WASHINGTON - The U.S. is racing to keep pace with stepped-up activity in the once sleepy Arctic frontier, but it is far from being in the lead.
Nations across the world are hurrying to stake claims to the Arctic's resources, which might be home to 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its untapped natural gas. There are emerging fisheries and hidden minerals. Cruise liners loaded with tourists are sailing the Arctic's frigid waters in increasing numbers. Cargo traffic along the Northern Sea Route, one of two shortcuts across the top of the Earth in summer, is on the rise.
The U.S., which takes over the two-year rotating chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council in 2015, has not ignored the Arctic, but critics say the U.S. is lagging behind the other seven: Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Canada and Denmark, through the semiautonomous territory of Greenland.
"On par with the other Arctic nations, we are behind - behind in our thinking, behind in our vision," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said. "We lack basic infrastructure, basic funding commitments to be prepared for the level of activity expected in the Arctic."
At a meeting before Thanksgiving with Secretary of State John Kerry, Murkowski suggested he name a U.S. ambassador or envoy to the Arctic - someone who could coordinate work on the Arctic being done by more than 20 federal agencies and take the lead on increasing U.S. activities in the region.
Murkowski is trying to get Americans to stop thinking that the Arctic is just Alaska's problem. "People in Iowa and New Hampshire need to view the U.S. as an Arctic nation. Otherwise when you talk about funding, you're never going to get there," Murkowski said. She added that even non-Arctic nations are deeply engaged: "India and China are investing in icebreakers."
The U.S. has three aging icebreakers.
The melting Arctic also is creating a new front of U.S. security concerns.
Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said expanding Russia's military presence in the Arctic was a top priority for his nation's armed forces. Russia this year began rehabilitating a Soviet-era base at the New Siberian Islands and has pledged to restore a number of Arctic military air bases that fell into neglect after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin said he doesn't envision a conflict between Russia and the United States, both of which have called for keeping the Arctic a peaceful zone. But he added, "Experts know quite well that it takes U.S. missiles 15 to 16 minutes to reach Moscow from the Barents Sea," which is a part of the Arctic Ocean near Russia's shore.
While the threat of militarization remains, the battle right now is on the economic level as countries vie for oil, gas and other minerals, including rare earth metals used to make high-tech products like cellphones. There also are disputes bubbling up with environmental groups that oppose energy exploration in the region; Russia arrested 30 crew members of a Greenpeace ship in September after a protest in the Arctic.
China signed a free trade agreement with tiny Iceland this year, a signal that the Asian powerhouse is keenly interested in the Arctic's resources. And Russia is hoping that the Northern Sea Route, where traffic jumped to 71 vessels this year from four in 2010, someday could be a transpolar route that could rival the Suez Canal.
In the U.S., the Obama administration is consulting with governmental, business, industry and environmental officials, as well as the state of Alaska, to develop a plan to implement the U.S. strategy for the Arctic that President Barack Obama unveiled seven months ago.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rolled out the Pentagon's Arctic blueprint last month, joining the Coast Guard and other government agencies that have outlined their plans for the region. There are no cost or budget estimates yet, but the Navy is laying out what the U.S. needs to increase communications, harden ships and negotiate international agreements so nations will be able to track traffic in the Arctic and conduct search and rescue operations.
Critics, however, say the U.S. needs to back the strategy papers with more precise plans - plus funding. With the country still paying for two wars, the idea of spending money in an area considered a low security threat makes the Arctic an even tougher sell.
"The problem with all of these strategies is that they are absolutely silent on budget issues," said Heather Conley, an expert on the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "How do we meet these new challenges? Well, we're going to have to put more resources to them. It's dark. It's cold. There's terrible weather. We need to enhance our own satellite communications and awareness in the area as ships and commercial activity increases in the Arctic."
The U.S. needs helicopters, runways, port facilities and roads in the Arctic, she said - not to mention better accommodations in small coastal towns that have a shortage of beds and would be ill-equipped to handle an influx of tourists from a disabled cruise ship. With few assets, the U.S. might be forced to borrow from the private sector.
"When Shell drilled two summers ago in the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea, they had 33 vessels and the Coast Guard had one national security cutter," Conley said. "We're not prepared. It may be another 10 years. The Arctic is not going to wait, and the increased commercial and human activity is already there. Other Arctic states are preparing more robustly, and we are choosing not to."
The Obama administration defends its work on the Arctic, saying it is preparing for the rapid changes coming in the far north.
"Each Arctic government, including the United States government, has developed an Arctic strategy, and the administration expects to release an implementation plan for our Arctic strategy in the coming months," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "We recognize that preparing for increasing human activity in the Arctic will require investment in the region, and we hope to be able to say more on this in the future."
Malte Humpert with the Washington-based Arctic Institute says that when the implementation plan is completed, he's going to be looking for specifics - timelines, budget numbers, plans for new infrastructure.
"There's a lot of good, shiny policy and good ideas about how to move forward, and now it's about finding money," he said. "And that's where the U.S. is really far behind."
The funding battle often focuses on icebreakers. The Coast Guard has three: the medium-duty Healy, which is used mostly for scientific expeditions, and two heavy icebreakers, the Polar Sea and Polar Star.
Both heavy icebreakers were built in the 1970s and are past their 30-year service lives. The Polar Star, however, was recently given a $57 million overhaul, was tested in the Arctic this summer and currently is deployed in Antarctica. About $8 million has been allocated to study the possibility of building a new icebreaker, which would take nearly a decade and cost more than $1 billion. In the meantime, lawmakers from Washington and Alaska want Congress to rehabilitate the Polar Sea too.
"A half-century after racing the Russians to the moon, the U.S. is barely suiting up in the international race to secure interests in the Arctic. Russia, Canada and other nations are investing heavily," Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., wrote in an op-ed published earlier this month. "We are behind and falling farther back."