The landscape north of the Arctic Circle is like none other on Earth. It is home to four million people, many of whom hail from ancestors who have relied on the region’s tundra, forests, and oceans for millennia. They live alongside polar bears, orcas, walruses, Arctic foxes, hooded seals, beluga whales, caribou, and roughly 5,500 other incredible species. It is a diverse and extreme environment that is undergoing rapid change.
Climate change has caused temperatures in the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the global average. This is rapidly altering the Arctic landscape, as sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost melt and Arctic weather patterns change. A warmer Arctic puts the livelihoods of indigenous peoples and the future of many Arctic species at risk. In addition to these challenges, warmer temperatures bring opportunities for expanding human use of the Arctic’s natural resources and waterways as sea ice disappears.
These dynamic changes highlight the need for collaborative and proactive decision making. Fortunately, a decision making body with a mandate to coordinate and cooperate on Arctic issues already exists. The Arctic Council, the preeminent intergovernmental decision making body in the region, serves as a forum for the Arctic’s eight countries to discuss sustainable development, environmental protection, and indigenous concerns. In addition to these eight member states, there are six permanent participant organizations made up of indigenous groups from the region.
As an Arctic nation, the United States has been a member state since the Council’s founding in 1996. Since 2015, the United States has had the opportunity to take a leading role in setting Council objectives and priorities as the Council’s chair. The chairmanship rotates among the eight member states on a two-year basis, with Finland to assume the position in 2017. The United States identified the well-being of Arctic communities, marine stewardship, and climate change as three priority areas to address during its leadership tenure.
To fulfill these goals, the Arctic Council under U.S. leadership has taken steps to support ocean acidification monitoring in the Arctic Ocean, develop climate change indicators and resilience planning tools, and promote mental health research to address the Arctic’s high suicide rates. Arctic Council members have worked together to enhance oil spill preparedness and search and rescue capabilities in the region and are working toward developing a network of marine protected areas to preserve sensitive habitats. Leaders brought together by the Council have begun to discuss the future of telecommunications infrastructure in the region to benefit Arctic communities.
As the U.S. chairmanship draws to a close, it is important that the United States continues to advocate for American interests in the Arctic. A region as unique, dynamic, vulnerable, and important as the Arctic needs a champion. The United States clearly understands the need for Arctic leadership and action and is well positioned to be its champion.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.