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Border Strife Heating Up Arctic
Military.com  |  By Christian Lowe  |  November 21, 2007
It's probably one of the coldest places on Earth, but over the past year, international tensions there are heating up. And if you think Iraq and Afghanistan are where all the action is these days, think again.

With the cracking ice and warming atmosphere, strategic efforts are intensifying over land and sea rights in the northern Arctic, with Canada and Russia elbowing in on waters that had previously been locked in an icy grip.

That's led the Coast Guard to rethink its strategy in northern Alaska, pushing them to the outer edges of civilization to keep a watchful eye on the growing traffic of commercial and military ships plying the Arctic Circle.

"We see mounting evidence of much more commercial marine traffic in the Arctic because of the ice cap coming down later and leaving sooner with more of the Arctic open to normal navigation," said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Arthur Brooks, commander of the 17th Coast Guard district and the Joint Forces Component Commander for maritime forces in Alaska.

"My own impression right now ... is that I'm not prepared to respond to a major vessel casualty or some large problem if it were to occur off the north slope," Brooks said in a Nov. 15 interview with Military.com.

And it's not just increased shipping traffic Brooks is worried about. This summer, Russia planted a flag on the sea floor near the North Pole, calling the area sovereign territory and staking a claim to turf that had once been locked under year-round polar ice. Brooks added that Canada has increased its fleet of ships with ice-hardened hulls and intends to claim the Northwest Passage - which is increasingly ice-free - as its territorial waters.  That claim is counter to the United States' view that the Passage is international seaspace.

"The challenge at the moment is we don't know what the boundaries are. We don't know what the borders are between the United States and Canada and Russia," Brooks said, adding he hopes an international compact can be concluded to fix those borders so things don't get nasty.

Next summer, Brooks will send a team of Coasties to man a remote outpost on the northern tip of Alaska to monitor shipping traffic and determine what the best level of resources the U.S. will need to protect sea lanes and rescue ship wrecked passengers and crew.

"What we're doing now is we are going about in a methodical way determining what is actually happening in the Arctic ... how much work do I need to prepare to do or not do in the Arctic to meet missions into the next decade," Brooks explained. "This will allow us to figure out how much work is actually there and how much infrastructure we will need to do the work that is required in that part of the world."

He's looking at erecting the recon outpost at Nome, Barrow or Prudhoe Bay - some of the most remote civilian outposts in the Arctic.

"In many respects [the Arctic] is a new frontier that has always been there but has been for the most part unusable because of the very harsh environment but is becoming more usable," Brooks said. "And that opens the door for all these debates about what belongs to who, and what are we going to do with it."

So is this emerging usability due to global warming?  "I'm not an expert so I can't say," Brooks demurred.  "I just know looking at the ice charts . . . we can see a gradual shriking of the polar ice cap, and that means there's more time for ships to transit."

And those ships are interested in the potential resources that were once covered in ice, which, in turn, almost certainly means regional tensions will do nothing but increase in the future.

 

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