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Wilson Arctic Forum

The Wilson Center hosted its Arctic Circle Forum June 21 to 22, bringing together experts on the region to discuss the latest happenings and opportunities in the polar North.

Sea Technology attended the first day of the forum, which played up U.S.-Russia relations. Representatives from the Russian government emphasized that the bilateral bond is deteriorating with the sanctions having just been imposed by the U.S. Congress on Russia in retaliation for the alleged interference by Russia in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Others at the forum, however, were quick to point out that cooperation has been consistent for years in the Arctic. Ambassador David Balton, deputy assistant secretary for Oceans and Fisheries at the U.S. State Department, pointed out that the Arctic Council has made three formal agreements thus far, all of which have involved U.S.-Russia cooperation.

The Arctic holds great economic importance for Russia. The U.S. also has economic interests in the Arctic (i.e., oil and gas), as well as scientific interest in trying to understand regional changes in relation to the Earth as a whole. U.S. President Barack Obama traveled to the Arctic in the fall of 2015 and found that Arctic science is fragmented. He wanted to develop alignments in Arctic science, which led to the White House Science Ministerial, involving all countries invested in Arctic science, wanting collaboration to live beyond his administration. The EU will host the next Arctic Science Ministerial in 2018.

The Arctic is a barometer of climate change, and sea ice extent and duration is clearly changing with the warming climate. The Arctic has always been important in the global climate cycle, and it is now taking on new importance as commercial possibilities open up in the region for shipping, tourism and natural resources. Melting sea ice will lead to new Arctic sailing routes in the coming 10 years, said Gylfi Sigfússon, president and CEO of Eimskip. His company has linked ports in the Arctic, which increases trade. “Sometimes we think we’re like AT&T. We’re connecting people, seeing places others are not eager to serve.” It is seeing these opportunities missed by others that has kept his business going strong and benefits the communities that require connections to survive in the harsh polar climate.

ZukunftA highlight of the day was a Q&A with Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, who was interviewed by David Martin of CBS. He said that 33 percent of gas and 13 percent of oil sits in the Arctic, which makes it of strategic interest to the U.S. (and other countries). When he started his career, the U.S. had seven icebreakers; today, it has two—and only one of them is a heavy icebreaker, and both of them are aging. “The U.S. has not made investments in the Arctic,” he said. The Coast Guard wants to connect Arctic strategy to U.S. policy. Only 5 percent of the Arctic is surveyed to modern methods, and Zukunft went to Google to put action behind this survey challenge. He brought up the fact that an “intermodal deepwater port is lacking if this becomes the next Suez Canal connecting Europe and Asia.” While the Arctic Council is important for cooperation and reaching agreements, the Arctic Council sets policy, and implementation is done by the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, Zukunft emphasized.

Paul Fuhs, president of the Marine Exchange of Alaska, wrapped up the day by discussing the increase in vessel traffic in the Bering Strait. Real-time monitoring of vessel traffic via AIS enables dynamic resource protection in the harsh climate of the Arctic. He proposed a jointly managed seaway with Russia for navigation safety.

–Aileen Torres-Bennett