President's Alaska visit in 2015 underscores US focus on Arctic

President Obama's historic visit to Alaska last summer demonstrated the Arctic is a top priority for our nation. For the president, the Arctic isn't an abstraction: It is personal, made real by the extraordinary places he visited and remarkable people he met. His experience in Alaska generated concrete commitments that make our goal of an enduring Arctic more achievable.

The president will dedicate $4 million to promote innovative energy opportunities for remote Alaska villages so that Arctic residents can have access to the affordable and sustainable energy options they need. He will also seek funding to accelerate the construction of a heavy icebreaker in order to pursue our national interests, strengthen support of our Arctic communities and better manage our natural resources. He further pledged to bolster our efforts to chart the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas to improve our navigational tools and ensure safe passage through these volatile waters. Last year, Obama formed the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, chaired by Dr. John Holdren, to coordinate a whole-of-government approach to our Arctic priorities.

These are just a handful of the domestic initiatives the U.S. is pursuing to advance our interests in the Arctic. Internationally, where I focus the majority of my time, we are working closely with our global partners to achieve common Arctic priorities and prepare this important region for the future.

Our two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council is the cornerstone of our international work. We are focused on those initiatives that will generate the most lasting, positive effects in the region.

Safety at sea is a key strategic priority for the U.S. chairmanship.

We recently invited the eight Arctic states, subject-matter experts, community leaders and the tourism industry for a tabletop exercise in Anchorage that simulated a search-and-rescue emergency in the Arctic. The initiative was a U.S.-led effort to further implementation of the 2011 Arctic Search and Rescue agreement, the first legally binding agreement negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council. As a next step, this summer the United States will host our international partners for a live exercise that will occur in the waters off northern Alaska.

We dread the thought of an oil spill in the Arctic, and for that reason we are committed to preparing accordingly. In September, the Arctic Council held a meeting at Coast Guard headquarters to create a library of scenarios that would trigger a collaborative response under the 2013 Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic. Given the vastness of the Arctic Ocean and the complications of containing oil in icy waters, it is essential that we are ready to work closely with the other Arctic states to immediately respond to an Arctic oil spill.


We are also committed to addressing the impacts of climate change, which are so acute in the Arctic in part because pollutants like black carbon have profound local effects: Emissions of climate pollutants originating in Arctic countries and neighboring states can become trapped in the immediate atmosphere, magnifying their harmful effects locally. An Arctic Council expert group on black carbon and methane, led by the United States, is currently collecting national emissions inventories from each Arctic state and a number of other countries to better understand the role we all play in this problem. Importantly, the group will make recommendations for individual and collective action so that across the Arctic, we may together advance our shared climate priorities.

Above all, our work in the Arctic is focused on the more than four million people who call this extraordinary region home.

The U.S. is leading the RISING SUN project, a community initiative focused on mental health and wellness. Across the Arctic, elevated suicide rates are a painful reality that devastates families and communities. Through RISING SUN (Reducing the Incidence of Suicide in Indigenous Groups -- Strengths United through Networks), we are looking to find what works best when it comes to suicide prevention in the Arctic, and we're seeking ways to evaluate our progress in promoting mental wellness across the region.

We are also shining a spotlight on the amazing young people who live in the Arctic. The Arctic Youth Ambassadors program -- a joint project of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Geographic and the Department of State -- provides 22 Alaskan students a platform to share with the world their experiences of living at the top of the globe. We are promoting these powerful voices because their thoughts and experiences will shape the international community's view of the Arctic, while highlighting the obstacles and opportunities facing the region.

For the duration of the U.S. chairmanship, we will continue to push hard on the issues and initiatives that matter to you. I am confident that in May 2017, when we gather in Fairbanks for the ministerial meeting that concludes our chairmanship, we will be able to look back at our two years leading the council as a pivotal moment that positively and profoundly affected the trajectory of international Arctic engagement.

Adm. Robert Papp retired as commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard in 2014 and was appointed the U.S. special representative for the Arctic that same year.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

Robert Papp

Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., USCG (Ret.) became the U.S. State Department’s special representative for the Arctic in July of 2014. Prior to his appointment, Papp served as the 24th Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, and led the largest component of the Department of Homeland Security.