Beneath the towering icebergs, herds of walruses and packs of polar bears, the potential trade routes and vast natural resources trapped beneath the Arctic have long inspired traders, governments and explorers.
There was Vitus Bering in the 18th century, who gave his name to the great frozen gateway to the Arctic when he sailed through it and proved that America and Siberia were not connected, and Adolf Nordenskiold, still a hero to Finns for making the first crossing in 1878 of the Northeastern Passage, the Atlantic to Pacific route through the Arctic Ocean that is thousands of miles shorter than the treacherous way round Africa and India.
But despite the bravery of the icebreaking pioneers, the region was just too inhospitable for extensive exploitation. Bering died with scurvy on the island that now bears his name, and few have been able to recreate Nordenskiold's Holy Grail of northern voyages through the permafrost.
The Arctic is changing faster than any place on earth, notes an assessment newly released by the Navy, which explains that the weather there has become milder, that the ice is receding and that the scientific community largely believes that within 30 years -- maybe less -- the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free for two months of the year.
“This is the first time we in the West have had to deal with a new ocean in 500 years," said Adm. David Titley, director of the Navy’s task force on climate change.
A warming ice cap, among other cataclysmic consequences, could allow access to vast tracts of previously frozen territory.
And there is money in the ice. There are over 90 billions of barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids in the Arctic, according to a 2009 report by the US Geological Survey. So far, the unpredictability of the ice floes and the difficulty of working in the environment have prevented large-scale exploitation. But if oil prices rise, it could become worthwhile for energy companies to invest in ice-capable technology and begin drilling.
Trade and tourism will also increase as the seas melt. Last year, a Norwegian ship laden with iron ore passed through the Northeastern Passage — if such voyages become common practice it could save international shipping companies 35 percent on shipping cargoes through the Panama Canal or Horn of Africa. The Navy report notes that the number of cruise ships passing through the Canadian Arctic is also increasing.
As the potential of the region grows, there are concerns that other nations are taking advantage and leaving the United States behind. Russia has increased its shipping and military presence along its northern border. Russia has 20 icebreakers, the huge ships needed to forge routes, and so does Canada.
American naval presence in the Arctic is “not much at any one time” said Titley, and the United States has only one functioning icebreaker. The United States is not a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, a framework that allows nations to lay legal claim to the territory around their coastline. The issue is now getting more attention, with a report sent by the Pentagon to Congress earlier this year, but Titley says that the Arctic is simply not as crucial for the United States as it is for Russia or Canada, and that budgetary concerns will affect requests for $1 billion icebreakers, whose exact role is not yet clear.
Beyond the strategic factors at play in the Arctic, of course, are the humans, bears and walruses who rely on the ice for their livelihoods. According to a paper published in International Affairs in 2009, herds of walruses have been congregating in northwestern Alaska because of reduced sea ice, and polar bears face extinction in less than 70 years.
Indigenous communities, the paper says, have reported massive drops in the seal populations, threatening their traditional way of life -- although if they can lay claim to some of the natural resources that become accessible, they could benefit.
As the planners from Moscow to Alaska pore over strategies, skepticism still lingers among some at the political level. Last week, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry told business leaders in New Hampshire that he believes climate change has been politicized.
Adm. Titley declines to engage in political debate, but said: “The overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is that this is at least in part caused by man, and we see temperatures continuing to increase, so we think its prudent that we plan for a fundamentally changed environment.
“We will let the politicians work out the arguments.”