On Thursday of last week, the first-ever hearing dedicated to the Arctic region as a whole was held in the U.S. Senate. The hearing signaled the launch of the “Arctic Caucus” (Caucus), a body assembled by Senators Angus King (I-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) to explore issues facing the geographic area. The formation of the Caucus coincides with the United States’ ascension to a two-year post as chairperson of the Arctic Council (Council), the intergovernmental body of eight Arctic nations.
Senator King’s remarks on the region illustrate that his interests reach beyond that of the Council. He said, “As the climate changes and the Arctic continues to open, the strategic significance of the region will only grow more important, both for Maine and for the rest of United States. In essence, what we are seeing before our eyes is the revealing of a new and enormously important ocean resource with respect to energy, security, and commerce.”
Similar sentiments were echoed by Mr. Patrick R. Arnold, the Director of Operations and Business Development for the Maine Port Authority who testified before the Committee (3:57 in clip). Mr. Arnold stated that more than 70 ships transited the Arctic sea route during 2013 (with the assistance of icebreaking vessels) and he expected that number to steadily grow in the near future. He also specifically mentioned business discussions between Eimskip, the global shipping company with an expanding port facility in Portland, Maine, and Chinese shipping companies that have expressed an interest in utilizing northern shipping routes to access east coast markets during the summer months.
The latest Arctic sea ice figures from the National Snow and Ice Data Center show that concentrations continue to recede. Given this steady trend, it is easy to understand why the shipping industry sees opportunity; at best, the northern route is half the distance as the shortest southern route. It is also easy to understand why governments have become more cognizant of the need to monitor the commercial and geopolitical developments that are now shaping the future of the region, and that are likely happening more rapidly than most anticipated.