We have to prepare for the world coming to the Arctic".
So says Coast Guard Rear Admiral Gene Brooks, commander of the Guard's Alaska District.
As the Arctic sea ice extent continues to shrink, new stretches of navigable water in the far north is allowing oil tankers, fishing vessels, and even cruise ships to venture where once only indigenous hunters and fishermen traveled.
The situation is urgent enough that the Coast Guard has opened two temporary stations in Alaska's northernmost waters in anticipation of the day, that most scientists believe is coming very soon, when the Arctic Ocean is ice-free in summer, exposing a sea the size of the contiguous United States.
What was once an isolated outpost on a frozen ocean could become a teeming waterway full of ocean-going freighters, oil tankers, and tourists.
And with the increased traffic, comes and increased potential for accidents, so the Coast Guard must respond to a changing climate.
The commander of the Guard, Admiral Thad Allen, chooses to leave the debate over the cause of the climate change to others. But not that it's changing:
I'm agnostic to the science and the debate about what the cause is," he said. "All I know is there's water where there didn't used to be."
Northwest Passage opens
With the continued decline in summer sea ice comes, for the second year in a row, the opening of the once fabled Northwest Passage, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
As I wrote last August in a post called "Scramble for the Arctic", the precipitous decline in Arctic ice continues to exacerbate friction between competing claims of sovereignty between Canada and other nations vying for access to the warming Arctic.
2008 Arctic summer sea ice nears another record
The National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado reports the 2008 polar summer sea ice retreat is now at its second-lowest level since data measurements began in the 1970's. With several weeks still left in the melt season, this year may still break the record set last year.
As of August 26 Arctic sea ice extent was 2.03 million square miles, a decline of 795,000 square miles since the beginning of the month.
Many scientists studying the sea ice fluctuations fear that the Arctic is at or very near a tipping point. Data Center senior scientist Mark Serreze says
We could very well be in that quick slide downward in terms of passing a tipping point"
Added NASA scientist Jay Zwally:
It's tipping now. We're seeing it happen now. â€¦five to less than 10 years the Arctic could be free of sea ice in the summer.
It also means that climate warming is also coming larger and faster than the models are predicting and nobody's really taken into account that change yet."