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Friday, August 10, 2007

Thinking ahead: Polar sea routes and the U.S. Coast Guard

Reported here. Assuming that the ice caps are melting away and there is an ice free passage across the North Pole, then...
When the commander of the U.S. Coast Guard thinks of future trouble spots, his focus is increasingly to the north — the vast waters around a melting polar ice cap.

Once almost totally inaccessible to shipping and oil drilling, the region poses new opportunities for economic activity, as well as new challenges for those who patrol its frigid seas.

"If you go into a life raft 20 miles off the coast of North Carolina, chances are you are going to see the Coast Guard in a few hours," Adm. Thad Allen says. "If you go into life rafts at the edge of the Arctic ice cap, there are questions about when you should expect help to arrive."

The Arctic is still relatively empty but stands to become more crowded in coming years as several countries stake their claim to its rich oil and gas reserves. The increased maritime traffic has made the Arctic a more significant focus for the Coast Guard in the past six months, Allen says.

"We're like the cop on the beat up there," he says. That beat is massive — about half of the USA's 90,000 total miles of coastline is in Alaska.
Ice in the Arctic sea has decreased by nearly 20% over the past two decades, and "it would not be beyond the realm of possibility to have an ice-free route across the top of Russia sometime in the next five or 10 years," Allen says.

Such a route would shave up to 5,000 miles — a week's sailing time — off the journey between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, he says, attracting ships that otherwise would have transited the Panama or Suez canals. Allen says there has also been heavier traffic in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. He says it could become an international waterway similar to the English Channel or the Straits of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia.

The reduction in ice sparks competing claims among the eight nations that border the Arctic: the United States, Russia, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark (which controls Greenland).

Russia claims 460,000 square miles of the Arctic as an extension of its continental shelf under a 1982 treaty that set guidelines for dividing undersea resources.
See earlier post on the on-going land grab effort here.

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