Obama Creates Arctic Steering Committee

President Obama discussed Alaska, climate change, and Arctic issues in a speech May 20. That came after an executive order in January creating an Arctic Executive Steering Committee to coordinate federal Arctic activities. These may be signs Arctic issues are gaining a higher profile.

President Obama told cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy commencement they’re part of the first generation of officers to begin their service in a world where the effects of climate change he says are so clearly upon us:

“Climate change means Arctic sea ice is vanishing faster than ever. By the middle of this century, Arctic summers could be essentially ice free. We’re witnessing the birth of a new ocean — new sea lanes, more shipping, more exploration, more competition for the vast natural resources below.”

The president went on to outline Arctic priorities:

“In Alaska, we have more than 1,000 miles of Arctic coastline. The United States is an Arctic nation, and we have a great interest in making sure that the region is peaceful, that its indigenous people and environment are protected, and that its resources are managed responsibly in partnership with other nations.”

The nation’s first U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic, Admiral Bob Papp, says the U.S. is also keeping an eye on Russian efforts to build military depots all along its northern shore.

“Anytime you see a military buildup, yes, we would be concerned. But the buildup is one thing. In other words establishing capabilities, is one thing. Intent is quite another thing. How do you use those things. So we watch both of those. The intent part is a little more difficult to interpret. But in terms of capabilities, while there’s been a great deal of rhetoric and a lot of talk about building things. The economy has not been good and Russia has not been able to fund these things.”

Still, Papp says the eight nations that make up the Arctic Council have tackled two critical issues:

“When you have maritime traffic, inevitably, inevitably, particularly in the conditions that you find in Alaska, in the Arctic, weather, and seas, rocky shores. There will be an accident some day and you need to be prepared for that. So the agreement for search and rescue was a good first step. The agreement on oil spill preparedness and response is a good first step. Now you’ve got to operationalize that . You have to get out there and exercise those things. Get lessons learned.”

But Papp says much more is needed: a U.S. Coast Guard Air station, a deep water port north of the Bering Strait… and icebreakers. Papp says the U.S. is down to one medium and one heavy icebreaker, far behind other nations. But, he says, the Obama administration has not requested funding to build ice-breakers:

“I think the administration has juggled a lot of different priorities over the last few years or so. An ice-breaker is amongst those priorities but has not risen to the point where funding has been asked for. There’s been some minimal funding for preliminary survey and design of a new icebreaker. But the real money for building an ice-breaker is not there yet. We’re hopeful that will happen as increased attention is focused on the Arctic.

Navigational aids are antiquated:
“Some of the depth findings that are used on modern-day charts today were soundings that were taken by Captain James Cook and crew took in 1778 using a piece of lead on the end of rope.”

And Papp recommended some other improvements:

“Satellite navigation is pretty good because the GPS constellation is, gives good coverage for the entire globe. But communications satellites have over time been optimally positioned for the middle latitudes, not so much for the high latitudes. So, yes, aids to navigation, communications, charting, setting up traffic separation schemes, all things that will help to improve mariner safety would be beneficial to us.”

The chairmanship of the Arctic Council rotates every two years and recently came to the United States. Since taking his post a year ago, Papp has been working on organizing that transfer. And , he coordinates Arctic activities among dozens of bureaus and agencies within the U.S. State Department.