Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress

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Series Details R41153
Publication Date 2010-2022
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The diminishment of Arctic sea ice has led to increased human activities in the Arctic, and has heightened interest in, and concerns about, the region’s future. The United States, by virtue of Alaska, is an Arctic country and has substantial interests in the region. The seven other Arctic states are Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark (by virtue of Greenland), and Russia.

Following the end of the Cold War, the Arctic states sought to maintain a tradition of cooperation, low tensions, peaceful resolution of disputes, and respect for international law in managing Arctic affairs. The emergence of great power competition between the United States, Russia, and China has introduced elements of competition and tension into the Arctic’s geopolitical environment. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine beginning in late February 2022 has substantially affected U.S., Canadian, and Nordic relations with Russia in the Arctic.

The diminishment of Arctic ice could lead in coming years to increased commercial shipping on two trans-Arctic sea routes — the Northern Sea Route close to Russia, and the Northwest Passage close to Alaska and through the Canadian archipelago — though the rate of increase in the use of these routes might not be as great as sometimes anticipated in press accounts. International guidelines for ships operating in Arctic waters have been updated.

Changes to the Arctic brought about by warming temperatures will likely allow more exploration for oil, gas, and minerals. Warming that causes permafrost to melt could pose challenges to onshore exploration activities. Increased oil and gas exploration and tourism (cruise ships) in the Arctic increase the risk of pollution in the region. Cleaning up oil spills in ice-covered waters will be more difficult than in other areas, primarily because effective strategies for cleaning up oil spills in ice-covered waters have yet to be developed.

Large commercial fisheries exist in the Arctic. The United States is working with other countries regarding the management of Arctic fish stocks. Changes in the Arctic could result in migration of fish stocks to new waters, and could affect protected species.

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This Report was first published in 2010 and subsequently updated. The latest update was published in March 2022. All updates can be checked on the Primary Source link provided below.

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