The retreat of sea ice in the Arctic has opened the door for maritime traffic to a mostly underused region of the world.

But so far commercial shipping, cruise, commercial fishing, and oil and mining industries in the U.S. have expressed little interest in upping their activity there.

That is the conclusion of a report just released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that said despite the current lack of U.S. industry interest, “there has been greater international focus on developing and investing in maritime infrastructure, such as deepwater ports and improved mapping and charting of Arctic waters.”

Such infrastructure, the report continued, “Could help facilitate transportation and commerce and be used to support activities such as search and rescue and emergency response.”

The GAO report, “Maritime Infrastructure — Key Issues Related to Commercial Activity in the U.S. Arctic over the Next Decade,” noted that Alaska’s location makes the U.S. an “Arctic nation.” 

According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Coast Guard, the number of vessel transits through the Bering Strait that separates Alaska and Russia increased from just over 200 in 2008 to nearly 500 in 2012. The number dropped to around 420 in 2013.

In its survey of likely future industry use of the U.S. Arctic, the report said that commercial shippers, citing higher per-unit shipping costs and risk and uncertainty due to extreme and unpredictable weather, said they have no major plans to use the North Sea route. 

“Oil companies have made some investments to develop offshore oil resources in the U.S. Arctic. These development efforts, however, are generally on hold and increases in oil exploration activity are expected to be limited,” the report said.

However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working with the state of Alaska, is looking at the development of a deepwater Arctic port, while the U.S. Coast Guard is in the preliminary stages of acquiring a polar icebreaker that could be used on patrols and as part of an emergency response effort in the U.S. Arctic.

Despite the seeming indifference on the part of the various industries to the potential of the U.S. Arctic, some leaders in Washington say the need for a modern Arctic infrastructure has never been greater. — Garry Boulard