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Changing Arctic: U.S. should be a contender, not a pretender

Carl Uchytil

On Sept. 15, the National Snow and Ice Data Center released data suggesting that 2011 was the second lowest Arctic Ocean ice extend year on record since 1979. Without question, diminishing Arctic ice is a reality. The only debate may be how much change is naturally cyclical and how much is anthropogenic. While the data may appear to suggest that maintaining polar icebreaking capabilities is inconsistent with a rapidly waning ice cap, the reality is that as long as the Earth remains tilted 23 and half degrees to the sun, the Arctic polar cap will accrete for half the year, resulting in greater demand for icebreaking services than in any other period in Arctic transportation history.

The physical properties of the Arctic Ocean currently facilitate navigable transportation during a portion of the summer and maritime activity will grow as economics dictate the efficacy of trans-Arctic shipping. At a minimum, energy extraction north of the Arctic Circle will result in increased human activity in the area. Maritime activity resulting from economic demands will manifest in the form of icebreakers, ice strengthened vessels and unreinforced ships that because of market needs may operate either too early or too late in the season and may require some form of assistance due to extreme weather. Because an ice-free Arctic for several weeks in the summer will be a reality by the middle of this century — the question for countries willing to engage in Arctic commerce will be how to adapt and embrace change to seize the opportunities that a changing Arctic provides. The question our legislators must address is whether the United States will be a contender or a pretender as an Arctic Nation. The former requires a measured investment in the Coast Guard’s polar icebreaking program, the latter simply status quo.

Sovereignty is expensive; developing infrastructure in an emerging Arctic Region is expensive; however, captivating the imagination of the American public and restoring national pride, ingenuity and economic opportunity is priceless. On Sept. 23, Sen. Mark Begich authored a bill essentially overriding a decision to decommission Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea, the only remaining heavy icebreaking asset in U.S. inventory. Retaining an asset capable of maintaining surface national presence off Alaska's North Slope with annual forays to latitude 90 would effectively signal to the world that the U.S. is serious about National Security Presidential Directive 66 – Arctic Region Policy. On the other hand, decommissioning our country’s only heavy icebreaking asset capable of operating in high latitudes signals weakness and lack of commitment to our Arctic responsibilities. The Coast Guard is required to provide statutory services off Barrow regardless of maritime conditions, ice or otherwise. In any climate scenario, the Coast Guard is called upon to operate in Alaska's Arctic utilizing suitable assets to respond to search and rescue, provide maritime safety and security, conduct fisheries and other law enforcement activities, and to provide a mobile communications platform for emergency coordination.

During a period when other nations, including non-Arctic countries such as China and Korea, are expanding their Arctic resources the decommissioning Polar Sea, absent other U.S. heavy icebreaker assets, is an irrevocable loss of capability from which the U.S. may never recover. As has been demonstrated by the loss of America’s shipbuilding, manufacturing and textile industries, once the skill is lost or outsourced, it is difficult to regain.

Begich should be commended for his vision and strategic thinking to ensure the U.S. maintains viable icebreaking capability. It is not surprising that the strategic vision to maintain our country’s Arctic expertise is championed by someone who lives the reality of the Arctic. In this current climate of economic downturn and diminishing budgets it is easy to lose sight of Arctic needs, especially because the Arctic is so geographically removed from D.C. and fails to deliver measurable enthusiasm to special interest lobbyists. Arctic challenges resulting from climate change will not be solved by resolution but rather by taking active, assertive leadership. The U.S. can take a proactive step forward by retaining and further developing robust icebreaking capabilities, or it can simply stand by and watch it fade away.

Carl Uchytil is currently the Juneau Port Director. He retired in 2011 from District 17 as an officer of the U.S. Coast Guard. During his 31-year career, he served five tours aboard the icebreakers Westwind, Polar Star and Polar Sea. From 2007 to 2009, he served as the Polar Sea's commanding officer. During a tour at Coast Guard Headquarters, he managed the cutter fleet and served as deputy director for civil rights.

This commentary was first published in the Juneau Empire and is republished here with the author's permission.

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