SEWARD (Alaska) • President Barack Obama has proposed speeding up the acquisition and building of new US Coast Guard icebreakers that can operate year-round in the nation's polar regions, part of an effort to close the gap between the United States and other nations, especially Russia, in a global competition to gain a foothold in the rapidly changing Arctic.
His proposal on Tuesday, the second day of a trip to Alaska to highlight the consequences of climate change, touches on one of its most profound effects. The retreat of Arctic sea ice has created opportunities for shipping, tourism, mineral exploration and fishing, but the rush of marine traffic that has followed is bringing new difficulties.
"Arctic ecosystems are among the most pristine and understudied in the world, meaning increased commercial activity comes with significant risks to the environment," a White House statement read.
The ageing US Coast Guard fleet is not keeping pace with the challenge, it said, with the equivalent of just two "fully functional" heavy icebreakers, down from seven during World War II.
Russia, by contrast, has 41, with plans for 11 more. China unveiled a refurbished icebreaker in 2012 and is building another.
WHAT IS AN ICEBREAKER?
• An icebreaker is a ship equipped with special features, such as a reinforced bow, to make and maintain a channel through ice.
• It has characteristics not found in normal ships: a strengthened, special hull with a wide beam and relatively flat bottom that is designed to force its way through ice; it has the power to push through sea ice, and it is typically able to force its way through ice up to 10.7m thick.
• The United States used to have seven icebreakers, but the fleet has dwindled to three creaky vessels, only one of which is a heavy-duty vessel.
• The estimated cost of a new US icebreaker is US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion), and it usually takes 10 years to build one.
• When an icebreaker encounters the ice at full speed, its sharply inclined bow, upon meeting the edge of the ice, rises above it, using the weight of the vessel to cause the ice to collapse.
• In Russia, Canada and the Great Lakes area of the US, water-borne traffic in winter is only possible with the use of icebreakers.
• Icebreakers have been widely used in the exploration of the Arctic and the Antarctic.
• The first modern sea-going icebreaker, the Yermak, was built in England for the Russian Navy in 1897, and served until 1963.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, MERRIAM-WEBSTER, COLUMBIA ENCYCLOPEDIA
Mr Obama announced his proposal in Seward, where he hiked to Exit Glacier - a 6.5km-wide ice sheet that has retreated about 2km in the last 200 years as global temperatures rose, according to the National Park Service - and toured Kenai Fjords National Park by boat.
He said he wants to accelerate a replacement icebreaker by two years, setting a new date of 2020. He also proposed that planning begin on the building of new ones, each of which comes with a price tag of about US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion), asking Congress to provide "sufficient resources" to fund them.
But lawmakers must approve the funding, and it would take years for the vessels to become available. But Alaska's senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, cheered the step, saying it was long overdue.
"The highways of the Arctic are paved by icebreakers," Mr Sullivan said. "Right now, the Russians have superhighways, and we have dirt roads with potholes."
Ms Murkowski said it was "a good first step", but Mr Obama needs a comprehensive Arctic strategy addressing opportunities in shipping, trade and natural resources.
Mr Obama also announced an initiative by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard to map and chart the newly accessible Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The oceanic agency will install new equipment in the Arctic to monitor climate change effects and enhance marine safety, including stations to monitor sea-level rise and satellite measuring of sea-ice thickness.
Some lawmakers, analysts and government officials say the US is lagging other nations in preparing for the Arctic's new environmental, economic and geopolitical realities.
Governor Bill Walker of Alaska, a political independent who travelled to Anchorage with Mr Obama on Air Force One on Monday, said he was concerned that the US military was drawing down in his state just as Russia was flexing its muscles in the Arctic. "It's the biggest build-up of the Russian military since the Cold War," he said, noting Alaska's proximity to Russia.
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG