In our fast paced world of sound bites, tweets, and captivating images, recent horrific acts such as those in Nigeria, Paris, and Pakistan shock us with increasing frequency. At the same time, we overlook the most significant physical change taking place on our planet since the last ice age. A change of momentous environmental and geopolitical consequence is upon us–the opening of a new ocean in the Arctic.

Thinking about the Arctic

Most images of the opening Arctic portray calm seas, brilliant sunshine, and distressed wildlife. However, the Arctic is big, formidable, and profoundly different from the southern polar region. Canada’s Arctic region alone adds up to around the same area as all of Europe. Including other Arctic landmasses, the terrestrial space of the Arctic is massive. Oftentimes, Arctic policy encourages the adoption of time-tested Antarctic arrangements and protocols. However, the two poles could not be more different–the Antarctic is a continent surrounded by ocean, while the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents. The Antarctic has a transient population of scientists and tourists, while the Arctic has a number of indigenous populations whose ways of life for millennia are quickly disappearing. The ice is diminishing but the Arctic remains, for most of the year, a dark, stormy and rapidly changing environment.

It is best to think about the Arctic in terms of energy and mineral resources, shipping, security, and governance. While it may be convenient to approach each issue independently, they are all inextricably linked. Furthermore, it is also significant that the region is opening at a time of significant technological change. To simply replicate protocols and policies of other geographic areas, without thoughtfully and aggressively applying new technology to this extraordinarily rare event, would be shortsighted. No longer are we at a point where we can just talk about climate change or the dramatic physical changes taking place. The United States must begin to make informed investments that best position it for a fruitful Arctic future.


The conversation about Arctic resources today is significantly different than it would have been three years, or even three months ago. The vast amount of estimated energy reserves in the region bring to mind opportunities akin to the Alaskan gold rush, with USGS estimates placing as much as 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the world’s gas deposits there. For the US, gas drawn from its Arctic region is closer to the sizable Asian market than gas from the Gulf coast. Extraction could be challenging due to climactic conditions, but projected increasing demand and decreasing global supply make it worth pursuing. Times have changed. North America’s flush energy future has changed the global calculus. Russia, with its struggling hydrocarbon-dependent economy, will continue to produce, as will the finely tuned Norwegian enterprises. However, costly extraction from the offshore fields of North America will not take place for some time.

Other resource markets present a different picture. Although commodity markets are down, Arctic deposits of nickel (Russia), zinc (Alaska) and iron (Greenland) will remain attractive sources. While resource extraction (especially in energy) may not be at previously predicted rates, the United States must recognize the importance of Alaska to an effective US energy strategy and support policies that advantage our northernmost state. Moreover, it should ensure that its claims to territories with potential energy sources are internationally recognized under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and that US technology remains in the fore wherever resources are being extracted.


Recent commentary on Arctic shipping often cites dramatic increases in Arctic maritime activity. For example, reports claim that ship transits on the busiest route increased 54 percent from 2012 to 2013. However, this is an example of the law of small numbers. The transits on that route totaled 46 in 2012 and 71 in 2013, compared to the 18,000 and 13,000 ships passing through the Suez and Panama Canals, respectively, in 2012. Nevertheless, the Arctic will see increased maritime activity in several forms. Fishing fleets will remain active longer and will begin operating in new areas consistent with fish stock migration resulting from changes in the ocean environment. Cruise ship activity is sure to increase and shift farther north, closer to land and ice formations  to expose thousands to the unique wonders and untouched beauty of the Arctic, as well as the attendant risks. Destination shipping, which transits goods to and from populated areas and mining sites will increase, and ships in that trade will likely increase in tonnage to optimize profit.  Transit shipping, moving supply chain components, and finished goods among global transportation hubs will not change. There are three transit sea-lanes in the Arctic–the Northwest Passage (adjacent to Alaska and Canada), the Northern Sea Route (along the Russian littoral zone), and the Transpolar Route (through the North Pole). Simplistic distance and speed calculations regarding the Arctic routes between the Atlantic and Pacific lead to the convenient and compelling conclusion that container traffic will begin moving through the shorter northern routes in the near term.   However, adverse weather conditions and shifting ice fields can constrain and rapidly close passages , which will disrupt the predictability that shipping companies and global supply chains demand.

Moreover, cost per container is a key consideration. New container ships and the expansion of the Panama Canal enable cargos of up to 18,000 containers per ship, compared to the largest for the Arctic trade, which are in the 2500 container range. While the transit distance may be shorter in the high north, voyages there will remain very unpredictable and the cost per container using the longer traditional routes is less because of more containers per ship. Moreover, the harsh seasonality of the Arctic would require seasonal route changes that will not be profitable in the near term.

