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Technology, Policy, Resource Opportunities in the Arctic

RAdm. Robert F. Duncan,
Former Judge Advocate General,
Arctic Sailor, U.S. Coast Guard (ret.)

The flowers are blooming, warm breezes are blowing, and summer is practically here. A young sailor’s thoughts turn, naturally, to ... Arctic operations. It may seem funny, but serious planning and very significant scientific, engineering and technical efforts are well underway to address a wide array of challenges across the Arctic. Much of these activities have been spurred by the promise of lucrative resource deposits becoming accessible and economic possibilities appearing in regions that, until recently, had been overlain by ice-covered seas that were the near-exclusive domain of scientists, defense strategists and ancient cultures who have maintained a vital relationship with this extreme environment for millennia.

The Arctic’s challenges involve extreme and rapidly changing weather, ice, communications and navigation obstacles, and physical limitations on potential port and infrastructure development. Meanwhile, the enormous potential opportunities in this most challenging of environments are beginning to be understood. As historically ice-encumbered seas begin to yield more open passages, and the resource wealth becomes better known, there will be great pressures to access and develop these resources. Serious, though limited, efforts were undertaken last summer by Shell (The Hague, Netherlands), and ConocoPhillips (Houston, Texas) and Statoil (Stavanger, Norway) have announced their intentions to pursue these resources in the near future, though Shell’s Arctic difficulties have caused revision in their plans that will likely move further serious development until summer 2015.

It is essential to note that the Arctic is a maritime environment. Unlike the Antarctic, which is a frozen continent surrounded by the Southern Ocean, the Arctic is an ocean, 13,000 feet deep at the North Pole, encircled by continental landmasses whose sovereignty is distributed across five states—the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark. They have come together as the Arctic Council to work “cooperatively” to resolve Arctic issues. This is a different governance structure than the Antarctic Treaty, which deals with such issues at the other end of the Earth.

In the Arctic, several international boundary claims are unresolved, and the legal navigation regime relies on the “custom and practice” of nation-states and will be heavily influenced by the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which the U.S. actively crafted, but to which it has yet to accede. Some of these contentious issues depend on careful analysis, made possible by advanced technologies, of physical characteristics of such features as the continental shelf and accurate interpretation of bathymetric information and seafloor mapping. Much, for example, will depend on the characterization of a particularly large feature, the Lomonosov Ridge, as either an extension of the Russian or North American landmass.

Today’s advances in seafloor mapping and sonar systems will facilitate these governance and policy issues. Last summer, for example, a multiagency and academic team operated multibeam sonars from the U.S. Coast Guard’s Healy, a medium icebreaker, while also collecting seismic data, on the primary mission of expanding bathymetric knowledge in the Arctic (Sea Technology, October 2012).

Accessing the 90 billion barrels of oil estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to be held in Arctic tracts has proven to be challenging, as Shell’s troubles demonstrated last season. Nevertheless, a number of major operators are gearing up to move into the Russian Arctic this season (e.g., foreign companies are supporting or teaming with Russian companies to exploit known oil and gas reserves). Icebreakers, other specialized vessels and ports will be needed in adequate numbers to support these activities. Search and rescue, containment, recovery, logistics and supply functions will all challenge available and projected vessel capabilities.

In this regard, the U.S. faces particular shortages. As resource and policy planners jointly deal with these vital issues, serious consideration must be given to invest in these needs, while taking further steps to solidify the necessary framework to resolve, cooperatively, international governance and policy issues.

In a technologically advanced world where little seems undiscovered, the Arctic holds the promise of new challenges and possibilities. An old sailor can still experience his initial sense of excitement and adventure as he sets a track North.

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