Twenty-nine years ago, my wife and I spent our honeymoon in the Canadian Rockies at Banff and Jasper national parks. On a sunny July day, we took a tour of the Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Icefield, going on the glacier in a special “ice bus.” We got out and walked around on the glacier in the middle of the tour, and I was impressed not only by the sheer beauty of the icefield, but by how much the ice melting created a clear river of runoff. Recently while talking to Randy, a friend who lives with his family near Banff, I told him how much we enjoyed the tour of the glacier during our honeymoon. He replied, “It’s good you saw it when you did. Athabasca’s shrinking fast. A lot of Albertans are worried about water shortages, the agriculture and oil sands industries have already been impacted.”
Warmer weather has not only been affecting the northern regions on land, but at sea as well. Climate change has opened up the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage to shipping during the summer and early autumn the last four years, and the maritime industry has responded with interest. In 2013, there were 71 commercial ships that made the journey above Russia between the Barents Sea and the Bering Strait – compared with just four that made the voyage in 2010. Though less developed than the Northern Sea Route, the Northwest Passage above Canada saw the ice-strengthened bulk carrier Nordic Orion carry 15,000 metric tons of coal from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Pori, Finland, in 2013. Using the Northwest Passage enabled the ship to make the trip around four days faster than had it used the Panama Canal, saving close to $200,000 in the process. The dream of the Northwest Passage has come true.
Along with the increase in shipping, the opening up of the Arctic has generated considerable interest in the region’s underwater petroleum and gas reserves. In 2012, the quest for Arctic oil above Alaska’s northern coast made the headlines, unfortunately not in a good way. The drillship Noble Discoverer and the ice-strengthened oil-drilling barge Kulluk were the centerpieces of Shell Oil’s plans for drilling in U.S. Arctic waters. First, in July 2012, Noble Discoverer drifted perilously close to shore while anchored near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Several months later a U.S. Coast Guard inspection of the vessel found 16 safety and pollution prevention violations. Then Shell decided to relocate Kulluk from Alaska to Seattle for the winter. On Dec. 31, 2012, as the Gulf of Alaska weather and seas pounded it, Kulluk went aground off of Sitkalidak Island. The barge luckily did not release pollution, but the grounding forced Shell to stop drilling operations until a formal review of the company’s marine Arctic drilling policies and procedures was completed — something that has not yet been done. Shell recently announced that it has postponed any Arctic offshore drilling plans until 2015 at the earliest.
This year the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in principle approved a draft of the new Polar Code, a comprehensive set of mandatory rules and regulations for commercial vessels working in polar regions — above 72 degrees north or below 72 degrees south latitude. Among other things, the code will mandate new construction requirements, mandatory safety training and additional restrictions to prevent shipborne pollution of the sensitive polar environment. Though still possibly a year away from full ratification, the U.S. Coast Guard scheduled a hearing during the summer to inform the maritime industry of the upcoming new rules. To help enforce these new regulations, the Coast Guard recently completed the refurbishment of its only functional heavy icebreaker, Polar Sea, and is in the preliminary stages of planning for a new heavy-duty icebreaking ship.
Commercial interest in the Arctic seems to be growing faster than the ice is melting, and other U.S. government agencies have become increasingly involved. As part of its Arctic Nautical Charting Plan, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued three new Arctic charts recently. During the summer, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp would be the first-ever U.S. “Arctic representative,” a diplomatic position created to help protect our interests in the north.
The vast riches and new opportunities the receding ice is exposing have brought other northern countries scrambling to assert their sovereignty. Russia requires ships to register with its government before using the Northern Sea Route. Canada asserts that much of the Northwest Passage is under its control. Russia, Norway, Denmark and Canada have all officially claimed large chunks of the oil/mineral-rich Arctic continental shelf for themselves, with claims filed in accordance with the protocols established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Our Arctic neighbors have all ratified the treaty, but not the United States — a fact that has many concerned we could be left out “in the cold” during the decision-making process over who owns what up north. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all called for ratification of UNCLOS, but so far the Senate has shown no inclination to do so.
Without a doubt, we have entered into a new era in the Arctic. It is essential for our government to protect our interests in the north. That is why I think funding for new Arctic charts and aids to navigation must be increased, with a Coast Guard heavy-duty icebreaker-building program a top military acquisition priority. Because it will govern maritime activities in the Arctic for tens, if not hundreds of years, our government has to take a strong role in formulating the rules included in the Polar Code and how they are implemented. The protection of our resources, of our coastal sovereignty, and of the pristine polar environment is at stake. We need to be ready to make the dream a workable reality.
Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.
Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at email@example.com.