Coast Guard Unprepared for Climate Change in Arctic
The situation in the Arctic has all the makings of a Tom Clancy novel.
Russia is aggressively pushing its claims there, national boundaries are still unknown and rapidly melting ice has opened previously frozen shipping lanes.
In the midst of all this, the Coast Guard’s fleet of only two working icebreakers is unprepared to deal with such rapidly changing shifts in a region of rising importance.
“We have a fourth coast, our northern flank, and basically it’s being ignored,” said Scott Borgerson, international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In the ongoing race to gain clout in an area where the thawing ice could unlock vast resources and lead to heavier traffic, the Coast Guard has been provided few resources, Borgerson said. And since the Arctic is in Alaska’s back yard, guarding it is crucial to national security, Borgerson said.
“The reality is that all eight Arctic nations have substantial interest in the Arctic,” said Rear Adm. Arthur E. Brooks, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District. He added that even non-Arctic nations such as China are eyeing the region.
James Overland, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, said the Arctic is moving toward a time when all the ice formed in winter will melt during summer. Last year, arctic ice shrank by more than 1 million square miles to 60 percent of ‘80s and ‘90s levels. Many scientists now project that the Eurasian side of the Arctic could be ice free in summer within five to 30 years, which would allow passage between Asia and Europe for up to three months a year.
Last September the entire Northwest Passage — a sea route from Europe to Asia — was unfrozen, Overland said.
More navigable water will eventually bring savings for shipping companies of countless transit hours and billions of dollars. The Coast Guard would have to ensure safe passage for vessels traversing the Arctic, Brooks said. But it has no forward operating bases and no aircraft capable of operating in minus 40-degree temperatures in a region with little infrastructure, said Lt. Dave Oney, a spokesman for the Pacific area.
What’s more, the Coast Guard has only three icebreakers, one of which is mothballed. Ice breakers are used not only for scientific issues but also to patrol icy arctic waters.
“The Coast Guard’s icebreaker fleet is pretty sorry,” said Borgerson.
Russia, with 18 icebreakers in the Arctic, has a keen interest in the region, he added. In a bid to gird up its claim over 460,000 square miles of arctic waters, Moscow planted its flag on the North Pole’s sea floor last summer.
“I tell people I’m grateful to the Russians for doing that because it got Washington’s attention,” Brooks said. The government and public need to recognize that the United States, with its Alaskan border, is indeed an arctic nation, Brooks added.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea entitles coastal nations to 200 miles of exclusive economic zone. The Kremlin has researchers in these waters who are trying to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge is a natural extension of Russia, which would put a chunk of territory the size of California, Indiana and Texas combined under Moscow’s control, wrote Borgerson in an article.
The United States must take a two-pronged approach of matching strength with strength and engaging the Russians diplomatically. It is doing neither, Borgerson said.
Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland are also eying the region, and Canada is spending billions to build a fleet to patrol arctic waters.
A warming Arctic could also unearth a myriad of resources. Although estimates vary, experts say that the Arctic could be sitting on a vast sea of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas that could rival even the United States’ biggest suppliers.
Already, climate change is spurring the migration of some commercial fish species into the Chukchi Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean and lies between Siberia and Alaska and north of the Bering Strait. Brooks said that once rules governing fishing in the Chukchi are established, he will have to enforce them.
For now, the Coast Guard is doing what it can to discover what is out there. Last fall the Coast Guard started “arctic domain awareness” flights to get a feel for traffic patterns, as well as to monitor foreign vessels to ensure they don’t take fish in U.S. territorial waters, Brooks said.
And in a report last February, the U.S. Polar Operations and Policy Work Group identified problem areas and made a series of recommendations including enhancing national security, projecting a U.S. presence and protecting sovereignty.
Borgerson said one reason for the Coast Guard’s lackluster icebreaker presence is the Jones Act. The law requires the military to build ships in the United States, which is costly and time consuming, he added.
“We could buy an icebreaker off the shelf from South Korea for one-third the expense,” he said.
Adding to Coast Guard concerns, the boundaries of a vast swath of the Arctic are undetermined, which is a potential source of prickly run-ins over resource rights. Borgerson maintains that any time there is a disagreement over boundaries, it creates an unstable legal environment.
“I don’t think the Arctic is going to spark World War III, but it’s naive to not see Russia militarizing the Arctic,” Borgerson said.
Brooks said there have never been any prohibitions on weapons systems there. He downplayed concerns over U.S.-Russian arctic tensions and stressed that despite Moscow’s heightened interest in the region, relations are “great.” The Russians are just focused on protecting what they view as their territory, he said.
But regional tensions do have the potential to occur, Brooks said. “The worst case scenario is a failure to peacefully settle the arctic boundaries that leads to open conflict between the arctic nations,” wrote Brooks in an article. “That threat is not immediate, but could build quickly due to the boundary disputes.”
The situation has the attention of the government and the military. Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said in June that he would be accompanying Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen to the Arctic this summer on a fact-finding mission concerning the rapidly melting sea ice.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen said he has been working closely with Allen on climate change issues. “I see this as a growing concern that we are going to need to address,” he told reporters in June.