Fasten your seat belts and, uh, put on your snow jackets. A new world speed record has been set.
That’s because on Christmas Day 2015, the Russian icebreaker Vaygach completed a journey along the north coast of Siberia — a trip known as the Northern Sea Route — in just seven and a half days.
Which, for a boat that looks like this:
Vaygach left the Bering Strait, near Alaska, on Dec. 17, and covered over 2,200 nautical miles to get to the White Sea, just off the north coast of Finland, by Dec. 25. It ended up coming in about a half-day faster than previous trips.
One reason they went so fast might be that there wasn’t as much ice.
“Climate change means Arctic sea ice is vanishing faster than ever,” said President Obama in a speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Commencement in May 2015. It’s true. In fact, 2015’s maximum ice was the lowest on record. (This winter’s numbers aren’t in yet because, well, winter’s not over yet.)
“By the middle of this century,” Obama continued, “Arctic summers could be essentially ice free. We’re witnessing the birth of a new ocean — new sea lanes, more shipping, more exploration, more competition for the vast natural resources below.”
Less ice will likely mean more traffic throughout the Arctic.
Even if the ice is still pretty thick in places, more and more ships are making the trip along both the northern coast of Siberia and through the Northwest Passage that stretches from Alaska to Greenland.
“From the 1980s on, voyages through the Passage have become an annual event,” said a report by Canada’s Northwest Territories’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources, “The number of transits increased from 4 per year in the 1980s to 20-30 per year in 2009-2013.”
But if the U.S. wants to be able to patrol this new ocean, we’re woefully unprepared.
Not every ship can plow through the arctic ice — you have to have specially designed icebreakers like the Russian Vaygach or the Coast Guard’s USCGC Healy.
Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan said, “The highways of the Arctic are paved by icebreakers. Right now, the Russians have superhighways, and we have dirt roads with potholes.”
Obama has since called on the U.S. to build more icebreaker ships, but it’s not set just yet.
U.S. military operations on Arctic land could face trouble for melting ice too.
A report from the Government Accountability Office found that coastal military sites are in danger from climate change. In Alaska, for example, coastal erosion from thawing permafrost and rising sea levels is putting Air Force radar and communications stations in danger. Roads, sea walls, and runways have also been damaged.
Climate change will challenge the military’s entire mission.
Increasingly unstable weather could mean more humanitarian missions both abroad and at home — think about all the work the Coast Guard had to do during Hurricane Sandy.
Plus, climate change could fuel more competition for scarce resources like food and water, which could lead to more global instability, more extremism, and more refugees. Some reports have pointed out that severe drought and crop failures helped fuel early unrest in Syria, for example.
This isn’t partisan rhetoric — this is coming directly from the Department of Defense.
“The Department of Defense’s primary responsibility is to protect national security interests around the world,” said officials in a July 2015 release. “The department must consider the effects of climate change — such as sea level rise, shifting climate zones and more frequent and intense severe weather events — and how these effects could impact national security.”
So it’s a little frustrating to hear Congress prevaricate about it. I mean, some senators are still treating climate change like some sort of conspiracy theory. If the military has already accepted it as fact, why can’t the rest of the government?