Obama to Call for More Icebreakers in Arctic as U.S. Seeks FootholdANCHORAGE — President Obama on Tuesday will propose speeding the acquisition and building of new Coast Guard icebreakers that can operate year-round in the nation’s polar regions, part of an effort to close the gap between the United States and other nations, especially Russia, in a global competition to gain a foothold in the rapidly changing Arctic.
On the second day of a three-day trip to Alaska to highlight the challenge of climate change and call for a worldwide effort to address its root causes, Mr. Obama’s proposals will touch on one of its most profound effects. The retreat of Arctic sea ice has created opportunities for shipping, tourism, mineral exploration and fishing — and with it, a rush of marine traffic that is bringing new difficulties.
“Arctic ecosystems are among the most pristine and understudied in the world, meaning increased commercial activity comes with significant risks to the environment,” the White House said in a fact sheet issued in advance of an announcement by Mr. Obama in Seward, where he planned to hike to Exit Glacier on Tuesday and tour Kenai Fjords National Park by boat.
“The growth of human activity in the Arctic region will require highly engaged stewardship to maintain the open seas necessary for global commerce and scientific research, allow for search and rescue activities, and provide for regional peace and stability,” the statement said.
The aging Coast Guard fleet is not keeping pace with the challenge, the administration acknowledged, noting that the service has the equivalent of just two “fully functional” heavy icebreakers at its disposal, down from seven during World War II. Russia, by contrast, has 41 of the vessels, with plans for 11 more. China unveiled a refurbished icebreaker in 2012 and is building another.
Mr. Obama will propose speeding up the acquisition of a replacement icebreaker that had been planned for 2022, setting a new date of 2020, the White House said. He will also propose that planning begin on the construction of new ones, asking Congress to provide “sufficient resources” to fund them.
In addition, Mr. Obama will announce an initiative by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard to map and chart the newly open Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The agency will also install new equipment in the Arctic in the “near future” to monitor climate-change effects and enhance marine safety, including stations to monitor sea-level rise and “a sea-ice thickness satellite product,” the White House said.
Some lawmakers, analysts and even government officials say the United States is lagging other nations in preparing for the new environmental, economic and geopolitical realities in the Arctic.
Gov. Bill Walker of Alaska, who traveled to Anchorage with Mr. Obama on Air Force One on Monday, said he was concerned that the United States military was drawing down in Alaska just as Russia was flexing its muscles.
“It’s the biggest buildup of the Russian military since the Cold War,” Mr. Walker said, noting Alaska’s proximity to Russia. “They’re reopening 10 bases and building four more, and they’re all in the Arctic, so here we are in the middle of the pond, feeling a little bit uncomfortable.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Obama plans to trek through the Alaskan wilderness in an effort to call attention to the urgency of addressing climate change, and to build public support for doing so. At a conference sponsored by the State Department on Monday, he issued a call to action on the issue, exhorting foreign leaders at the gathering to get out and see a glacier to remind themselves of the need to preserve such places for future generations.
“I’ll be sharing my experiences with you along the way, because I want to make sure you see what I’m seeing,” the president wrote about his travels on Monday in a post on Medium, the blogging platform. “And when you do, I want you to think about the fact that this is the only planet that we’ve got — and we’ve got to do everything we can to protect it.”
At the Kenai Fjords park on Tuesday, the president will also announce that he is sending Congress draft legislation to upgrade and promote access to national park facilities in time for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
The bill would support the administration’s efforts “to ensure that our parks and historic sites fully represent our nation’s ethnically and culturally diverse communities, and that all Americans, regardless of their background or where they live, are able to access and enjoy these remarkable places,” the White House said.