Climate Change and the Future of the Arctic

Glacier in Alaska
Glacier in Alaska

In 1867, Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska, officially extending America into the Arctic, dramatically changing not only our map, but our landscape, resources and identity.

What Seward could never have foreseen was the way, nearly 150 years later, climate change would dramatically change the Arctic itself -- and leave his successors in our government with a set of challenges and opportunities few would have imagined even a decade ago. Seward negotiated the purchase of a territory; climate change demands we negotiate a whole new set of relationships and responses that affect our economy, our health, our security, and our interests as an Arctic power. As I travel to Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden, for this year's meeting of the Arctic Council, all of these realities are front and center.

Our warming planet means the Arctic's ecosystem is experiencing significant, rapid shifts with far-reaching consequences. Last September, the extent of sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean reached record lows, threatening marine mammal life and local populations dependent upon them. Receding sea ice might also bring new commerce and industry to the region, including exploration of offshore oil and gas, as well as minerals. New Arctic shipping routes could significantly decrease transit times between Pacific and Atlantic ports.

All of the changes in the Arctic must change the way we approach the region. The Obama administration's new National Strategy for the Arctic Region prioritizes domestic infrastructure development as Arctic conditions change, responsible stewardship, and enhanced cooperation with our international partners. We're focused on ensuring a secure, peaceful, and prosperous Arctic.

One of the most valuable forums in which the United States can work is the Arctic Council, which is why I am proud to be just the second Secretary of State to attend its biennual conclave where the eight Arctic States address regional environmental, economic, and indigenous issues. This week in Kiruna, I will sign an agreement on marine oil pollution preparedness and response that provides a framework for cooperation in the event of an Arctic oil emergency. Just as with the massive challenge of climate change, we must be ready today for tomorrow's crises.

Beginning in May 2015 and lasting two years -- through the 150th anniversary of the Alaska purchase -- the United States will take the helm of the Arctic Council. It's an exciting opportunity for America to lead in the region, and it couldn't come at a more critical time.

Secretary Seward's embrace of Alaska marked America's first step in Arctic leadership. A century and a half into that journey, we accept today's challenges with the same spirit of determination.

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