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Report to Congress on Changes in the Arctic

The following is the March 24, 2022, Congressional Research Service report, Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress.

From the report

The diminishment of Arctic sea ice has led to increased human activities in the Arctic, and has heightened interest in, and concerns about, the region’s future. The United States, by virtue of Alaska, is an Arctic country and has substantial interests in the region. The seven other Arctic states are Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark (by virtue of Greenland), and Russia.

The Arctic Research and Policy Act (ARPA) of 1984 (Title I of P.L. 98-373 of July 31, 1984) “provide[s] for a comprehensive national policy dealing with national research needs and objectives in the Arctic.” The National Science Foundation (NSF) is the lead federal agency for implementing Arctic research policy. The Arctic Council, created in 1996, is the leading international forum for addressing issues relating to the Arctic. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) sets forth a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans, including the Arctic Ocean. The United States is not a party to UNCLOS.

An array of climate changes in the Arctic is now documented by observing systems, with more expected with future greenhouse gas-driven climate change. Observed physical changes in the Arctic include warming ocean, soil, and air temperatures; melting permafrost; shifting vegetation and animal abundances; and altered characteristics of Arctic cyclones. A monitoring report of the Arctic Council concluded in 2019 that “the Arctic biophysical system is now clearly trending away from its previous state [in the 20th Century] and into a period of unprecedented change, with implications not only within but also beyond the Arctic.”

Following the end of the Cold War, the Arctic states sought to maintain a tradition of cooperation, low tensions, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for international law in managing Arctic affairs. The emergence of great power competition between the United States, Russia, and China has introduced elements of competition and tension into the Arctic’s geopolitical environment. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine beginning in late February 2022 has substantially affected U.S., Canadian, and Nordic relations with Russia in the Arctic.

The Department of Defense (DOD) and the Coast Guard are devoting increased attention to the Arctic in their planning and operations. Whether DOD and the Coast Guard are taking sufficient actions for defending U.S. interests in the region is a topic of congressional oversight. The Coast Guard has two operational polar icebreakers and through FY2021 has received funding for procuring two of at least three planned new polar icebreakers.

The diminishment of Arctic ice could lead in coming years to increased commercial shipping on two trans-Arctic sea routes—the Northern Sea Route close to Russia, and the Northwest Passage close to Alaska and through the Canadian archipelago—though the rate of increase in the use of these routes might not be as great as sometimes anticipated in press accounts. International guidelines for ships operating in Arctic waters have been updated.

Changes to the Arctic brought about by warming temperatures will likely allow more exploration for oil, gas, and minerals. Warming that causes permafrost to melt could pose challenges to onshore exploration activities. Increased oil and gas exploration and tourism (cruise ships) in the Arctic increase the risk of pollution in the region. Cleaning up oil spills in ice-covered waters will be more difficult than in other areas, primarily because effective strategies for cleaning up oil spills in ice-covered waters have yet to be developed.

Large commercial fisheries exist in the Arctic. The United States is working with other countries regarding the management of Arctic fish stocks. Changes in the Arctic could result in migration of fish stocks to new waters, and could affect protected species.

Download the document here.