On Thin Ice

2017-11-30T15:51:13+00:00 October 10, 2017|
The U.S. Coast Guard Polar Sea around McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, on Mar. 15, 2007 has now been decommissioned. (Credit: Kevin J. Neff/U.S. Coast Guard )

(Click to enlarge) (Credit: Kevin J. Neff/U.S. Coast Guard )

What It Was

The Senate Arctic Caucus, Senate Oceans Caucus, and Congressional Arctic Working Group, in conjunction with the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission), hosted a briefing, “A New Ocean In The North: Perils And Possibilities.”

Why It Matters

As melting sea ice in the Arctic is opening previously frozen areas, standard and ice-breaking vessels can travel in once unnavigable places. There is global economic interest in exploring and developing the region, but the lack of basic infrastructure increases response time for emergencies (rescues and response related to technical and natural disasters) and restricts communication methods, among other challenges.

Key Points

Despite increased use of Arctic waterways by international vessels, basic infrastructure, including telecommunications, ports, transportation (e.g., railways, highways, and airstrips), and electrical service do not exist for much of the area.

Resource extraction and oil transport are planned for the region; many panelists described oil spill response preparedness as vital preparation. The U.S. Coast Guard would be the main responder to these events and is assessing theoretical situations to evaluate infrastructure needs. In addition, a cooperative disaster response agreement between Russia and the U.S. is being reviewed for renewal.

Human safety was a significant concern for the panel of experts, and all agreed that telecommunication infrastructure is a crucial component in creating a secure environment. Rear Admiral Michael McAllister (Commander, 17th Coast Guard District, U.S. Coast Guard) and Ms. Melanie Bahnke (President and CEO, Kawerak, Inc.) both consider dispersing meteorological data to commercial fishing vessels and subsistence hunters an essential action. Additionally, the importance of communication capabilities during search and rescue events or oil spills was highlighted by all speakers.

McAllister pointed out the national security aspect of infrastructure investment, asserting “We can’t protect our sovereign rights without access, and icebreakers will provide this access.”

As much of the Arctic is uncharted territory, benthic mapping, marine mammal migrations, and improved meteorological predictions were all emphasized as critical research needs to ensure success and safety in the region. To adequately do so, additional satellites, environmental sensors, and ocean observations are necessary.

Creating sound infrastructure does not come without financial costs, however.  More than half of the panelists specifically stated that this is a cost that should be borne by the U.S. government and requested their support.


“We need infrastructure just to comply with the polar code…As a pioneer state, we look to the government to provide infrastructure” – Mark Smith (CEO, Vitus Energy).

“The Arctic presents enormous economic potential and environmental biodiversity.” – Paul Massaro (Policy Advisor, Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe).

“The Arctic is like the canary in the coal mines…it is an early indicator of where we are going in the face of climate change.” – Iina Peltonen (Embassy of Finland in the United States).

“We urge the U.S. to make a commitment to ensuring preparedness for an oil-spill at the local community level” – Melanie Bahnke (President and CEO, Kawerak, Inc.).


Find Out More

Artic Council

Emergency Prevention Preparedness and Response

Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission)

Related coverage from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership

U.S. Presence In The Arctic – Armed Icebreakers?

America Losing To Russia 40-3 In Arctic Icebreaker Race

Synergy Between Science And Technology In An Opening Arctic

2015 Public Policy Forum: Predicting And Preparing For A Changing Arctic

Race For The Arctic?