Scaling Up U.S. Activity In Warming Arctic

2019-12-16T15:25:49+00:00 December 16, 2019|
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy

(Credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Prentice Danner)

From: Ocean News Weekly/ By: Ocean Leadership Staff 

What It Was

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Subcommittee on Security held a hearing titled “Expanding Opportunities, Challenges, and Threats in the Arctic: A Focus on the U.S. Coast Guard Arctic Strategic Outlook.”

Why It Matters

Arctic a ice at the end of summer 2019 was the second-lowest since satellite observations began in 1979, and sea ice cover has weakened to a younger, thinner, more fragile ice mass in recent years. These changes have transformed the region, opening its waters to increased shipping and possible resource extraction and fundamentally altering ecosystems and communities. The added geopolitical importance of the area has increased national security interests. However, the United States lacks infrastructure and capabilities to continue operating effectivelythe nation is working to bolster their presence in the region. To address this, the Coast Guard updated their Arctic Strategic Outlook, which includes the construction of new Polar Security Cutters (previously known as icebreakers), and the subcommittee examined the plan to determine how well the service is addressing new Arctic challenges.

Key Points

Members of the subcommittee sought to understand how the U.S. Coast Guard can best address the needs, opportunities, and challenges of an opening Arctic. Witnesses and members concluded that U.S presence in the region, from a military, commercial, and scientific perspective, must be prioritized nationally, and investment in the Coast Guard is necessary to help the United States secure the safe, peaceful, and productive Arctic the world needs.

There was widespread recognition of the current limitations on Coast Guard operations due to lack of resources. Expected increases in activity, such as tourism, fisheries, and shipping, will complicate the Coast Guard’s Arctic mission, adding need for search and rescue missions and oil spill or collision response. Ms. Sherri Goodman (Senior Strategist, The Center for Climate and Security) explained how climate change will further compound the Coast Guard’s mission, acting as a “threat multiplier” and enhancing and producing new threats, including a more exposed coastline, stronger storms, flooding, and shifting food sources, that constantly reshape the working environment.

All agreed U.S leadership on Arctic issues is vital, requiring a whole of government and partnership effort that engages local communities, allied nations, and the private sector to ensure adaptability and resilience in ecosystems and infrastructure. Admiral Charles Ray (Vice Commandant, Coast Guard) explained how partnerships help provide the Coast Guard with the best available science, and he highlighted several of these efforts, including leadership in the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, enforcement authority for NOAA fisheries management, and work with Alaskan state troopers to enforce vessel safety regulations.

Witnesses promoted leveraging U.S. strength in Arctic sciences, increasing budgets for observational research infrastructure and campaigns, and encouraging transparency through the recent Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation. Dr. Michael Sfraga (Director of Global Risk and Resilience Program and Polar Institute, Wilson Center) called for accurate, reliable, and sustained information about the region for “rapid yet responsible” evolution of Coast Guard operations. Science will drive more sustainable, safer economic and security activity through improved domain awareness, greater observational coverage, and well-chosen investments. Coast Guard vessels host scientific research missions, so an increased fleet can maximize this critical data collection. Several witnesses also mentioned the recent White House Memorandum on Ocean Mapping of the United States  as a step towards better preparedness.

Much of the discussion centered around how budgetary allocations and specific implementation plans are required to develop the needed infrastructure. While the Coast Guard 2019 Strategy accurately describes new challenges, Ms. Heather Conley (Senior Vice President, Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; and Director Europe Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies) indicated the strategy’s suggested actions do not account for the changed operating environment. Witnesses cited several additional infrastructure issues: the only significant plan is for a new polar security cutter, there is no dedicated budget for or prioritization of needed improvements, there is no deep-water port in the American Arctic, and there hasn’t been a substantial investment in communication or navigation assets. Ms. Conley proposed an Arctic Security Initiative that would set aside long-term funding for infrastructure projects, allowing a systematic, strategic approach by the U.S government and giving the private sector more confidence to invest. All agreed an eventual series of ports across the American Arctic would be ideal, but to start, at least one multi-use deep-water port would hugely augment the Coast Guard operational capacity.

What’s Next

Subcommittee Chairman Dan Sullivan (AK) and Ranking Member Ed Markey (MA) announced a new  bipartisan Senate Coast Guard caucus, and Chairman Sullivan announced he will introduce new legislation, the Strategic Arctic Naval Focus Act of 2019, which would direct the federal government to codify a strategy for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard’s ability to operate in the Arctic. Subcommittee members also looked forward to further advancing the Arctic Shipping Federal Advisory Committee Act, created to address the impacts and opportunities of increasing shipping and maritime traffic, which recently passed the full committee.


“Mr. Chairman, I often hear the Arctic referred to as an emerging issue. Mr. Chairman, the Arctic has emerged. As I have explained, it is no longer an isolated or remote region; rather it is an integrated component of our global political, economic, social, physical, and security landscape.”— Dr. Michael Sfraga, Director of Global Risk and Resilience Program and Polar Institute, Wilson Center

“In short, we have the ability to make our communities, institutions, and individuals more resilient to a broad range of threats. This foresight underscores a responsibility to advance resilient solutions that are commensurate to the threat. That is our “responsibility to prepare and prevent,” which is most evident in what our Coast Guard needs to do to continue operating safely and securely in the changing Arctic.” — Ms. Sherri Goodman, Senior Strategist, The Center for Climate and Security

“The Coast Guard frequently uses the following equation for the Arctic: presence = influence. This is absolutely correct: the US. must increase its physical presence 2020 diplomatically, militarily, scientifically, and economically primarily through public-private partnerships. Such a holistic approach must include the reorganization of the U.S. government related to Arctic issues; an increase in U.S. Arctic diplomatic presence and activity, strengthening science, research, and economic opportunities; and the development and positioning of increased U.S. security assets across the circumpolar Arctic.”— Ms. Heather Conley, Senior Vice President, Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; and Director Europe Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Related Coverage from Consortium for Ocean Leadership

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