In the Arctic race, the U.S. lags behind
Seattle is the home of the U.S. Coast Guard's entire fleet of polar-class icebreakers.
Both of them.
Capt. George Pellissier commands both the Polar Sea and the Polar Star. He has spent much of his career on these ships, which were built in Seattle in the 1970s.
"The two ships are almost identical, they were built a year apart. Our design is to break 6 feet of ice continuously, and we can break up to 21 feet of ice," Pellissier says, referring to the thick "pressure ridges" that can form between sheets of ice in the waters north of Alaska, and which can trap and even crush less sturdy vessels.
He takes pride in the fact that these "polars," as they're called, are still among the most capable icebreakers out there — not counting the Russians' big, nuclear-powered icebreakers.
But Pellissier admits that if an ice-breaking emergency broke out, America wouldn't have much to offer because, right now, neither polar icebreaker is functional.
Four decades of ramming sea ice will do that. The Polar Star will recover — it's currently being refurbished — but the Polar Sea will be scrapped.
"I would dearly love to keep them both. I understand the fiscal realities that we're in. It's always sad to actually decommission a ship," Pellissier says.
The U.S. also has a medium-class icebreaker, the Healy, but it's a research vessel, and isn't designed to break through ice more than 8 feet thick.
Building 'a persistent presence'
The Coast Guard has told Congress it needs at least three medium and three heavy icebreakers. Global warming means more activity in the Arctic, and more civilian vessels are venturing north into harm's way.
In early August, the Obama administration gave a tentative green light to Shell Oil to start drilling for oil in the waters north of Alaska. The U.S. is also in the process of mapping the sea floor north of Alaska, with an eye to claiming more of the continental shelf, and the resources it may contain.
The increased activity means the U.S. could face more challenges to its interests in the polar latitudes. Yet the U.S. isn't party to a major treaty that will shape territorial claims in the region.
Lisa Murkowski, the Republican senator from Alaska, is a big believer in establishing a more persistent U.S. presence in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, north of her state.
"We are an Arctic nation. And as such, we have responsibilities and obligations in the Arctic," she says.
It's not just about icebreakers; she says it's time for a deep-water port on Alaska's north shore. That is an expensive proposition, she admits, but the U.S. has to protect its interests.
"There are a lot of folks that are looking with great interest at the level of activity by the Chinese up in the Beaufort and Chukchi. And they're wondering, 'What's going on up there?' Because we don't think that they're doing any sightseeing," she says.
The big argument for establishing a more "persistent presence" in the Arctic is the expectation that, in the next couple of decades, melting ice will turn the Arctic Ocean into a major commercial shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific. But Lawson Brigham says that expectation is overblown.
"Most of us that work on this don't believe that's going to happen," says Brigham, a former U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker captain who has a doctorate in polar oceanography. He studies sea ice, and he says people have to remember that even though the ice is rapidly thinning, it's not going away altogether.
"Perhaps during the summertime, today and in the future, there will be a window, a short period of time of opportunity to sail ships across the top of the world," he says. "But as a regular, year-round, and just-in-time cargo-carrying system, it's going to be very difficult to do with the ice cover present."
Brigham imagines the time savings would be offset by the ships' slower speed, as they watch for rogue ice, and he doubts their insurance companies would consider the Arctic route a good bet.
He is even more dismissive about the much-heralded Northwest Passage through Canada's northern archipelago. He says the ice in those narrow straits and inlets may prove more stubborn than the polar ice cap itself.
"It just gets fused in those islands, and breaks up at various times, and the ice cover is extraordinarily variable from year to year, so it's a hugely variable and complicated place," he explains.
Brigham is also skeptical of the ominous warnings about the Russians and Chinese, and possible conflict over resources in the Arctic — a skepticism shared by Navy Rear Adm. David Titley, in testimony to the Senate in July.
"I'm sure many of you have heard in the media, especially a year or two ago, people talk about the Arctic as the 'Wild West,' and it's the 'race for resources.' That really isn't true," he said.
It isn't true, he says, because of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Among other things, the global treaty lays out how countries go about claiming natural resources on the ocean floor.
Law of the sea, but not the U.S.
Yet the U.S. Senate has never ratified the treaty, because of anti-U.N. sentiment among some conservative Republicans. Titley says that puts the U.S. in an awkward spot, as the Arctic opens up.
"Other countries are frankly looking for the U.S. to show leadership, and it's hard to show leadership in this treaty when we're not a party to it," he said.
It's a common complaint among those who favor more development in the Arctic. Alaska's Murkowski, for instance, wants the Senate to ratify the treaty so the U.S. can extend its claim on the continental shelf north of Alaska, and also so it can participate in the treaty organization's future decisions relating to Arctic resources.
But Steven Groves, an international law analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says that's no reason to embrace the U.N.'s Law of the Sea.
"As a conservative, I believe the United States and the American people have a right to all of [its continental shelf]. They don't have to lay claim to it by being a party to a treaty. They own it already," he says.
Plus, Groves says, the treaty requires offshore oil companies to pay royalties to the international treaty organization, shortchanging the U.S. Treasury. Treaty supporters — the Obama Administration, among them — acknowledge this, but they're still pressing for ratification, perhaps this fall.
They say, as long as the U.S. isn't a party to the treaty, when it comes to shaping the future of the melting Arctic, the U.S. will be stuck on the outside, looking in.