Published April 11. 2011 4:00AM Updated April 12. 2011 1:36AM
North of Alaska, a Coast Guard cutter is mapping the ocean floor so the United States can increase its claim to the oil and gas reserves that lie beneath the Arctic waters.
Other countries with Arctic coastlines are charting the continental shelves to make similar claims under the treaty that deals with jurisdiction in the Arctic, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Canada and Russia are making claims.
But the United States- as the only Arctic nation not to ratify the treaty- cannot.
Vast stretches of water will eventually be open in the Arctic as current climate predictions say it will be ice-free for a month each summer in the late 2030s.
This emerging frontier presents a host of challenges, from the uptick in search-and-rescue cases and oil spills as more ships head to the Arctic, to the lack of infrastructure there and limited funding for operating in the region.
The Coast Guard is studying how the thinning ice will affect the service's day-to-day responsibilities while the Department of Defense is trying to figure out which coastal bases could be vulnerable to the rising sea level.
Last week, to reflect the growing importance of the Arctic, the president gave the U.S. Northern Command sole responsibility for the Arctic region and Alaska, a responsibility that other commands previously shared. The Colorado-based command already oversees homeland defense and coordinates support to civil authorities. The change aims to ensure a more cohesive approach.
While grappling with how to confront the opening of the Arctic, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard are at a disadvantage because the Senate has not ratified the nearly 30-year-old treaty that provides governance for the Arctic Ocean.
The changing conditions far north, combined with the potential for disputes over resources and borders, make ratification even more significant today, according to ratification supporters.
"It's a shame that the United States, the most powerful and influential country in the world, has not signed on to a process that almost everybody else has," Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. said, adding that the region's significant deposits of petroleum could be very meaningful in terms of national security and the economy.
The Navy is trying to work cooperatively in the region with the other Arctic nations' militaries, but it's hard to be viewed as trustworthy when the treaty has not been ratified, said Navy Capt. Tim Gallaudet, deputy director of Task Force Climate Change. The treaty, he said, is "viewed by us and other nations as the perfect instrument" to provide governance in the region.
Remaining outside of the system could hamper the military's flexibility to operate in the Arctic, said Antonio J. Busalacchi Jr., co-chairman of the Committee on National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces. Navigational rights, the passage of ships through narrow straits and territorial sea limits are all addressed within the agreement.
Yet with the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya, and the budget and economy troubles at home, the Arctic is not topping the Senate's priority list.
It's difficult to find support for the floor time needed for a lengthy debate on the issue, and some senators are concerned that ratification would weaken U.S. sovereignty and security, according to Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Murkowski, a Republican, believes ratification is in "the vital interest of the United States," and without it, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., worries that other nations will develop maritime policy without the United States' input.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., says he's "broadly supportive" of the treaty's overall goals but he has been focused on jobs and economic growth as a new senator.
Papp acknowledges that the Arctic "falls beneath the radar" in Washington, and he feels an obligation to draw attention to it. The Coast Guard has authority over U.S. waters, regardless of whether or not they are frozen.
Bringing more attention to the treaty and other Arctic issues could, in turn, help create the political will to step up funding for the military's future operations there, in order to defend U.S. interests in the area and to respond to accidents or disasters.
More ships heading to the Arctic for a shorter route between the Atlantic and Pacific or for fishing, mining and eco-tourism, will likely lead to more search-and-rescue cases and oil spills. Both Papp and Gallaudet say a major challenge is figuring out how to do more in the Arctic with declining resources and tight budgets.
Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, who supports ratification, has called for investment in basic Arctic infrastructure, such as forward operating bases for the Coast Guard, navigation aids, communications capabilities and icebreakers. But that funding has not been forthcoming.
The Coast Guard is working on a "concept of operations" for the Arctic, a study of how the thinning ice will affect the service's day-to-day responsibilities and authorities, from fisheries protection to search and rescue and oil-spill response. Of the Coast Guard's three polar icebreakers, two are inoperable, and hardening the hulls of other surface ships is expensive.
"As human interaction, human transit and more ships start arriving in the Arctic, there will be a call for the Coast Guard to do something about it," Papp said. "… How do we come up with the wherewithal to take on increasing responsibilities when we know the budget is going to be very difficult to increase?"
The Defense Department is compiling a list of coastal bases and ranking them by vulnerability to the rising sea level, which is expected to be up to 2 meters higher by the end of the century. Protecting infrastructure may mean reinforcing piers or moving buildings.
Gallaudet said the Navy is focused on figuring out how it will defend the national interest in the region and ensure freedom of the seas.
There is still time to answer these questions. Some military operations take only a short time to plan, such as the recent strikes in Libya, Gallaudet said, but the Arctic is a "different animal."
"It's something we do have years and decades to prepare for," he said. "While daunting, while potentially costly, given the time scale to prepare for it we're not overly alarmed. Generally we view climate change and its impact as challenges."
But, he said, if we don't prepare now, "they will become crises."