July 29th, 2013
10:02 AM ET

U.S. needs to step up its Arctic game

By Global Public Square staff

For anyone living in the Northern Hemisphere, it's been a sweltering few weeks. In fact, last month was the fifth hottest June in recorded history. According to government data, for 340 consecutive months – more than 28 years – the earth has been warmer than historic averages.

And take a look at what's happening in one of the coldest parts of the world – way up north in the Arctic.

Twenty-eight years ago, the Arctic was covered by ice throughout the year, as it had been for centuries. Now, every summer, two-thirds of it melts to water. In 2010, only four commercial ships were allowed to sail the Northern Sea Route, which connects northwestern Europe to northeastern Asia through the Arctic. In 2011, that number rose to 34 and then 46 the next year. This year, with five months still to go, more than 200 ships have already been given the green light to sail.

But is less ice and more water in the Arctic a good thing or a bad thing?

Well there is little doubt that the melting ice exacerbates climate change. Nature magazine published an important study last week calculating the impact of changes in the Arctic. It found that the thawing of the permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea is leading to the release of large amounts of methane – that means an intensification of the greenhouse gas effect and more extreme weather. The study's models claim that the cost of all this is $60 trillion – almost the size of the entire global economy. Whether or not that's accurate, this is definitely something we have to deal with.

More from GPS: How America can win the Arctic

But the melting Arctic is also an opportunity. Nearly one-third of the world's undiscovered gas lies under the Arctic. There are also vast reserves of metals and minerals. But who owns these resources? In 2007, Russia planted its flag 4,000 meters below the North Pole to establish its claim. (Of course, in modern international relations…that is not how to settle a territorial claim) In reality, no one owns the Arctic. Peace has been established by a group founded in 1996 - the Arctic Council. It had eight charter members, including the likes of Canada, Denmark, Russia, and the United States. Twelve more countries have joined since as observer states. These new members, like China, India and Singapore, have great interest in the region's resources – even though they are geographically very far away.

Whether we like it or not, countries are going to be interested in any resources that exist in the Arctic. And whether we like it or not, climate impacts are already underway. The important thing is to manage both aspects in a responsible manner.

That is not happening right now. And meanwhile, the United States has fallen far behind. Russia, China, and Canada have advanced systems to deal with navigating and policing these waters – America does not.

There is a treaty that regulates these things to some extent – the United Nation's Law of the Sea Treaty. But while 164 countries are signatories, the United States is not. Why? It's a familiar story: disagreement and gridlock in Washington have made it impossible for the Senate to ratify the treaty, despite the fact that it has the support of the last three presidents, Republicans and Democrats.

It is rare in this day and age to have a mass of land or water that lies beyond the borders of settled international law. The Arctic waters are such a territory – a grey area of a million square miles – and very important. As it continues to melt, it will get more contentious, and present more problems – but the United States will be out of the game. Unless the Senate can get off its, well, unless the Senate can ratify this treaty.


soundoff (74 Responses)
  1. Jerry C

    Just a couple of questions. Since when does it take more water to send 46 ships through than 4? And since when is the 5th of anything newsworthy? Warmer than historical averages? Sounds like someone making a story out of nothing.

    August 1, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Reply
    • LT Fang

      We got a climate change denier here!

      August 3, 2013 at 10:23 pm | Reply
    • Rebecca

      The 4 ships that could pass through had special hulls to break ice and work through. Now other ships can pass through part of the year.

      August 7, 2013 at 3:04 am | Reply
  2. len

    canada who else?

    August 2, 2013 at 6:07 am | Reply
  3. len

    china, india, and singapore have no claims to the arctic, and should never be allowed to even make the claim, nor should they be allowed to establish any form of station, be it research, weather or otherwise, the arctic belongs to the inuit, and other arctic peoples, its not up for grabs, it is owned by peoples of the north. and the resources are theirs.

    August 2, 2013 at 6:16 am | Reply
    • John

      Well Good Luck with that. 250 year ago, you would have said the same thing for then Americas.

      August 2, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Reply
    • Vin

      If India and china has no rights for artic then then countries like US should also not hunt people for oil in middle east ! first let the so called developed nations stop the plunder of the rest of the world in the name of world trade ... the planet is dying and silly money minded nuts are fighting for resources... Leaders of the world should be slapped for this ...

      August 5, 2013 at 10:54 pm | Reply
  4. len

    the arctic is not a shopping mall for resources, and the USA and others must realize that arctic peoples own it and the resources, including minerals and carbon fuels, its not the worlds oyster, it is already owned by the northern inuit, and its not up for grabs,

    August 2, 2013 at 6:21 am | Reply
    • Karen

      You would think Obama would be against any development with his stance on carbon emissions .

      August 2, 2013 at 10:36 am | Reply
  5. Dan

    The north west passage belongs to Canada from Labrador to the Yukon all the way up to Alert.

