With Arctic sea ice dwindling toward what is likely to be one of the lowest minimums on record, conditions are primed for a busy shipping season at the top of the world.
Royal Dutch Shell is back in the Chukchi Sea with its exploration armada and at work drilling for oil after three years of regrouping that followed the mistake-laden 2012 drill season. The Northern Sea Route across the top of Russia is clear, and has been for much of the summer. Businesses and governments around the world, even those far from the Arctic Circle, are interested in far-north commerce and are investing in ships and infrastructure.
That makes this an auspicious time in history for Alaska and its circumpolar neighbors Arctic neighbors to participate in that shipping boom, said keynote speakers opening a conference on Arctic shipping in Anchorage.
Particularly upbeat was Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, who spoke Sunday evening at the conference, called "The Alaskan Arctic: A Summit on Shipping and Ports." The conference is hosted by Alaska Dispatch News publisher Alice Rogoff and others, including Grimsson.
Alaska and Iceland share a strategic global position, Grimsson told the dinner audience.
"We could be the new Singapore or Dubai of the North," he said.
The time for conceptual discussions, like those that have been going on for decades, is now over, he said.
"It is important that we realize that it is a completely transformed playing field and we have to measure up to the pressure for action in a short time," he said. "Everybody is now telling us that we have to put concrete plans and projects on the table."
For Iceland, those concrete plans include work with German investors to expand Icelandic port facilities to better serve the growing Arctic ship traffic.
But for the U.S. Arctic -- Alaska -- there is still a lot more work that has to be done to build up the basic support facilities, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski. That extends beyond the business opportunities presented by shipping to the basics that support communities and the people who live in them, she said.
"When we're looking at the specifics of shipping and ports and harbors and that infrastructure that anchors us, let's not forget the other infrastructure that of necessity comes with that," she told the dinner audience. That includes water and sewer systems "that actually work" and systems of delivering affordable, sustainable energy, she said.
Other Arctic countries have well-developed shipping infrastructure. Russia has the Port of Murmansk, plus a ring of other Arctic ports around the Northern Sea Route. Northern Norway has multiple Arctic ports. Canada has the deepwater port of Churchill on Hudson Bay.
In Alaska, the only full-service deepwater port that serves the Arctic is at Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, about 800 miles south of the Bering Strait, the narrow chokepoint that is the entryway from the Bering Sea to U.S. Arctic waters. Plans are on the table to expand Nome's port to enhance its capability to serve Arctic-bound vessels, but funding and construction strategies remain unclear.
Still, there has been progress on building the knowledge and capacity to manage expanded shipping in the waters off Alaska, said Fran Ulmer, chairwoman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and a special Arctic adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Ulmer ticked off some accomplishments: The Arctic Council in 2009 issued a series of recommendations for managing Arctic shipping with improved infrastructure, navigational aids and knowledge and emergency-response capabilities. The administration of President Barack Obama in 2013 issued a national Arctic strategy that incorporated those recommendations and in 2014 issued an action plan to carry them out. And earlier this year, Obama -- who will be in Alaska next week to attend a climate conference and visit some far-flung parts of the state -- took executive action to streamline the federal government's Arctic management.
"Those are all very concrete steps," she said.
Additionally, Ulmer noted, the International Maritime Organization has adopted a Polar Code, to go into effect at the start of 2017. The Polar Code sets up Arctic-specific and Antarctic-specific standards for environmental protection and marine safety.
The conference, to run through Tuesday, is organized under the auspices of the Arctic Circle, a nonprofit organization headed by Grimsson and Rogoff.