WASHINGTON — The United States is racing to keep pace with stepped-up activity in the once sleepy Arctic frontier, but it is far from being in the lead.
Nations across the world are hurrying to stake claims to resources in the Arctic, which might be home to 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its untapped natural gas. There are emerging fisheries and hidden minerals.
Cruise liners filled with tourists are sailing the Arctic’s frigid waters in increasing numbers. Cargo traffic along the Northern Sea Route, one of two shortcuts across the top of the Earth in summer, is on the rise.
The United States, which takes over the two-year chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council in 2015, has not ignored the Arctic, but critics say the United States is lagging behind the other seven: Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Canada, and Denmark, through the semiautonomous territory of Greenland.
‘‘On par with the other Arctic nations, we are behind — behind in our thinking, behind in our vision,’’ Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said. ‘‘We lack basic infrastructure, basic funding commitments to be prepared for the level of activity expected in the Arctic.’’
At a meeting before Thanksgiving with Secretary of State John Kerry, Murkowski suggested that he name a US ambassador or envoy to the Arctic — someone who could coordinate work on the Arctic being done by more than 20 federal agencies and take the lead on increasing US activities in the region.
Murkowski is trying to get Americans to stop thinking that the Arctic is just Alaska’s problem. ‘‘People in Iowa and New Hampshire need to view the US as an Arctic nation. Otherwise when you talk about funding, you’re never going to get there,’’ she said. She added that even non-Arctic nations are deeply engaged: ‘‘India and China are investing in icebreakers.’’
The United States has three aging icebreakers.
The melting Arctic also is creating a new front of US security concerns.
Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin said expanding Russia’s military presence in the Arctic was a top priority for his nation’s armed forces. Russia this year began rehabilitating a Soviet-era base at the New Siberian Islands and has pledged to restore a number of Arctic military air bases that fell into neglect after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin said he doesn’t envision a conflict between Russia and the United States, both of which have called for keeping the Arctic a peaceful zone. But he added, ‘‘Experts know quite well that it takes US missiles 15 to 16 minutes to reach Moscow from the Barents Sea,’’ which is a part of the Arctic Ocean near Russia’s shore.
While the threat of militarization remains, the battle right now is on the economic level as countries vie for oil, gas, and other minerals, including rare earth metals used to make products like cellphones.
There also are disputes bubbling up with environmental groups that oppose energy exploration in the region; Russia arrested 30 crew members of a Greenpeace ship in September after a protest in the Arctic.
China signed a free trade agreement with tiny Iceland this year, a signal that the Asian powerhouse is keenly interested in the Arctic’s resources. And Russia is hoping that the Northern Sea Route, where traffic jumped to 71 vessels this year from four in 2010, someday could be a transpolar route that could rival the Suez Canal.
‘On par with the other Arctic nations, we are behind — behind in our thinking, behind in our vision.’
The Obama administration defends its work on the Arctic, saying it is preparing for the rapid changes coming in the far north. It is consulting with government, business, industry, and environmental officials, as well as the state of Alaska, to develop a plan to implement the strategy.
‘‘Each Arctic government, including the United States government, has developed an Arctic strategy, and the administration expects to release an implementation plan for our Arctic strategy in the coming months,’’ State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rolled out the Pentagon’s Arctic blueprint last month, joining the Coast Guard and other government agencies that have outlined their plans.
Critics, however, say the United States needs to back the strategy papers with more precise plans — plus funding.