There’s an international tourism boom happening in the United States, but the newly popular destination might surprise you. This summer, Japan, China, Russia, Canada and Sweden will all have icebreaking research ships cruising U.S. waters in the Arctic Ocean, where they will collect information about navigation routes, study the effect of a changing climate on wildlife and generally gain a better understanding of the region’s unique weather patterns and geography. Meanwhile, Washington is giving limited attention to our country’s increasing responsibilities in the Arctic. It’s time for that to change.
In fact, with so many national security, economic and environmental interests at stake, it is well past time to raise the profile of Arctic issues in the United States. To help our country and our colleagues understand the opportunities and challenges facing us as an Arctic nation, we are forming a new Congressional Arctic Working Group. This group will bring together people from native communities as well as those representing environmental, oil and gas, mining, national security and navigation interests to advise Congress about the way forward.
The Northwest Passage, sought by explorers since the 15th century, is fast becoming a reality. Just four years ago, two German ships followed a Russian icebreaker to complete the first commercial shipment across the Arctic. Last year, during the warmest Arctic summer on record, 71 ships made the crossing.
Unfortunately, a half-century after beating the Russians to the moon, we are only just starting to suit up in the international race to secure interests in the Arctic. Next year, the United States will chair the Arctic Council, an international body that helps organize scientific research and environmental protection and address boundary issues. But it’s unclear whether we are ready to take over. Every member except for the United States has named an ambassadorial-level representative to the council. This year, the Government Accountability Office reported that exactly two employees are working full time on Arctic Council issues at the State Department.
That’s an indication of the larger problem. With an alphabet soup of agencies involved in the Arctic Council at the federal level — there are at least 20 — the United States has not prioritized its Arctic goals or planned effective ways to achieve them. We believe that an ambassador whose office could coordinate these efforts and report directly to the White House would improve the effectiveness and visibility of our country’s Arctic work. The administration’s recent appointment of retired Coast Guard Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. as special representative to the Arctic was a good step forward. But we need a congressionally approved ambassador to the Arctic Council, a position that would rightfully focus greater attention on what is happening in the region.
We hope to use the working group to begin closing the leadership and coordination gap. But as other countries strengthen their claims in the Arctic with research and commercial missions, we need to make sure our ships also can traverse the uniquely icy seas. To do that, we need a fleet of specially equipped ships to break the ice and establish safe shipping lanes. The Coast Guard has said it needs three heavy and three medium-size icebreakers to fulfill its Arctic responsibilities. Now we have one of each. And our heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, is seven years past its 30-year service life.
Other countries will not wait around for us to make the needed investments. Russia has 22 government-owned icebreakers and just started building another that will be the world’s largest. China, which does not even have a direct link to the Arctic Ocean, is building its second icebreaker. Finland and Sweden have four icebreakers each.
The consequences of waiting are not abstract. We are already suffering from them. Other countries are using our exclusive economic zone to learn more about how to ship, drill in and traverse these icy waters while our Arctic assets continue to age.
It is not the story of the United States to sit idly by while other countries take advantage of new opportunities, especially ones that lie within our own boundaries. The Arctic Working Group will help Congress learn more about and take action to establish a strong Arctic presence. But it will take ongoing commitment from both Congress and the administration for the United States to live up to its status as an Arctic nation.
Don Young, a Republican, and Rick Larsen, a Democrat, represent Alaska and Washington, respectively, in the House.