One of the big problems facing our new president is what to do about two downward spirals in the Arctic. One is the warming of the Arctic Ocean. The other is Russia’s increasing determination to aggressively exploit that trend. Both developments pose major dangers to the United States.
Arctic Ocean warming is a classic vicious cycle. The warmer the water gets, the more it melts the Arctic ice pack; the more the ice pack melts, the warmer the water gets.
One effect over the past decade has been the gradual opening of a new sea route from Asia to Europe via the Northeast Passage, also known as the Northern Sea Route, which follows the Russian coastline. The route is now ice-free two months of the year, and that is projected to increase. By 2100, according to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the entire Arctic Ocean is expected to be ice-free for half of the year.
Ship traffic in the Arctic Ocean, including increasing use by the Russian energy industry, has more than doubled in the past decade. Ships burn dirty bunker oil, and the deposit of their soot on the ice contributes to the speed at which it melts.
The warming of the Arctic, according to UAF, has proceeded in recent years at twice the rate of global warming. And the more the Arctic ice melts, the higher it raises global sea levels, threatening places quite remote from the North Pole, such as Charleston.
That alone should give the United States a strong reason for seeking international cooperation to slow or halt the Arctic Ocean vicious cycle.
But the opening of the Northern Sea Route and the increased access for Russia to the oil, gas and other natural resources of northern Siberia puts Russia on a different course, which it is aggressively pursuing, including with military force.
In August, Russia fleet exercises in the Bering Sea, the arm of the Pacific that leads to the Arctic Ocean, disrupted legal American fishing for about nine days. The American boats harvesting pollock were operating within the legal 250-mile exclusive economic zone of the sea when they were ordered to move immediately by Russian warships and aircraft, causing at least one skipper to wonder if an invasion of the Aleutian Islands was underway, as reported by Alaska public radio.
The U.S. State Department called the intrusion of the Russian fleet into U.S. fishing grounds “unprofessional.” But the Russians were within their rights under the Law of the Sea and had given advance notice of their intention to hold naval exercises in the area. Because of a glitch in the U.S. system for passing it to the U.S. fishing fleet, the captains of the fleet did not receive the warning.
That communication channel must be fixed immediately.
The Trump administration also is racing to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling before Joe Biden is sworn into office. It’s another unfortunate step in President Trump’s efforts to scale back crucial environmental protections in favor of increased energy production.
Looking ahead, Russia, Canada and the United States, as well as other nations with Arctic Ocean shores such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, must come to terms about the limits to the exploitation of the Arctic zone. Above all, there needs to be a global effort to end the pollution of the Arctic that accelerates ice melting. This is related to the concern with global warming and must involve China, India and other coal-burning Asian countries that contribute to the intense air pollution over Asia that prevailing winds carry to the Arctic, where it precipitates on the ice pack. And the federal government must halt its assaults on environmental regulations in the Arctic and elsewhere that protect the land and the wildlife that inhabits it.
Also, the next administration must take the issue of military threats to Alaska seriously, beginning with the need to bolster naval and air operations of the Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force. Russia is not going to be deterred from its aggressive Arctic activities by words alone.
That’s a big agenda, but it must be addressed.