Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story, including in the print editions of The Washington Post, gave an incorrect size for the Arctic Ocean. It covers 5.4 million square miles. This version has been corrected.

As Arctic melts, U.S. ill equipped to tap resources

A U.S. Coast Guardsman, left, and a scientist survey ice conditions in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska.
A U.S. Coast Guardsman, left, and a scientist survey ice conditions in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska.
By Jacquelyn Ryan
Monday, January 10, 2011

KODIAK, ALASKA - Flying over the Arctic Circle, the Coast Guard C130 rumbled as it alternated between 500 and 2,500 feet, its high-tech equipment quietly observing the thickness and stretch of ice along Alaska's northern border.

Cold air rushed through the open cargo door as some musk oxen and the occasional walrus passed below.

Like the rest of the 5.4-million-square-mile area at the top of the world, this chunk of the U.S. Arctic is melting quickly because of accelerated climate change. The prospect of newly thawed sea lanes and a freshly accessible, resource-rich seabed has nations jockeying for position. And government and military officials are concerned the United States is not moving quickly enough to protect American interests in this vulnerable and fast-changing region.

"We're not doing OK," said Lt. Cmdr. Nahshon Almandmoss as he flew the massive plane on the nine-hour flight from Kodiak to the northern border then down along the coast through the Bering Strait. "We definitely don't have the infrastructure available to operate for an extended period of time in the Arctic in the summer, much less in the winter when it's more critical for logistical purposes."

The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has identified the Arctic as an area of key strategic interest. The U.S. military anticipates the Arctic will become "ice-free" for several summer weeks by 2030, possibly as early as 2013.

But the United States does not have the military and civilian resources it says it needs to successfully operate there - and there are few indications that any significant ones will be forthcoming.

In a report last September, the Government Accountability Office said the Coast Guard lacks adequate infrastructure or equipment in the Arctic and that its funding for such programs faces uncertainty.

The Arctic is believed to hold nearly a quarter of the world's untapped natural resources and a new passage could shave as much as 40 percent of the time it takes for commercial shippers to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The Arctic nations - Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States - have been preparing to claim larger chunks of territory under a clause in the treaty that governs the world's waters. Non-Arctic nations like China and South Korea also have been eyeing the economic potential in the far north.

"With 20 percent of the yet-to-be-discovered oil, gas and minerals remaining in the world in the Arctic, the U.S. can't risk losing it," said Rear Adm. Christopher C. Colvin, commander of Alaska's 17th Coast Guard District, from Anchorage.

The Department of Defense has taken notice. Its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review says that understanding security and environmental issues in the Arctic is a key challenge.

In late 2009, the Navy's Task Force Climate Change released a five-year planning document titled "Arctic Roadmap," outlining 35 action items about requirements for operating in the harsh region.

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