RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
All this week, we've been hearing stories about how the melting polar icecap is opening the Arctic to economic development - and setting the stage for potential international disputes. There's an expectation that the Arctic Ocean will eventually become a major commercial shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
DAVID GREENE, host:
And that has led to calls for a more persistent U.S. presence in the area. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on America's ability to defend its interests up in the polar latitudes.
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MARTIN KASTE: Seattle is home to the U.S. Coast Guard's entire fleet of polar-class icebreakers - all two of them.
Captain GEORGE PELLISSIER (U.S. Coast Guard): We own two polar icebreakers: the Polar Sea and the Polar Star.
KASTE: This is Captain George Pellissier. He commands both of the polars, as they're called. He's spent much of his career on these ships, which were built right here in Seattle back in the '70s.
Mr. PELLISSIER: The two ships are almost identical. They were built a year apart. Our design is to break six feet of ice continuously, and we can break up to 21 feet of ice.
KASTE: He takes pride in the fact that these are still among the most capable icebreakers out there - not counting the Russians' big, nuclear-powered icebreakers. But Pellissier admits that if there were some kind of an ice-breaking emergency right now, America wouldn't have much to offer.
Mr. PELLISSIER: At this particular moment in time, neither polar icebreaker is functional.
KASTE: Four decades of ramming into sea ice will do that. The Polar Star will recover - it's being refurbished right now - but the Polar Sea will be scrapped.
Mr. PELLISSIER: 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.
KASTE: There's also a medium-class icebreaker, the Healy, but it's a research vessel, and it's not designed to get through ice more than eight feet thick.
The Coast Guard has told Congress that it needs at least three medium and three heavy icebreakers because global warming means more activity in the Arctic, as more civilian vessels venture north into harm's way.
Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): We are an Arctic nation. And as such, we have responsibilities and obligations in the Arctic.
KASTE: Lisa Murkowski is the Republican senator from Alaska, and a big believer in establishing a more persistent U.S. presence in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, north of her state.
It's not just about icebreakers. She says it's time for a deep-water port on Alaska's north shore. Expensive, she admits, but the U.S. has to protect its interests.
Ms. MURKOWSKI: 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.
KASTE: 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 the Pacific. But Lawson Brigham says that expectation is overblown.
Captain LAWSON BRIGHAM (U.S. Coast Guard, Retired): Most of us who work on this don't believe, really, that's going to happen.
KASTE: Brigham knows the Arctic. He's a former Coast Guard icebreaker captain, and he has a Ph.D. 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.
Capt. BRIGHAM: Perhaps during the summertime, today and in the future, there will be a window, a time - short period of time of opportunity to sail ships across the top of the world. 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.
KASTE: He 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.
Brigham 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 even more stubborn than the polar ice cap itself.
Capt. BRIGHAM: 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 hugely variable - and a complicated place.
KASTE: Brigham is also skeptical of the ominous warnings about the Russians and the Chinese, and the possibility of conflict over resources in the Arctic. It's a skepticism shared by Navy Rear Admiral David Titley, in testimony to the Senate in July.
Rear Admiral DAVID TITLEY (U.S. Navy): 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 is not true.
KASTE: It isn't true, he says, because of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Among other things, this global treaty lays out how countries go about claiming natural resources on the ocean floor.
But while the U.S. benefits from these international rules, the Senate has never actually ratified the treaty because of anti-U.N. sentiment among some conservative Republicans. Rear Admiral Titley says that puts the U.S. in an awkward spot as the Arctic opens up.
Adm. TITLEY: Other countries are, frankly, looking for the U.S. to be able to show leadership, and it's hard to show leadership in this treaty when we are not a party to it.
KASTE: It's a common complaint among those who favor more development in the Arctic. Alaska Senator 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 the oil and gas it may contain.
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.
Mr. STEVEN GROVES (Heritage Foundation): As a conservative, I believe that the United States and the American people have the right to all of that territory. They don't have to lay claim to it by being party to a treaty. They own it already.
KASTE: Plus, Groves says, the treaty requires offshore oil companies to pay royalties to the International Treaty Organization, shortchanging the U.S. Treasury. This is acknowledged by the treaty's supporters - the Obama Administration among them - 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.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
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MONTAGNE: Here's another sign of climate change in the region: Melting sea ice is forcing herds of Pacific walrus onto Alaska's coast. This week, researchers spotted some 5,000 walruses on a sandy beach about 700 miles northwest of Anchorage. A second herd rested a short distance away.
GREENE: In the summer, female walruses and their young typically rest on chunks of ice in the Bering Strait, but the melting sea ice has brought them to the Alaska shore the last few years. Scientists say walruses scare very easily and when they're on land together in such large numbers, humans and machinery can provoke dangerous stampedes.
MONTAGNE: The final piece in our Arctic series will air tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION. We'll hear why ice in the region is melting faster than scientists had predicted.
Unidentified Woman #1: We very likely will live to see ice-free summers in the Arctic. Or if we don't live to see it, our children will.
MONTAGNE: You can hear the other stories in our series "Race to the Arctic" at our website, NPR.org.
This is NPR News.