WASHINGTON – Experts agree that Arctic nations need an “ice breaker” to open the discussion of what will happen to the North Pole as the ice cap melts.
At a conference Tuesday,academic and military experts said countries need to get together and discuss the future of the Arctic. Failure to decide who can use the region's vast resources could lead to another “cold war,” they said.
At the conference,Climate Change: The New Security Imperative in the Melting Arctic,sponsored by the Center for National Policy,experts agreed an Arctic arms race is coming or already underway.
Since 1995,about 40 percent of Arctic ice has disappeared,said Scott Borgerson,visiting fellow for Ocean Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said this means more drilling for fossil fuels that will likely be sent south on ships,not in pipelines,via the eventual opening of a new,more direct,northwest passage.
“The question is not if,but when,” he said. “And of course,as the ice retreats,that raises a lot of strategic and security issues that before were frozen,but now are literally thawing.”
Borgerson said the U.S. has yet to join Law of the Sea Convention,which sets guidelines for use of the world's oceans for business,to protect the environment and to manage natural resources. Though the U.S. did sign the treaty in the 1990s,the Senate has not ratified it.
No country has acted aggressively in the area,but the melting ice has forced countries to think about the worst.
University of Calgary Professor Robert Huebert said in his presentation that the chance to engage with the “new Arctic” in a cooperative sense may have ended in 2007,when nations began acquiring ships and weapons that could function in the Arctic.
“We are already in an Arctic arms race,” he said. “We're just not aware of it.”
He said the increasing perception of accessibility and resources,combined with countries' undetermined sea boundaries,and the involvement of powerful countries – such as the U.S.,China and Russia – all result in uncertainty over security for the environment.
Huebert said Russia,Norway,Canada and the U.S. all have opportunities to acquire vast amounts of natural resources in the Arctic. He said Japan,which is not always considered an Arctic nation,has become interested in a biofuel found in the permafrost.
He said South Korea leads the world's in developing commercial Arctic vessels.
“They saw climate change coming about 15 years ago and dedicated very large resources to development,” he said.
To get around building pipelines,South Korea is building ice-breaker ships,which can go in ice up to two meters thick,he said.
Huebert said Russia is compressing gas,making it easier to transport,and building two new stealth submarines,with plans to start a fourth in the spring.
Huebert said the Norwegians have added a coast guard,and the Danish navy is now combat and Arctic capable. He said Canada is talking about getting an Arctic offshore patrol vessel.
Huebert said the U.S. has sent a submarine and has deployed 36 fighter aircraft to Alaska.
“Most outsiders have interpreted that as showing where you think in terms of where your air sovereignty are coming from,” he said.
Former Sen. Gary Hart said the term national security was narrowly defined in the 20th century as the U.S. military against someone else's military,but that it will not fly in the 21st century because of the increasing number of unconventional wars.
He said he saw the “containment of Communism,” then the “war on terror,” but the years in-between should have seen a redefinition of security.
“The realities of the 21st century are these: proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,climate change,mass south-north migration,the threat of pandemics,failed states and failing states,and the list goes on,” Hart said. “All of those realities have two things in common: they cannot be solved by military means,and secondly,can't be solved by one nation alone.”
The U.S. Coast Guard is still learning about operating in the Arctic,Rear Adm. Gene Brooks said. When he went to Alaska two years ago,he said,the Coast Guard learned its boats were too big,its helicopters were too small and summer storms can send temperatures to 20 degrees below with white-out snow.
He said native Alaskans helped the Coast Guard build lightweight skin boats that can be carried when ice gets too thick.
Brooks said building Arctic-capable ships is not the biggest challenge – it is informing the public that the U.S. is an Arctic nation and what responsibilities that entails.
“It means you have the opportunity to develop spectacular resources,but it also means you have a responsibility to those indigenous people who've lived there for all these thousands of years to help them maintain their way of life in that environment,” he said. “It means we have an obligation to maintain a very fragile environment that's under extreme stress due to climate change.”