Think of the Bering Strait as the world's next Panama Canal. We Alaskans have long been aware of the melting Arctic sea ice, but only now do we fully comprehend the sweeping and profound implications the opening of this new shipping gateway holds for life in the 49th state.
For those who don't live in Alaska -- the leaders of the federal government, the titans of industry and commerce, and those from other nations -- the picture is even less clear. From climate change to the emerging opportunities for commerce and shipping, the seasonal thawing of the Arctic ice pack poses unique challenges and opportunities for Alaska, as well as the United States.
That is why we at Alaska Dispatch Publishing have decided to host an international conference on the subject. The Arctic Imperative Conference: Cooperation, Investment, and Responsible Development will run June 19-21 at Alyeska Resort.
More than one hundred leaders from around the world will gather to learn about the changing Arctic from the viewpoint of Alaska. They will tackle the region's crosscutting topics -- from Arctic shipping and navigation to energy and resource development. They will listen to the perspectives of coastal residents and then debate the issues with representatives of the international investment community, executives from the shipping and infrastructure sectors, federal and state policymakers, as well as many other interested parties. Alaska Dispatch has invited scientists, Native leaders, oil drillers, sea captains, politicians, investors and entrepreneurs to attend the gathering in Girdwood. To learn more about the conference, visit Arctic Imperative.com.
The summer of 2009 was the first in memory that both the Northeast Passage (also known as the Northern Sea Route) over Russia and the Northwest Passage over North America were sufficiently free of sea ice to be "navigable" at the same time. This extraordinary boon to sea traffic continued last year and, by all forecasts, will occur again this summer.
With seven nuclear-powered icebreakers, our Russian neighbors are assertively encouraging marine shipments to and from Asia and Europe and to destinations along its Arctic coast. Ship traffic through the Bering Strait has already started to increase. Yet the U.S. Coast Guard has only one working icebreaker on the water. Alaska has no deepwater port in the Arctic, and only two in the Aleutian Islands more than 800 miles to the south. Villages along the Bering and Chukchi seas are presently defenseless against the dangers that accompany increased shipping: fuel spills, pollution and accidents.
Other Arctic nations (the seven other members of the Arctic Council include Russia, Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland) seem more engaged in planning to shape the impacts, and protect their people and local economies. And, of course, they are all parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Meantime, Congress has still not voted to give the U.S. a seat at that table.
As with all profound change, the coming Arctic marine development carries both risks and potential benefits. The risks are inevitable, but realizing the benefits takes planning and engagement. And that critical task has barely started; it seems, in Alaska and the United States.
We hope the Arctic Imperative Conference will help spark that engagement. The voices of Alaskan interests should be driving the policy agenda in Washington, D.C., and at the eight-nation Arctic Council.
Oil development has dominated the debate in Alaska for the last 30 years. Oil and gas and natural resources will always be the key to this state's economic viability. But the Arctic coastline is a vast and almost uncharted territory. Melting ice will open this region to development, and eventually attract the world's commerce north from the equatorial passages to the much shorter trans-Arctic routes.
Alaskans must lead the conversation on what future we want to unfold as shipping grows and the Arctic changes, and what we hope to get out of it. Where there is opportunity, we need to find partners and investors -- and then plan, design and control the development. If we don't pick up the baton, others will do it for us.
Alaskans have learned the hard way what happens when we don't assert our needs. Outside agendas will prevail, and Alaska will be once again treated as a colony. We must not repeat that experience.