    August 2, 2013 at 7:21 am | Reply
    • Karen

      So true!

      August 2, 2013 at 10:34 am | Reply
  6. alex

    We need to focus mining in space not in the artic

    August 2, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Reply
    • John Venrick

      Bringing energy resources to Earth from space would really screw things up the chemistry of our environment. It would throw off the balance.

      August 8, 2013 at 7:11 am | Reply
  7. Im1mjrpain

    1. String of 70-plus days: The temperature in Philadelphia hasn't dipped below 70 degrees since June 23, when a low of 67 was recorded. The current stretch is the longest string of 70-plus days since records started being kept in 1872, according to AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski. But the streak could end shortly, as the National Weather Service is calling for an overnight low of 62 degrees Wednesday into Thursday. The old record of 26 consecutive days was set in 1876 and 1995. 2. High minimum: A record high minimum temperature of 80 degrees was set on July 16. That topped the day's previous record of 77, set in 1955. 3. Monthly rainfall: June's rainfall total was the highest ever in Philadelphia, with a total of 10.56 inches. That surpassed the record of 10.06 inches set in 1938. 4. Daily rainfall: A daily rainfall record was set on June 10, when 2.1 inches fell. That broke the day's old record of 2.08 inches, set in 1903. 5. Daily rainfall: Another daily rainfall record was set June 8, when 3.5 inches fell, surpassing the previous record for the date of 1.79 inches, set in 1904.
    Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/phillylists/5-weather-records-set-in-Philadelphia-in-summer-2013.html#DMiE0bsxlHMBoQxO.99

    August 2, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Reply
  8. slider

    The Arctic belongs to Russia. Who will be thrust back, he will get it in the neck.
    As climate change is partly to blame for the United States. Uncontrolled release of greenhouse gases does the job.

    August 3, 2013 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  9. denverboy1

    The Rights......the MONEY the greed the Oil the pollution that all belongs to greed thats who owns that...
    The Artic....Belongs to God....as does the rest of the planet we have destroyed because of the above mentioned Greed......
    I say we try and enter a pact with Russia and PRESERVE the artic...just as God made it..LEAVE IT ALONE !!!!!..
    It's tall order for men of greed and lust for destruction...But hey ahve we not TRASHED everything...we touch..Lets leave if for NAture....

    August 4, 2013 at 8:40 am | Reply
  10. jew zeus

    well one things for certain, the united nations member states wont be able to have a ww3 over this one, it will be remembered as the united nations civil war FYI. the next real war will probably come from asteroid miners sick of an earth government taxing without representation, but either way, war is coming.

    August 4, 2013 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  11. jew zeus

    hay here's an idea...how would it BEST serve humanity??

    August 4, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Reply
    • len

      it would best serve humanity if it was left alone. the inuit and all northern peoples have been living within the arctic for thousands of years, however the north's resources have been exploited for decades now, minerals,carbon fuels, and wildlife, about the only things left are the fishery and the proposed trade route that will be ice free soon.

      August 5, 2013 at 7:28 am | Reply
  12. A.European

    Greenland is owned by the Danes.... you missed that bit out.

    August 5, 2013 at 9:16 am | Reply
  13. Anonymous

    No one owns this portion of the world. The resources should be protected along with the wildlife. People should learn from our past mistakes and make the world a better place, more hospitable and try to reverse the greenhouse gases damage that we as humans have caused. It is a shame to see that everyone wants to call this piece of the world their own, when in fact it belongs to mother nature. I hope one day mankind will change their ways and step up the bigger picture. We keep ruining the planet, someday the planet will turn and ruin mankind.

    August 5, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  14. RC

    "Part XI of the Convention provides for a regime relating to minerals on the seabed outside any state's territorial waters or EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zones). It establishes an International Seabed Authority (ISA) to authorize seabed exploration and mining and collect and distribute the seabed mining royalty."

    Why should we pay a mining tax??

    August 7, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  15. Chris

    This article is correct in terms that there has been a drop in ice coverage over the last couple of decades. But, they are incorrect to state that the ice is progressively getting worse each year. This year the ice coverage is healthier than last and is running close to 2010 levels. Just because more ships are going through does not mean it is earlier each year to do so.
    Dealing with the ice coverage; it can be contributed to global warming or to the ocean cycles. There is a great place to debate this at: http://www.americanwx.com/bb/

    August 8, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  16. jacksans

    The navigable waters of the Artic north of the American continent primarily thread through Canada's territorial northern islands within its 200 mile offshore limit. They are not international waters. Russians legitimate claim covers waters off their shore. The only claim that the USA has is north of Alaska, which affords only a portion of the northern trip. While all these claims will be tough to dispute, free navigation can be a reality with the cooperation of all the Arctic stakeholders. Resource claims should be pretty clear cut although border areas still need resolution.

    August 9, 2013 at 4:40 am | Reply
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