Editors note: This week, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, is providing the question.
The summer of 2011 marked the second-lowest ice coverage on record for the Arctic Ocean. As permafrost thaws and sea ice retreats, storm waves are eroding shorelines of Alaska coastal villages. A changing climate is also shifting fishing grounds and wildlife migration routes. Rural Alaskans, largely dependent on subsistence hunting and fishing and resource development, are hard-pressed to meet the financial challenges of repairing or adding new roads, ports, harbors, and other community infrastructure.
With these challenges also comes opportunity. The reduced ice pack is opening new polar shipping routes which could cut distances between Europe and Asia by 40 percent. Arctic shipping is already on the increase, and scientists predict ice-free Arctic shipping routes in summers in just a few decades.
Additionally, higher prices and retreating sea ice make production of oil and gas from the Arctic practical and profitable. The first-ever Arctic-wide oil and gas assessment suggests it holds 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas. Alaska's Chukchi and Beaufort seas hold 26 billion barrels of oil and 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
The U.S. is not alone on this stage. Seven other nations hold territory in the Arctic, and all are coping with these problems and jockeying for advantage in exploiting the Arctic's resources. Even non-Arctic nations, including China, have taken notice. Is the U.S. prepared to face this century of change in the Arctic?