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US Arctic Activity Requires Preparation and Investment

Fran Ulmer,
Chair, U.S. Arctic Research Commission

The effects of global climate change are dramatically obvious in the Arctic, where warming is occurring two to three times faster than the rest of the world. Declining summer sea ice, retreating glaciers, coastal erosion, acidification of oceans, earlier spring snowmelt, later fall freeze-up, and thawing permafrost are transforming the Arctic region as we know it.

As an Arctic nation, the United States has a responsibility to respond to these profound changes and their impacts, and to plan and prepare for the future changes that present considerable challenges. Over the last several years, the federal government has been taking significant steps to do so.

In May 2013, President Barack Obama adopted the National Strategy for the Arctic. In January 2014, the Implementation Plan for the Strategy was released. On January 21, 2015, President Obama issued Executive Order 13689 to coordinate Arctic activities under the Strategy and the Plan. The Executive Order “Enhancing Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic” established an Arctic Executive Steering Committee to “provide guidance to executive departments and agencies…and enhance coordination of federal Arctic policies across agencies, offices, and, where applicable, with state, local, and Alaska Native tribal governments and similar Alaska Native organizations, academic and research institutions, and the private and nonprofit sectors.” This is an important organizational step, as it will allow for greater coordination and collaboration on Arctic research and initiatives.

The U.S. has also worked to address Arctic-related issues in the international sphere and will chair the Arctic Council from 2015 to 2017. The Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum that focuses on environment protection and sustainable development. In their Proposed Arctic Council Chairmanship Program, titled “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges, and Responsibilities,” the U.S. focuses on three themes: Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship; improving economic and living conditions of Arctic people; and addressing the impacts of climate change.

Each focus area includes several specific projects, but the two proposed initiatives that are perhaps the most compelling for the marine sector are Marine Environmental Protection and Arctic Ocean Acidification.

The Marine Environmental Protection initiative is designed to respond to the increase in maritime activity in the Arctic, which is made possible by less, and thinner, ice. To address the possibility of environmental damage from oil spills and other hazardous substances, the U.S. program proposes to create an inventory of specialized pollution response equipment, to draft agreements for resource sharing across the Arctic, and to develop international guidelines for response.

This is a continuation of the U.S. domestic goals laid out in the Implementation Plan for the National Arctic Strategy, which called for the development and improvement of technologies to detect, respond to, and prevent oil spills.

The Arctic Ocean Acidification initiative is another area that calls for increased international cooperation and improved technology. The goal of expanding the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network to the region is to enable more comprehensive and accurate monitoring of chemical and biological observations for the entire Arctic Ocean. To do so will require the participation of all Arctic Council member states and observer states. New and improved sensors will be needed to effectively monitor ocean acidification in the Arctic, where colder water temperatures and lower salt content increase the level of acidification.

The significant challenges facing the Arctic in coming years will require research, innovation, investment and cooperation across borders. With the help of international, domestic and industry partners, the U.S. will be better prepared to meet them.

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