The changing climate has created a new frontier in the Arctic, but as the world's major powers scramble to take advantage, the U.S. is at risk of falling dangerously behind.
Melting ice has made vast amounts of mineral and energy reserves available for the first time in modern history. As many as 90 billion barrels of oil, the equivalent of 5.9 percent of the world's known reserves, are up for grabs. That's more than twice what Russia currently owns, and more than three times what the U.S. has available. The future opportunities could be crucial to the national interest, but the U.S. presence in the region is sorely outnumbered by Russia, according to Coast Guard commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft.
"So the numbers are roughly 40 to 2," Zukunft told me in an interview regarding U.S. versus Russian icebreaker ship presence. "So if I was playing basketball, those are not good numbers ... you are far outnumbered when it comes to having any presence in the Arctic."
Icebreakers are tailor-made to smash through the tough Arctic ice that cuts off most ships. More icebreakers means more access, and the Russians have a lot more than the U.S. does. To make matters worse, Russia is also staking claim to much of the region.
"Russia has claimed most of the Arctic Ocean up to the North Pole," explained Zukunft. "Which to me looks like they want to deny access by others."
Russia is also in the midst of developing new Corvette-class icebreakers that can carry deadly cruise missiles.
"We have no surface presence really to counter a threat like that," said Zukunft. "But if we have sovereign interests at stake, we might need to look at an icebreaker of the 21st century that we can retrofit with a modular weapons system so we can at least stand our own ground."
Even if the U.S. were to increase its icebreaker presence, it could still run into some issues with international law. Russia, along with most countries, is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a 1982 agreement which outlined guidelines for how nations can use the world's oceans. The U.S. participated in the convention, but has yet to sign the agreement.
A treaty requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate for ratification, and conservatives have historically been apprehensive on acquiescing to the convention due to concerns that it may restrict U.S. sovereignty. But James Kraska, an international law expert with the U.S. Naval War College, has argued that joining could empower the U.S. position by giving it a solid legal framework from which to gather ocean resources.
Zukunft believes that signing onto the convention would be a positive step when it comes to staking a U.S. claim in the Arctic, but even with the legal backing, the Coast Guard could use some financial help from Congress.
"They already know what they need," noted Zukunft, with a smile. "We need to grow our budget by five percent ever year."
It's a modest request for a force that is responsible for a litany of jobs along the nation's massive coast line and beyond. With the increase, Zukunft can build the new icebreakers, ships and unmanned aerial vehicles the services needs. He can also expand his workforce and hire back 1,100 reservists that were cut due to budget constraints.
"Not a big ask for a service that is only funded at $10.5 billion to begin with," said Zukunft. "That would put the Coast Guard where it needs to be in the 21st century."
MORE STORIES FROM CIRCA
This high-tech missile interceptor might be what shoots down a North Korea nuke
A student in Japan described the scene when a North Korean missile flew over the country
The State Department ordered Russia to close three diplomatic missions on US soil