In Alaska, Obama Calls for New Arctic Icebreakers

The president urges funding for ships in an area where America has fallen behind Russia.

The American icebreaker Healy operates in the Chukchi Sea, July 10, 2011
The American icebreaker Healy operates in the Chukchi Sea, July 10, 2011 (NASA/Kathryn Hansen)

President Barack Obama was expected to call on Tuesday for new Coast Guard icebreakers in the Arctic, an area where the United States have fallen behind rival Russia.

While Russia operates some forty icebreakers, several of them nuclear-powered, and has six more under construction, the United States only have two. On a visit to Alaska, Obama was due to urge Congress to approve funding for new ships by 2020.

Politico reports that new ships could cost at least $1 billion each and that it would take the American shipbuilding industry — which has long ceased to build icebreakers — ten years to deliver a brand new one.

It might seem that a warming Arctic would require less icebreaking, not more. But as northern waters become more accessible, far more ship traffic will be at risk and their shifting climate conditions make it more likely seas will freeze unpredictably.

As polar caps melt, new shipping routes could significantly shorten the distance between Asia and Europe and reveal previously untapped oil and gas resources. Nearly a quarter of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbons are believed to lie under the Arctic seabed.

Russia has the largest Arctic territory by far, second to Canada. With an economy heavily dependent on oil and gas exports, it considers the Arctic a national security priority. Russia has stepped up military deployment in the region and invested more than $1 billion in the expansion of Murmansk, its northernmost port.

The United States, by contrast, have largely neglected the region.

Obama’s Alaska trip, the first presidential visit there, underlines that America is finally waking up the Arctic’s growing geopolitical significance.

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