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Our nation is making another attempt to put its fiscal house in order and it’s clear that we need to make wise investments in critical areas affecting the future of the United States. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a coalition of hundreds of international scientists, released its latest report on climate change science Thursday. What’s the connection? The panel’s completed analysis makes it clear that current climate trends are likely to result in dramatic changes in temperature and sea level rise, and this change is most evident in the Arctic — the planet’s air conditioner — where summer sea ice is shrinking at a record pace.
The Arctic is a region where significant economic, social and national security interests collide. To ensure that our national interests are protected, Congress must examine how a changing Arctic affects the United States, including weather, shipping traffic and search and rescue capabilities. It’s imperative that wise investments are made in this region now to understand the changes occurring and to safeguard our economic and national interests for years to come.
Why does this matter so much? The Arctic is the most rapidly changing region in the world today. While the first commercial crossing of the Arctic occurred just four years ago, 46 vessels made the summer journey last year and about 400 vessels are expected to sail these frigid waters in 2013 — shaving thousands of miles off the traditional crossing through the Suez Canal. Moreover, Russia has recently announced that its fabled Northern fleet will patrol Arctic shipping lanes in its territory, making its vast Arctic waters even more accessible.
As ice cover decreases in the Arctic, ocean warming will accelerate and we will likely feel the effects of an alarming increase in sea level, release of methane gas that will contribute to a warming climate, loss of habitat and livelihoods in the Arctic and extreme weather events in lower latitudes. At the same time, diminishing sea ice is resulting in a dramatic increase of economic activities, including destination and international shipping, fisheries and oil and natural gas exploration and development.
The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative’s recent report, “Charting the Course: Securing the Future of America’s Oceans,” urges the Obama administration and Congress to act immediately to ensure that America’s interests in the Arctic are preserved. This means preparing for harmful events as human activity increases, investing in research and improving regional governance systems.
First, we must prepare for incidents and disasters — both natural and man-made — that are more likely to occur as this fragile ecosystem opens up to expanded activities. The U.S. Coast Guard, our first line of defense in emergencies in the region, currently has only one functioning icebreaker, compared to more than two dozen under Russia’s control. These heavy-duty ships are critical to U.S. forces’ ability to access the Arctic year-round.
The agency must also maintain its aging fleets of aircraft and vessels so they can patrol the Arctic waters and effectively respond to disasters, including oil spills and search and rescue situations. We must also ensure adequate communications capability where traditional forms of communication are not reliable.