Although Arctic sea ice is diminishing, it will remain a local factor in the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route.  Increasing Arctic maritime activity will demand more ice-breaking capacity to assist and support ice-threatened and ice-bound ships. National inventories of icebreakers vary in numbers, capability and age. The Russian ice-breaking fleet is, by far, the largest and most capable. A recent inventory puts the Russian Fleet at 37 icebreakers with four under construction and eight planned. The US inventory is a mere five ships, with one planned. Furthermore, not all US ships are currently operational or capable of heavy polar operations. Clearly, the Russian need for icebreaking capabilities is greater because of its interests in the Northern Sea Route and its ambitious Arctic energy initiatives, but the US will require more than its current inventory to support its security, commercial and scientific interests in the Arctic and Antarctic. The challenge for the US, and particularly the Coast Guard, which operates the heavy ice-breakers, will be recapitalizing an icebreaking fleet at the same time the Coast Guard must increase its cutter inventory to meet homeland security needs and numerous other missions. Exacerbating the recapitalization challenge is the need for the Navy and Coast Guard to ice-harden existing ships to operate in marginal ice zones and to modify heating and ventilation systems to operate in colder climates.

A larger issue looms for Arctic shipping–the staggering lack of maritime information systems and infrastructure. The US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) acknowledges that the Arctic lacks reliable survey data, upon which navigational charts are based. Most of the survey data is from the 1800s, and most of Alaska’s northern and western coasts have not been mapped since 1960.  Canada estimates that only 10 percent of its Arctic region has been surveyed to modern standards. It will take decades, using existing methods, to survey and provide reliable navigation charts to mariners sailing there. Additionally, the navigation systems that enable very precise positioning in lower latitudes are not optimized for the higher latitudes, greatly increasing navigational risk.

Accidents and emergencies will remain more likely in the inhospitable environment of the Arctic. Regional infrastructure for prompt and effective search and rescue operations does not exist. Similarly, staging of environmental response capabilities, personnel, and consumables is also lacking. One can recall the massive response required for the Deep Water Horizon environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. However, that accident occurred in a moderate climate and relatively close to shore, near multiple ports and facilities built over decades to support the US energy industry in the Gulf of Mexico. Those are luxuries that do not exist along Arctic coastlines. It is one thing to recover oil on water; it is a very different problem to recover oil entrapped under ice. Apart from the physical difficulty of such recovery, the required technology has yet to mature. This is symptomatic of a lack of focus and the absence of research on materials, equipment and procedures applicable to extremely cold conditions. As our national laboratories look to the future, one should take on the Arctic portfolio.  We must also engage in robust technology sharing with our like-minded Arctic partners.


Security in an Arctic context is about more than military capability. Although Russia has announced investments of hundreds of millions of dollars in militarizing the Arctic, the likelihood of major military confrontation in the region will remain low. Systems, other than submarines and long range aircraft, are not capable of sustained combat operations. For much of the year, the most formidable adversary for any military operation will be the forces of nature.

Security considerations in the Arctic must be broader and should underpin a safe, secure, and prosperous region.  Navigation and communication systems must be capable of supporting any contingencies and incidents, including environmental disasters or maritime accidents, in addition to enabling new activity and enterprises in the Arctic. The first step in building viable technical architectures and practices is “domain awareness” – knowing what is taking place in areas of activity or interest. As the Arctic Ocean becomes more accessible, domain awareness will apply to actions taking place on, under and over the sea. Unlike most other ocean areas, the surface of the Arctic Ocean will change seasonally. Knowing where and when that change is taking place will be vital. The harshness of the Arctic environment makes the region an ideal place to boldly advance the use of unmanned aircraft and undersea systems. Long endurance unmanned underwater systems have not yet matured, but when they do, they will be ideal for under ice activity. They will be especially useful in the production of bottom surveys to eliminate the backlog of navigational charts and to understand the changing Arctic water mass. Unmanned underwater systems are not confined to unmanned submarines, and must include crawlers and fixed and mobile relay nodes to transfer data to shore, ships and aircraft.

The newest generation of unmanned aircraft is much farther along and more capable than those featured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Northrop Grumman’s concept of a Polar Hawk, derived from the proven Global Hawk and the US Navy’s TRITON, can provide hours of overhead coverage of the sea routes and areas of maritime activity. High altitude unmanned orbits can mitigate communication gaps resulting from the paucity of polar satellite coverage, and eventually augment satellite coverage when established. Until airbase infrastructure is in place in higher latitudes, these long endurance aircraft (although at some cost to on station time) can operate from existing bases in Canada, the United States and Norway.


Apart from Russia’s recent bellicose actions and its expressions of increased militarization in the region, the record of cooperation in the Arctic is rather impressive. The eight member states of the Arctic Council (the US, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden) and its permanent participants have been effective in addressing matters of mutual interest. Arguably, the Arctic is the most peaceful region on the planet because of the common focus on responsible development and the reality of mutually dealing with the harsh conditions there. The objective must be to keep it that way. As activity in the north increases and other non-Arctic Council nations, particularly in Asia, seek more of a voice in Arctic matters, the challenges to the Council will increase. The Council’s primary focus is on sustainable development and environmental protection and does not deal with security matters. Since the Arctic is a maritime environment, much of the activity there is governed by existing maritime protocols and international agreements and structures.

