Why you should care

The globe’s final frontier is a truly huge, untapped natural resource. But disrupting its fragile ecosystem could create a climate mess.

This past summer, a team of researchers from the U.S. Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found itself in the frigid seas 170 miles off the coast of Alaska, braving ice floes, fog and high winds trying to track something you might not expect: orange peels.

Well, actually orange peels, peat moss and plumes of dye . From the deck of the Coast Guard Cutter HEALY, a ship capable of operating at -50 degrees Fahrenheit and breaking through 4-foot ice blocks, the team was testing equipment to monitor a simulated oil spill. That included launching 13-pound drones and other high-tech equipment to see how well it could track this glorified trash heap across the icy waves.

There is nothing up there, nothing.

Dr. David Titley, expert on climate and meteorology at Penn State

All of which might sound pretty silly, until you realize it’s helping the United States prepare for what may well be the next modern day gold rush.

We’ve all heard that the sea ice at the North Pole is melting, thanks to global warming. In fact, the Arctic is heating up two times as fast as the rest of the globe. And as it continues to melt, this once untouchable environment, home to some of the world’s largest untapped reserves of oil and other natural resources, will inevitably attract everything from new energy exploration to new shipping lanes, tourist cruises and commercial fishing. It also will open the door, sadly, to mishaps. A December report from the think tank Center for a New American Security warned that a large-scale oil spill in the Arctic would be “devastating” — and much, much harder to respond to. The U.S. is nowhere near ready — even the Obama administration’s Special Envoy for the Arctic, retired Adm. Robert Papp, has called America’s Arctic wherewithal “woefully inadequate.”

Marilyn Heiman, head of the U.S. Arctic Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says that the truth is “everyone’s behind the curve when it comes to the Arctic.” But some countries are catching up to new realities in the Arctic more quickly than others — Russia, the region’s dominant player, has more than a dozen deepwater ports north of the Arctic Circle and is busy building 10 search and rescue stations . Alaska, in contrast, does not have a single one of either, just seasonal installations. Home port for the HEALY is in Seattle, more than 2,000 miles from Barrow.

The double challenge for America is its, shall we say, bipolar outlook. Unlike the seven other countries with territory in the High North, the vast majority of the U.S. population lives nowhere near the Arctic Circle. But now t he U.S. has an opportunity to step it up. In April, it will take over the helm of the Arctic Council, the premier international forum on the region. “We have a bully pulpit and we intend to use it,” Ambassador David Balton, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries, tells OZY.

How remote is the Alaskan Arctic? “There is nothing up there, nothing,” says Dr. David Titley, an expert on climate and meteorology at Penn State and co-author of the CNAS report. It’s like that in much of Canada and Greenland, as well. Some believe America should keep it that way, at least in some environmentally sensitive regions. President Barack Obama officially banned energy companies from drilling in Bristol Bay, along Alaska’s southwest coast, in December, citing its importance to salmon fisheries. And on Jan. 25, he announced plans to protect another 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas production. He’ll have to win approval from Congress for that, however.

13: Estimated percentage of world’s undiscovered oil resources in Arctic

217: Number of vessels that traveled through Bering Strait in 2008

484: Number of vessels that traveled through Bering Strait in 2012

2: Number of operational polar icebreakers owned by U.S. government

17: Number of operational polar icebreakers owned by Russian government

$800 million–$925 million: Cost to build a new polar ice breaker, per U.S. Coast Guard estimates

Source: Government Accountability Office & Congressional Research Service

But Heiman and other conservationists also recognize that commerce is coming to the High North, and that Alaska needs the infrastructure to handle it. On that front, they’re in agreement with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican. Without new ports, an uptick in commercial shipping and tourist cruises will just pass Alaskans by, worries Murkowski. Given what Titley believes is an almost inevitable proliferation of oil and gas exploration, “why wouldn’t we want to be ready?”

That’s what the Coast Guard exercises this summer were getting at. But it’s just a starting point. The biggest weakness in the Arctic — and this is a universal problem — is how little we know about it. It’s a harsh and unpredictable place, and becoming more so with all the climate changes afoot. The Arctic Council has played a key role in doing research on what’s happening in the region and how it’s changing, says Balton. Now it needs to start looking into the potential impact of humans. “We know almost nothing about oil and ice,” notes Titley, how to “get to the oil under ice, what kind of ecosystems get screwed up,” and on and on.

At least, the U.S. doesn’t have to do it all without help. The go-it-alone approach seems to be dominating international affairs right now — see China’s unilateral claims to the South China Sea or Russia’s takeover of Crimea — but there remains a remarkable amount of global collaboration on the Arctic. That may be because the region is so forbidding. Murkowski recalls how, at an Arctic conference in Whitehorse, Canada, in September, “right when everything was all heated up with the Ukraine … I was able to sit down with my counterpart from Russia” and discuss shared Arctic concerns. That they’re still able to, despite the tensions elsewhere, just underscores what’s at stake.

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