Reduction in Arctic ice prompts call for resolution of disputes

In 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out on a charter from President Thomas Jefferson to find a Northwest Passage. The expedition mapped much of the Pacific Northwest and documented hundreds of new species of wildlife and fauna, but failed to discover a viable water route connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Now, 206 years later, a Northwest Passage seems an impending reality.

The Canadian Coast Guard Arctic Class 2 icebreaker Sir Wilfred Laurier is based in Vancouver, but often operates in the western Arctic. (Courtesy Windows to the World Photography/Cindy Shults)

Due to ice melt, a northern waterway has opened up for a couple of months every summer, allowing for shorter voyages between Asia and Western Europe. As the passage opens further, geopolitical territorial disputes will no doubt become an issue. Prior to leaving office, President George W. Bush issued a directive on Arctic policy, emphasizing the international nature of the situation.

“We think that all decisions regarding the Arctic should be undertaken in a multilateral setting and respecting international law,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Laura Tischler said in a phone interview.

Bush’s policy sought to fortify institutions promoting collaboration among the eight Arctic nations. The United States believes that the nations of the Arctic must reach a consensus on how best to manage the region’s natural resources, augment scientific research, conserve the environment and revise various homeland security issues.

The two countries requiring the most reconciliation from an American perspective are Canada and Russia. According to the directive, “the United States and Canada have an unresolved boundary in the Beaufort Sea.” The U.S. recognizes the border as equidistance from the two countries in question. Evidently, Canada does not.

The directive states that the United States and Russia “are abiding by the terms of a maritime boundary treaty concluded in 1990, pending its entry into force. The United States is prepared to enter the agreement into force once ratified by the Russian Federation.” This has yet to happen.

The opening of the passage and the prospect of its opening further in the future has led not only to the need for new policy, but also to an increase in vessel activity in the Arctic.

“There has been more traffic and more research vessels up there,” said Capt. Michael D. Inman, commander of Coast Guard Sector Juneau. “There will be more oil research vessels if things continue to open up. The Russians have been moving traffic through the Bering Strait for years. There are cruise ships on the north side of Alaska, a total of seven, maybe eight or nine a year — ships that hold 3,000 to 7,000 passengers.”

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Arctic ice has been visibly retreating for the past 30 years. In September 2007, Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent ever recorded, at 1.59 million square miles. The mark was below the previous one-day record from September 2005 by more than 461,000 square miles.

The summer of 2008 saw the second lowest mark in history, with 1.74 million square miles of the Arctic covered in ice. The 2008 minimum was 860,000 square miles below the average minimum from 1979 to 2000. The Northwest Passage over Canada and the Northern Passage over Russia were open simultaneously for the first time ever in the same season.

Still, the Arctic has yet to develop into the crowded, booming waterway many expect it to become. In Western and Northern Alaska, the majority of commercial traffic still consists of barges and tugs and a smattering of cruise ships. In the Canadian Northwest, one finds similar quantities of barges and tugs, in addition to research vessels.

“Beyond that, not a heck of a lot of commercial traffic,” said Inman. “The Russians have some (larger, long-distance commercial vessels), but how much visibility we have of that is always a question. No bulk carrier or oilers in any large numbers for the most part.”

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) spokesman David Hall, there are neither NOAA vessels in the Arctic nor plans in place to send ships there in the future. When NOAA does conduct research in the Arctic, the agency does so from the Coast Guard vessel Healy. NOAA vessels do not boast ice-strengthened hulls.

Last summer, the Coast Guard launched Operation Salliq 2008, commencing biweekly flights of C-130s from Air Station Kodiak to conduct marine surveillance and placing small boats, helicopters and a transportable communications center in Barrow. Researchers used a cutter and two icebreakers for scientific purposes. Maritime Safety and Security Team Anchorage with two district RB-S small boats deployed to Prudhoe Bay. Intelligence-sharing operations ensued with the Canadian Coast Guard and Canada’s Joint Task Force North in Yellowknife.

“During the summer of 2008, the Coast Guard pushed forward to develop Arctic Domain Awareness,” Rear Adm. Gene Brooks said in a statement, “to test our existing platforms, assets and competencies in the Arctic environment, and to document future requirements to provide maritime safety, security and stewardship in the opening Arctic.”

A summer of training and research led the Coast Guard to conclude that it is vastly under-prepared to handle the amount of traffic anticipated in the decades to come.

“There is limited infrastructure at this point and limited aircraft hanger space,” said Inman. “You can’t leave aircraft out in even August or September when there are ice storms and blizzards. We have limited port facilities even in Nome. You’re talking about launching boats from the beach (in most places).”

The Coast Guard has plans to continue research and training this summer, likely devoting more helicopters northwards, possibly to Nome.

“As we look to the future we want to know the right assets to put up there to support increased traffic with increased response time,” said Inman.

While the age of Arctic commercial sea travel is not yet upon us, it is coming. In a world ravenous for natural resources, the Arctic appears a relative goldmine.

The NSIDC projected the first ice-free summer to be sometime between 2050 and 2100, but ice has melted and thinned at a much faster rate than previously anticipated. International ice models have proved too conservative. Now many agree that 2030 will see the end of Arctic summer sea ice. Some researchers believe it could be as soon as 2015.

In January 2009, NOAA and the University of New Hampshire (UNH) issued a report declaring that the Arctic region was “under-prepared for maritime accidents.” The conference brought together representatives from many of the Arctic nations to discuss potential Arctic issues. A second report, called the Answer Report, is set to come out this spring. The Answer Report is an Arctic Maritime Shipping Assessment being done by the Arctic Council and will incorporate the findings of the NOAA/UNH workshop.

As of early March, President Barack Obama had yet to elaborate on Bush’s directive regarding the situation in the Arctic.

Lewis and Clark’s opening of the West allowed for expansion, discovery and innovation. If pursued correctly, it appears that the Arctic could do much of the same.

Mac King

By Professional Mariner Staff