’ warship fleets in size and capability, have fallen behind several Arctic nations when it comes to patrolling these icy waters.
Canada has announced plans for an Arctic training facility, China has sent an icebreaking ship to the North Pole and Russia already planted a flag there — a symbolic gesture that the country maintains is not a claim to the land. Canada also has asserted control over parts of the Northwest Passage, an icy waterway that in recent years has become more navigable because of the retreating ice.
Government studies have concluded that previously unreachable Arctic waterways could hold as much as one-fourth of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves, a statistic that leads some experts to believe there will be a conflict among the world’s naval powers for a stake in this potential jackpot.
And the United States could find itself outmatched.
“Right now there are three icebreakers in the U.S. inventory, and the Coast Guard operates all three,” Allen said. “We’re going to need all three of those vessels to operate in polar regions in the near future, and my near-term goal is to make sure that they are sustainable and reliable for operations.”
He said that in the next few years, civilian leaders must decide whether the U.S. military should increase its involvement in the Arctic. If so, they would need to allocate additional funds for maintaining and replacing the service’s aging fleet of icebreakers, Allen said. “You have to have icebreaking vessels to create presence.” For now, he added, the Coast Guard will concentrate on maintaining its three polar icebreakers.
The Navy has also examined its role in patrolling these waters, and it released its conclusions in a November report, The U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap. In the report, which was prepared by the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change, officials conclude that the world’s climate is changing and that these trends are occurring most rapidly at the poles. The report says the service should spend fiscal year 2010 analyzing its mission needs in the Arctic, and fiscal years 2011 and 2012 drawing up plans for meeting those needs. In fiscal years 2013 and 2014, it should start allocating necessary funds.
The study also says the Navy needs better models for predicting ice levels and the long-term effects of climate change on Arctic waterways. It recommends that the service develop a clear chain of command for authority over the Arctic and says the Navy will continue advocating that the United States follow the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a decades-old international agreement that U.S. officials helped craft but the Senate has yet to ratify. The treaty dictates how countries and businesses can use the oceans and has been adopted by more than 150 countries, but some U.S. politicians have argued that it would infringe on the country’s sovereignty.
The Navy supports the agreement and is committed to protecting the environment, the report states, but it opposes any regulation that “unreasonably restricts or prevents our ability to train and operate effectively.”
In November, the Navy released an ambitious energy-reform plan that, if carried out, would place it ahead of the other military services in adopting renewable energy. Allen said the Coast Guard, too, has increased its focus on sustainability — both to save money on fuel and to combat the forces that are reshaping the Arctic.
“We will have a role in regulating the U.S. fleet and harmonizing what we do with international standards,” said Allen, who emphasized that the predicted rise in ocean sea levels could greatly affect Coast Guard operations. “We’re going to have to do everything we can to green these ships.”