America faces an Arctic dilemma.
Next month, the U.S. is set to take the helm of the Arctic Council, an international forum for the polar region. That event creates an opportunity for the Obama administration to talk up its commitment to advancing U.S. interests in the Arctic, an expansive land and sea territory that contains vast untapped energy resources.
But America has essentially given the Arctic the cold shoulder. Lawmakers, federal officials, and experts warn that Arctic investment has not kept pace with rapid ice-melt and caution that the U.S. must overcome a lack of funding and resources as it patrols the polar region.
As ice vanishes because of rapidly rising temperatures, the Arctic has seen an influx of activity. Major energy companies have plans to scour polar seas for oil and gas, while commercial and passenger ships rush to transit newly accessible routes. All that commotion ups the odds of spills and accidents, paving the way for a high-seas North Pole disaster.
Yet Congress has hardly lifted a finger so far to foot the bill for infrastructure and technology that would better equip the U.S. to safeguard Arctic waters.
America's Arctic strategy has long been plagued by a lack of funding. Vast stretches of polar waters have not been charted or mapped to modern-day standards, and the Coast Guard has been forced to make do with a shrinking fleet of icebreakers, powerful ships that play a key role in search and rescue operations as well as Arctic exploration.
Adm. Robert Papp, the U.S. special representative for the Arctic, highlighted a wide array of technology that the United States lacks—from a robust fleet of icebreaking ships to improved navigational networks—while speaking at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week.
"There are plenty of needs that have already been identified. We just need to get around the business of setting some priorities and having the determination to start resourcing them," Papp said.
Coast Guard commanders echo that conviction and warn that a lack of icebreaking ships in particular could imperil search-and-rescue efforts. "In order for us to be relevant, to sustain mission effectiveness in the Arctic, I cannot make the claim that I am semper paratus [always ready] with the fleet I have at my disposal today," Commandant of the Coast Guard Paul Zukunft said in an interview.
While the U.S. looks for a way to pay for additional ships, other Arctic nations are leaping ahead. The Coast Guard has only one icebreaker in operation that can navigate heavy ice. Russia, meanwhile, has made Arctic investment a top priority, and the Kremlin wields an icebreaker fleet that boasts dozens of high-powered ships.
Roughly 95 percent of the Arctic has not been mapped to modern standards, according to the International Hydrographic Organization. Papp noted during last week's Senate hearing that some of the navigational tools that Arctic ships rely on date to the era of Captain James Cook, the 18th-century British navigator and cartographer.
Zukunft warned that out-of-date charts and maps could lead to "a scenario not unlike the Titanic sinking back in 1912."
A sharp uptick in ship traffic has significantly compounded the potential for accidents due to outdated navigational technology.
The Coast Guard is working to establish a shipping route through the Bering Strait, but so far no shipping lanes exist in U.S. Arctic waters, according to Marilyn Heiman, Pew's U.S. Arctic program director.
That could increase the risk of accidents. "It's like the Wild, Wild West," Heiman said. "You can take your boat anywhere you want. It's a free-for-all."
The National Research Council concluded last year that the U.S. is not adequately prepared to quickly and safely respond to an Arctic oil spill.
Still, there are early indications that Congress may devote additional attention and resources to the Arctic.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine launched an Arctic Caucus this month. Murkowski and King, along with Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the committee's ranking member, have expressed concern that the United States has not placed a high enough priority on Arctic investment. Murkowski is starting to lay the groundwork for an Arctic infrastructure bill. And on the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat, is also pushing for increased attention to the Arctic.
But some experts are skeptical that Congress will cough up the cash.
"We have a strategy for the Arctic, but the real question is, where is the money coming from?" said Dr. Lawson Brigham, a professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks). "It's not so easy to get funding for big-ticket items, so who is going to pay for this: the public or the private sector?"