Rockefeller Remarks on Defending U.S. Economic Interests in the Changing Arctic

July 27, 2011

Chairman Rockefeller asks Sec. Locke questions about strengthening manufacturing in America.WASHINGTON, D.C.—Our oceans and coasts have always been a source of abundant natural resources and tremendous economic wealth for our nation.  Our Exclusive Economic Zone is the largest in the world—measuring 3.4 million square nautical miles, it covers an area greater than that of the United States itself.  

Included in this vast expanse of U.S. ocean is a significant portion of the Arctic Region.  The fact that the U.S. is an Arctic nation is one that, in the past, has gone unrecognized by much of the American public due to Alaska’s separation and distance from the contiguous 48 states; but that is changing—and the Arctic is changing.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there is now widespread, dramatic evidence of overall change in the Arctic Region.

Recent Arctic temperature increases are more than double than those found at more southerly latitudes.  The Arctic’s 2008 annual mean air temperature over land was the fourth warmest on record and, while 2009 showed a slowdown in the rate of annual air temperature increases, the first half of 2010 shows a near record pace with monthly anomalies of over 4° Celsius in Northern Canada.

On September 19, 2010, sea ice extent in the Arctic reached a minimum of 4.6 million kilometers for the year.  This 2010 measurement is the third-lowest recorded since 1979, surpassed only by 2008 and the record low in 2007.  Overall, the 2010 minimum was 31 percent lower than the 1979-2000 average.

From the Aleutian Islands to Barrow, Alaska, ocean ecosystems are shifting due to a combination of Arctic warming, large natural variability, and sensitivity to changing sea ice conditions.  These changes, combined with new technologies are opening new possibilities for a variety of increased human activity in the Arctic, including ocean shipping, oil and gas development, mineral ore extraction, commercial fishing, and tourism. 

We have enduring national and strategic interests in both Polar Regions, but particularly in the Arctic Region where we have U.S. citizens and territory to protect.  Greater human activity in the Arctic will only increase the need for us to assert our presence and leadership in order to shape the evolving security, economic, scientific, and international political issues of the region.  

Already, the other Arctic nations—Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia—are scrambling to take advantage of economic opportunities in the Arctic.  Meanwhile, the U.S. seems to be standing idly by and content to watch the action from the sidelines.

Other Arctic nations have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  Meanwhile, the Senate has been sitting on the treaty for years.

Other Arctic nations—and even non-Arctic nations such as China—either have or are building icebreakers to transit Arctic waters.  Meanwhile, the U.S. has a pile of studies concluding we should be equipping the Coast Guard with the same capabilities, but we’re not—although Senator Begich, Senator Cantwell, and I keep trying.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: As a nation, we depend on the Coast Guard to keep us safe and secure, but their ability to do that rests on their access to resources and other support necessary to perform their missions. 

In a rugged and often harsh environment like the Arctic, so critical to our strategic national interests, proper resources are all the more important.

I want to commend Senator Begich for his work on these issues, and for this hearing today.   

I want to thank Admiral Papp, Rear Admiral Titley, Ambassador Balton, and all our other witnesses for their time and testimony before the Committee on this most important matter.