New government data finds that the amount of Arctic sea ice this year is at its lowest level ever – another possible indicator of climate change and rising sea levels around the world.
The accelerating melt also poses another risk: a potential global battle – that America may be ill-equipped to win – for the vast natural resources once buried under the now-disappearing Arctic ice.
According to one analysis by Ernst & Young, as much as 20 percent of the world’s undiscovered but recoverable oil and gas reserves are in the Arctic. These valuable reserves could set off a global oil rush – as well as the likelihood of conflict over competing claims and the potential for environmental disaster.
America is one of only seven countries that can lay claim to Arctic waters, along with Canada, Denmark, Greenland (itself part of the Kingdom of Denmark), Iceland, Norway and Russia. While Finland and Sweden are considered part of the Arctic region, they don’t directly border the Arctic Ocean.
“A lot of people don’t consider the Arctic as our place,” says Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA), a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “But there is a state – Alaska – that is in the Arctic. The Arctic Circle runs right through it.”
To protect American interests in the Arctic, Larsen, along with Republican Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner and Don Young, have proposed bipartisan legislation to create a U.S. “Ambassador for Arctic Affairs.”
One reason this position is critical, Larsen says, is that America takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council this year. The Council includes all the countries in the Arctic region, plus “observer status” countries such as Singapore.
“People are very confused by Singapore’s observer status in the Arctic Council, but they and other countries like China are very interested in the natural resources there,” says Larsen. “Singapore is a country – but it’s also a company. The state-owned enterprises of Singapore are very active in supporting natural resource development and exploration.”
Larsen argues that without a high-level official dedicated to Arctic policy, the U.S. risks falling behind other nations that are already thinking about the Arctic strategically. “There are 20 different agencies dealing with the Arctic right now in our government, but there are only two state department staff dealing with the Arctic,” says Larsen. “Singapore has a more focused agenda on the Arctic than the United States.”
The opening of Arctic waters could even pose a new risk to national security.
“Open water means more activity,” Larsen says, “And it could mean more activity from the military of other countries spending time there. We need to know what they’re doing.”
U.S. Arctic policy, Larsen argues, is a critical long-term strategic imperative.
“We spend no time on crisis management in Congress, and we spend a lot of time on crisis watching,” says Larsen. “It’s hard to get members to focus on the 10 to 15 year window, but … I’d like to think that [Reps.] Sensenbrenner and Young and I are at the forefront of an issue that we’ll keep pushing.”