Oftentimes, it’s difficult to put something hard and concrete on the table when thinking and talking about the effects of climate change.
The Arctic, however, is a unique case study in the changes we have already seen and the ways that those changes will affect us in the future.
Why should you care about the Arctic, you ask? It’s just a snowy wasteland crisscrossed by polar bears anyway, isn’t it?
Although we rarely think of it as such, the Arctic is our fourth coast. Even though we normally think of our northern land border with Canada as the northern frontier, ultimately, via our Alaskan coastline, the Arctic Ocean is.
That coastline is changing rapidly.
The Arctic region has seen much greater impact from a warming climate than anywhere else in the world, with sea ice melting away at alarming rates. According to the EPA, the 2012 extent of sea ice was 44 percent below the average of the period from 1981 to 2010 and even the cautious international scientific journal, The Cryosphere, estimates that the Arctic could be seeing ice-free summers by 2041 at the earliest.
Unfortunately, ice melt in the Arctic likely will accelerate; as more ice melts, the darker sea water absorbs more heat, instead of reflecting it like ice, leading to a positive feedback loop that makes the seas warm at an ever-faster pace.
This melting ice is creating an entirely new environment, not only in the ecological sense but also in terms of fishing, natural resources, shipping and our national security.
As of now, it’s unclear whether we are prepared to deal with the ramifications of these changes.
The Alaskan Resource Development Council reports that half of American commercial fishery catches happen in the Bering Sea off Alaska’s western coast. As Arctic ice melts and sea temperatures rise, those schools of fish could move north into the Arctic Circle, where we might end up competing with Russian or Danish trawlers.
Even with prohibitively low oil prices, melting ice might allow for more natural gas and petroleum exploration in the Arctic Seas, which the Energy Information Administration estimates could contain 90 billion barrels of petroleum.
At the same time, shipping lanes could open up through the Arctic, cutting transport times for goods that would otherwise have to travel through the Panama Canal.
Furthermore, the vast majority of our Arctic coastline and the surrounding Arctic seabed isn’t even mapped. As the ice melts further and opens more options for passage, we will need to conduct extensive map-making expeditions to ensure safe transit for both American and international vessels.
If an accident with a shipping or fishing vessel were to occur in the far northern reaches of the ocean, American Coast Guard units might be well out of their league.
Although we do operate several bases in the far north, including Thule Air Base in Greenland, our forces aren’t well-equipped to deal with potential wrecks or oil spills in the region.
The Coast Guard currently lists the Polar Sea, the Polar Star, and the Healy as our entire icebreaker fleet. The Russians, on the other hand, have nearly 40, about half of which are nuclear-powered.
Counterintuitively, less ice cover in the Arctic means more need for icebreakers to support traffic through the region, as companies and governments seek to open up new transportation routes through previously frozen passages.
The Arctic seems at first glance to be a desert, devoid of real use. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the region is and will continue to be important for the United States and we should take steps to ensure our forces aren’t left behind in the rapidly changing environment.
Ian Hutchinson is a Greenfield native pursuing his master’s degree in international affairs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.