Global warming
4:36 pm
Wed May 29, 2013

Promise of the Arctic conference points to opportunities and risks

The Arctic is getting hotter faster than any part of the globe. Experts predict the region will be free of sea ice during the summer within about 20 years. 

That’s creating a gold-rush mentality among many shipping and energy companies eager to capitalize on new trade routes or tap new sources of oil and gas.

But there are also big challenges as a result of the harsh climate and lacking infrastructure. A conference called The Promise of the Arctic is taking place in Seattle this week to explore these issues. The Pacific Northwest is expected to be a hub for new businesses.

Rapidly receding sea ice in the Bering Strait west of Alaska is opening up new opportunities. The prospect of more and easier marine traffic is expected to bolster energy exploration, fishing, shipping, and even tourism over the next decade.

But with infrastructure in the Arctic still very sparse, many of those industries will remain based in Seattle and Tacoma, says Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Institute of the North. The institute, a think tank focused on energy and transportation policy in the Arctic,  helped line up speakers for the Seattle conference from the maritime industries as well as government agencies such as the U. S. Coast Guard and NOAA.

“So we’re hoping to have a robust conversation about the overall landscape when it comes to response capacity, to really talk as a maritime community about not just the promise, but the challenges and the risks and the plans in place to overcome them,” Andreassen said.

A big concern for many at the conference is the Coast Guard’s outdated fleet of icebreakers and the lack of deep sea ports in the Arctic. With a tight federal budget, there are no easy answers. But the Seattle meeting includes brainstorming sessions on ideas such as private sector involvement, with the aim of developing good policies to prepare for increased traffic in one of the harshest places on Earth.

The policies should also address the impacts of melting ice on the ecosystems of the Arctic as well as the native cultures that remain dependent on them, says the director of the U.S. Arctic Program for Pew Charitable Trust., Marilyn Heiman,who is also speaking at the conference.

“You know, we are not going to be able to stop the ships going through the Bering Strait. There is nothing in our power that we can do to stop it," Heiman said. "So all we can do is make sure there are strong standards, strong navigational requirements and regulations that ensure that there is not increased pollution, that there’s not increased whale strikes, there’s not increased impacts on native cultures."

Heiman says there are about 70,000 coastal people who will be affected by increased shipping as the Arctic opens up, as well as a unique variety of wildlife in the Bering Strait. It is a well-used migratory passage for endangered bowhead whales, beluga whales, ice seals and walruses, as well as about 50 species of seabirds.