Today the Subcommittee will hear testimony on maritime transportation in the Arctic and the need for United States infrastructure to facilitate safe and efficient transportation. For the first time in recorded history, the Arctic is becoming navigable for large portions of each year. Vessel transits through the Bering Strait have increased almost 200 percent from 2008 to 2017. It is critical that we understand current traffic flows and the steps that need to be taken to ensure that both vessels and the environment are properly protected.
I am proud to say that we have finally gained the necessary momentum to recapitalize the Nation’s heavy icebreaker fleet, which is critical to providing assured access to the region. However, while icebreakers provide important capabilities, there are many other issues that must be addressed to ensure safe and efficient Arctic navigation.
Despite United States vessels patrolling Arctic waters for nearly 150 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that it could take up to 25 years to survey a fraction of the navigationally significant waters in the U.S. Arctic using modern hydrographic methods. This really is the last frontier; the portion of our Nation’s waters about which we still have much to learn.
Additional infrastructure and operational challenges to maritime transportation in the U.S. Arctic, include:
Limited satellite coverage and architecture to support voice and data communications
The lack of a deep-draft port (accommodating ships with a draft of up to 35 feet)
Unpredictability in flow patterns of icebergs in shipping lanes
The lack of channel marking buoys and other floating visual aids, which are not possible due to continuously moving ice sheets
The United States is not alone in our efforts to facilitate safe commerce in the Arctic. We are part of the Arctic Council, along with other Arctic nations like Canada, Russia, and the Nordic countries. Working together in this consensus based, intergovernmental forum allows us to promote environmental, social, and economic aspects of sustainable development in the Arctic. The Council is critical to successfully implementing the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters – the Polar Code.
The potential in the Arctic is hard to fully quantify. From more efficient shipping routes to mineral wealth, and natural beauty to scientific unknowns, the Arctic is a great resource, one for which we must begin making plans today to ensure we can maximize its potential while also protecting its unique character and importance.