The Arctic Frontier: Senate Warned to Catch Up Before It’s Too Late

WASHINGTON (CN) – As melting sea ice makes human navigation of the Arctic Circle more feasible, Senate lawmakers grappled Thursday with what the United States must do to address the challenges such activity will bring.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy conducts an Arctic patrol to support the Office of Naval Research. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

Senator Dan Sullivan, who chairs the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, kicked off the panel hearing this afternoon by identifying his chief concerns as offshore collisions and oil spills.

While less than 2 percent of the entire area has been charted under modern standards, Sullivan noted that the United States is joined by Russia and China in mapping new Arctic courses with icebreaker vessels.

As sea ice recedes and more ships dot the rapidly shifting landscape – whether conducting marine research or searching for fossil fuel – Sullivan said increased traffic in the Arctic Ocean means increased risk.

An Alaska Republican, Sullivan emphasized that rescue or clean-up missions are beyond daunting for the U.S. Coast Guard.

“The closest U.S. port is Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, which is nearly 1,000 miles away from the Arctic Circle,” Sullivan said. “This is like having a port based in Florida, taking care of operations in Boston.”

Worse still, the technology guiding any U.S. vessel in the Arctic is over 50 years old and features limited satellite and communication capability.

Willie Goodwin, chairman of the Arctic Waterways Safety Committee, noted as well that cellphone infrastructure is basically nonexistent. Since it’s hard to know what contact is possible in the event of an emergency at sea, Goodwin said ships heading into far-flung reaches of the Arctic take a huge gamble.

“It’s like calling a tow truck from Washington, D.C., to pick you up in Denver,” Goodwin testified. 

While marine research, tourism and international energy transport are ramping up, the communication infrastructure simply hasn’t kept pace. Goodwin said this could soon leave lawmakers with bleak options. 

“You can work with us by supporting our infrastructure requests before the unthinkable happens, or the federal government can take responsibility for addressing human disaster in one of the harshest environments on earth without infrastructure or even communication capabilities,” he said. 

Goodwin’s safety committee has been funded entirely by private operators so far, and largely from the oil and gas industry. He noted that the Canadian government has taken the situation more seriously, pouring $1.5 billion into arctic waterway safety infrastructure.  

For the United States, the focus has been on building new icebreakers, vessels that can slice through nearly impenetrable ice. While Congress has earmarked $750 million to build three new vessels by 2023, a September report from the General Accountability Office shows that the deadline is optimistic. The audit determined another $9.8 billion investment would be needed to meet the goal.  

As it stands, Russia has 40 icebreakers in its fleet, and several are weaponized. China has three, with construction of a nuclear-capable icebreaker in the works. 

The United States has only two icebreaker ships: the Polar Star and the Healy. The Polar Star, which primarily services McMurdo Station in Antarctica, is in poor condition, 42 years old and approaching the end of its usability. The Healy is 18.

But it isn’t just Russia or China trekking to the Arctic to take advantage of openings in sea ice. 

Kathy Metcalf, CEO of the Chamber of Shipping America, testified that the only thing more daunting than the idea of cleaning up an oil spill in the Arctic is the idea of rescuing stranded tourists. 

“The thought of a 3,000-passenger ship, hundreds of miles away from rescue – that presents a formidable challenge the world has to address,” Metcalf said. 

Estimates compiled by Senator Sullivan during Thursday’s hearing pegged 26 new polar cruise ships as “ready to launch” in the next three years. By 2020, an estimated 38,000 passengers will travel aboard an arctic vessel. 

“If God forbid we did have some accident, we certainly wouldn’t have the capability to rescue them right now,” Sullivan said. 

Andrew Hartsig, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic program, told the committee that climate change has so drastically altered the Arctic that solutions must be big-picture based. 

It is communities who live in and near the area who will suffer the most despite contributing the least amount of damage, Hartsig told the committee. 

The responsibility to regulate environment damage as activity in the Arctic heats up falls largely to shipping industries, he said. They must play a chief role in mitigating damage, and they can begin by reducing soot output and better regulating their emissions.   

Other industries can take their cue from the International Maritime Organization, Hartsig added. The organization committed itself this year to carbon-free shipping by 2050.

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