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Eye On The Arctic

Eye On The ArcticAs the Arctic ice cap shrinks, Fletcher PhD candidate Scott Borgerson urges the United States to prepare for the global impact of a navigable North Pole.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.31.05] In the past century, global warming has nudged the temperature of the Earth’s surface up by one degree Fahrenheit and pushed sea level four to eight inches higher. While questions remain about rising global temperatures, Fletcher PhD candidate Scott Borgerson says one thing is for certain: the Arctic ice cap is melting and the United States needs to get involved.

“This is big news, and not just because the Arctic is a barometer for global climate change,” Borgerson wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times. “The thawing of the Arctic will produce major geographical shifts, many of which will profoundly affect international relations.”

As the North Pole takes on a new form, the U.S. needs to adjust its foreign policy, said Borgerson, who teaches maritime studies, political geography and American Foreign Policy at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. The country needs to consider the international ramifications of a changing Arctic ice cap, he warned.

“For starters, conflicting territorial claims among countries that border the Arctic Ocean will rapidly acquire a new urgency,” he wrote in the Times. “A quarter of the world’s oil and natural gas resources lie in the Arctic, but until recently polar ice rendered many of these deposits inaccessible.”

With the ice melting, the race to tap into these deposits has already begun, he explained. And fishermen, loggers and miners are also heading north to exploit the region’s other natural resources, he said.

But the most significant byproduct of a shrinking ice cap is the potential for Arctic navigation, Borgerson pointed out.

“The polar thaw may lead to what would be the most transformational maritime project since the Panama Canal: an Arctic Bridge,” Borgerson wrote in the opinion piece. “An Arctic marine highway made possible by the dwindling of sea ice would cut existing oceanic transit times by days, saving shipping companies (and navies, smugglers and terrorists) thousands of miles of travel.”

Although, realistically, the creation of an Arctic highway is at least a decade away, it could have a direct impact on international trade when it happens, he explained. “Those able to adjust their mental maps and capitalize on this new seaway would surely benefit,” he wrote.

According to Borgerson, before global warming transforms the Arctic ice cap into a “hub of global activity,” the U.S. “needs to Arcticulate a clear, sustainable and environmentally aware Arctic policy that accounts for the changes now under way.”

He added that the U.S. needs to take “a leading diplomatic role in adjudicating the growing international contest over the Arctic” because, unlike Antarctica, which became a demilitarized region of international scientific cooperation through the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, the Arctic has no comprehensive legal framework.

The U.S. also needs to assess its ability to operate in the Arctic, Borgerson explained, adding that the country currently has only three Coast Guard ships equipped to work in the region. Two of them, however, are 30 years old and “operationally challenged,” he said.

In the Times, Borgerson urged the U.S. to invest the $500 million it would cost to fix the ships to “enhance American presence in the polar regions,” which he believes would be in the country’s best interest.

“The region is growing more and more important, and we need to pay attention lest this sea change pass us by,” he wrote.












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