U.S. releases plan to make Arctic shipping safer

More open water means greater opportunities for shipping and resource extraction

As Arctic ice melts away, opening the way for greater oil development and mining, the White House outlined a plan Jan. 30 to promote safety and security in the region by building ports, improving forecasts of sea ice, and developing shipping rules.

With warmer temperatures leaving Arctic sea passages open for longer periods of the year, billions of barrels of oil could be tapped beyond what is already being produced in the region. A loss of seasonal ice could also allow greater exploitation of precious minerals considered abundant in the Arctic.

Extreme weather conditions, however, make the region a challenge to navigate and develop.

The White House plan was released on the same day that Royal Dutch Shell cancelled drilling this year off Alaska, after a series of costly mishaps in the harsh conditions, as part of efforts to cut spending.

The U.S. Defense Department will lead an interagency effort to forecast icy conditions by launching a satellite and improving analytic methods to forecast icy conditions.

The Department of Commerce, meanwhile, will lead co-ordination on surveying and charting of U.S. Arctic waters to ease shipping and improve adaptation to climate change in coastal communities.

“Our highest priority is to protect the American people, our sovereign territory and rights and the natural resources and other interests of the United States,” said the plan, which is part of President Barack Obama’s National Strategy for the Arctic region he announced last May.

In addition, the State Department will attempt to reach an agreement with Canada on the Beaufort Sea maritime boundary, and the Department of Homeland Security will lead work on developing an international code for ships operating in polar waters.

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Norwegian Ambassador Kare Aas welcomed the U.S. plan and said it would help Norway and the United States identify new areas for collaboration as both countries addressed the challenges and opportunities emerging in the Arctic region.

“We will continue to work with our American friends to ensure that the Arctic remains a peaceful region of co-operation and sustainable development,” Aas said in a statement.

The U.S. military had been working on strategy in the Arctic before the plan was announced.

The U.S. navy is nearing completion of a new Arctic “road map” that lays out its approach to future engagements in the region, given increasingly open waterways. The updated document is based on the navy’s first comprehensive assessment of the near-term, midterm and long-term availability of sea passages, due to the loss of seasonal ice.

In a recent blog written for the navy’s website, navy oceanographer Rear Admiral Jon White said an interagency team made the assessment after a comprehensive review of current Arctic sea ice projections.

He said current trends were expected to continue in the near term, with the Bering Strait expected to see open conditions about 160 days a year by 2020. The midterm period would see increasing levels of ice melt, White said.

In the long term, beyond 2030, environmental conditions are expected to leave waterways open for longer periods, driving a significant increase in traffic in the summer months.

Earlier this month, chief of naval operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert told a conference that Arctic ice was melting faster than predicted four years ago when the navy published its first road map.

“We need to understand, we need to take a look at it and decide what does it mean to us for security, maritime security, freedom of navigation, and global force management,” Greenert told a conference hosted by the Surface Navy Association.

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