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Juliette Kayyem

A new ocean passage, with not enough rules

Petty officer Second class charly hengen

Sea ice resembled hurricane clouds near St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea Wednesday.

ST. PAUL, Alaska -- THE CAUSES and culprits of the earth’s rising temperatures are not discussed much in places around the Arctic. It isn’t that global warming is doubted. That’s silly talk to those who live here. Sadly, the hotter earth, with warmer oceans, is accepted as a fait accompli.

From tiny St. Paul Island in the middle of the Bering Sea to the eight nations that constitute the Arctic Council, a group that coordinates interactions among Arctic states, there is no debate that the earth is changing. The challenge now is how to manage the traffic on an ocean they never dreamed would be so welcoming.

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At first glance, St. Paul Island, north of the Aleutian Islands and a tiny spot between Russia and Alaska in the Bering Sea, does not look terribly relevant to global politics. With a population of just a “couple hundred’’ locals, the Aleut-Americans, who were once relocated and interned by the US government during World War II, are the focus of attention again. It makes them a little uncomfortable, for different reasons. The Aleutians are experiencing a rush hour of a non-vehicular form.

In 2008, about 200 boats transited the Bering Sea. This year, with increased accessibility and flimsy ice, it is much higher. Indeed, if global warming had a number it might be about 660, the anticipated vessels that will traverse the Bering, and pass St. Paul, in 2012 alone.

Simply put, there is no traffic cop here, and the routes keep expanding. This isn’t about the search for oil in the Arctic Ocean. The reason is that the Northern Sea Route - the area above Russia - can now be used for transit. Thick ice has given way to thin clumps during the summer, and that means a new way around the world.

To travel from Western Europe to East Asia today normally requires a trip to the Suez Canal. As the Northern Sea Route opens, the trip is cut by a third; what was once a 15-day journey is now 10. The United States estimates that cargo transport alone in the Northern Sea Route will increase from 1.8 million tons in 2010 to 64 million tons by 2020.

More water, more boats, more cargo, and no one in charge means a lot more danger. Flying by the Alaska coast and over the strait to the Cold Bay landing strip, the pilot Bill Deal, one of the main characters in National Geographic’s TV show “Coast Guard Alaska,’’ points to where there is a lot more open water down below. He still is in awe of how water and ice glide together.

As if we were scouring a new planet, the Coast Guard’s leader for the Alaska shores, Rear Admiral Tom Ostebo, points to places on the coast that are being considered for a deep water harbor for large ships. A new harbor is the equivalent of the Hoover Dam in terms of infrastructure; forget the causes, that kind of new world thinking is what happens when fresh lands open.

And it’s very open. The lack of governance has been an issue for some time. The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention was an attempt to establish a framework for ocean management; proposed in 1982, it has the support of over 160 nations, and the last five US presidents. But the Senate has never ratified the treaty based on reactionary concerns about ceding land to Northern Europeans.

The failure to ratify leaves the United States less able to protect its interests in the Arctic while other nations advance geographic, military, and economic claims. And our inability to approve the convention means that any standards we may want to impose on Arctic traffic are non-binding under international law; we don’t play, so we aren’t recognized.

Thus, basic requirements - shipping lanes, a vessel traffic system, ice forecasting, and weather information sharing, even just notification that boats are coming through - are not subject to any universal controls.

But convention ratification, like debating whether the earth is warming, is a bit of a luxury here. On Thursday, outside Anchorage, the Arctic Council members - Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation, and the United States - met to begin to set some minimum binding rules on marine oil pollution preparedness and response in the absence of a treaty. At the meeting, Alaska’s lieutenant governor, Mead Treadwell, simply told me “we are naked up here.’’

The small population in St. Paul did not create our environmental or energy policies. They are just looking at all this new traffic pass by, the sure sign that whatever we try to do to stop the earth from warming and the oceans from melting, it’s all a done deal here.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.
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