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U.S. prepares to stake claim in warming Arctic

As long-time rivals Russia and China turn their gaze toward the warming Arctic, the United States is preparing to do the same.

A U.S. Navy warship will set out on a freedom of navigation operation in the Arctic within the next few months, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer told the Wall Street Journal recently. Such an operation, also known as a FONOP, challenges territorial claims on the world’s oceans and airspace. International law forbids countries from interfering in the travel of ships flying the flag of any sovereign state.

“The concept is, yes, go up there,” Spencer said.

With climate change beginning to open up navigable waterways in the warming Arctic, world powers are looking to take advantage of those new lanes for commercial and military operations.

Last year saw the third-lowest Arctic ice level on record, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported. The agency first began tracking ice levels using satellite data in the 1970s. And sea ice hit record low levels in the Arctic in 2015, 2016 and 2017 as well, according to NASA.

Though the planned operation will be the first U.S. FONOP in the Arctic, the Navy has conducted similar operations in the South China Sea recently.

While the Navy is still solidifying its plans, a decommissioned base in the Aleutian island chain may play a role. Adak was closed in the 1990s and taken over in 2003 by the Aleutian Corporation, which helps settle Alaskan natives’ claims against the U.S. government.

“It has some amazing facilities,” Spencer said. “Could we bring some surface ships there? Yes.”

The corporation did not return requests for comment from the Wall Street Journal. But if the Adak base doesn’t work out, the Navy will work around it.

“We’ve got to get up there and learn,” Spencer said. “There’s no other way to do it.”

The plan comes after China last year declared its intention to create a “polar Silk Road” in the warming Arctic. Russia has been active in the Arctic for quite some time, as its northern coast lies within the region.

By Kyla Cathey, Contributing Writer

Image credit: ikaew101 /

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