Central to Arctic governance is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This agreement is extraordinarily influential, as it is recognized by most countries as defining responsibilities in the maritime domain. Furthermore, it sets the sovereign rights to the resources found in a nation’s continental shelf and the extended continental shelf (ECS). Under UNCLOS, every coastal nation has a recognized continental shelf out to 200 nautical miles. The convention also addresses a range of maritime activities that take place within those limits. Importantly, UNCLOS is the basis upon which the important and consequential extended continental shelf claims will be determined.  The claims are based upon accepted methods of determining the ECS and are submitted to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). The estimated US ECS is estimated to be roughly twice the area of California, with half of that off the coast of Alaska. Some data indicates it could be larger. The estimate of the resources on and under the ECS range into billions of dollars. Regrettably, the United States is not party to UNCLOS. Although some argue that the US need not be party to the convention and have its ECS formally recognized, given today’s litigious environment and the vast wealth on the seabed, any unilateral, unrecognized US claims are sure to be challenged. Accordingly, the stakes will be high for those who mine or extract from an unrecognized US ECS.  The solution here is clear – the US must ratify UNCLOS.

First Steps for the Future

The opening Arctic will lead to increased activity and extraction of resources at a rate for which the US is unprepared. The US National Strategy articulates our objectives for the region and broadly addresses the challenges there. As a strategic document, it sets an appropriate high level focus and general policy guidelines, but fails to prepare the US for a consequential role in the Arctic.  The US is quick to recognize and express our interests as a Pacific and an Atlantic nation, which connect us to Asia and Europe. It values and invests in the infrastructure and the Navy and Coast Guard forces to protect our large continental shelves to the west and east. The Arctic must be viewed similarly; it connects the United States to the rest of the world, and to vast resources on its continental and projected extended continental shelves. The Arctic is far more challenging region, and future activity can risk our interests and the collective interests of our fellow Arctic nations. It is time to invest more than words in preparing for the future.

The priority must be on being ready to respond promptly to unexpected events that are sure to arise from increased human activity. The US must put in place the architectures and technology to sense what is happening in the Arctic. The region is a place where unmanned systems are more appropriate to the harsh environment. A collective approach with Canada, our European allies, and other like-minded partners to field domain awareness systems  (including long endurance sensors and communications) should be undertaken immediately.

The US should also accelerate surveying the Arctic by employing new technologies to provide current and accurate navigational information to mariners operating in the region. This includes the usage  of unmanned systems whenever possible to rapidly complete the task.

The US must anticipate accidents and incidents and plan responses to those events. Collectively, especially with Canada, it should determine where the required infrastructure to support air operations, search and rescue, and environmental response should be sited and invest in those facilities to make them operationally ready in short order. Public and private funding should be pursued in establishing those facilities. Pre-positioned equipment, along with Arctic experienced, conditioned, and prepared teams, should be in place to respond within hours of an event. A multinational, robust “Arctic Center of Excellence” should be established to advance technologies and procedures unique to the Arctic in areas of environmental incident response and ship and infrastructure design and operation.

Furthermore, the US must address the inadequacy of its shipbuilding and ship modification programs for operations in the Arctic. Other global and homeland requirements of the US Navy and Coast Guard remain, so it must use innovative methods to bridge the gap. In the case of the United States’ inadequate ice-breaking capability, its current design and build approach will be too expensive and will significantly affect other shipbuilding needs. Options such as leasing icebreakers, building an existing foreign design in the US, and collaboration among  North American shipyards should be examined seriously. Such an approach would also contribute to the commonality of ships operating in the Arctic.

Now is the time to recast US governmental organizations to best address the opportunities in the Arctic. The North American future is becoming clearer. An enviable future of energy, trade, demographics, food production, and innovation is ahead of us. This century is poised to be to be the “North American Century” that warrants greater economic and policy focus. While North America is integral to the Western Hemisphere, the unique synergy and potential of the three North American countries stands apart.  Accordingly, the United States should seize the opportunity in the State Department to split the current, single Western Hemisphere portfolio into two – North America (Canada and Mexico) and Central and South America and Caribbean. Included in the North American portfolio would be the primary responsibility for US Arctic and Arctic Council policy. Other departments in the government should restructure and shape their strategies along similar lines.

Importantly, some very heavy political lifting must take place and the US must become party to UNCLOS. It will define and guide activity in the Arctic and beyond without infringing on its sovereignty or restricting the rights of its Navy and Coast Guard. Moreover, it will assure uncontested access to the vast wealth that is within the US extended continental shelf.

In short, it is time to get serious about the Arctic.