Barack Obama was set to become the first sitting American president to visit the Arctic Circle last night (Wednesday), as the United States battles to assert itself in a global race to control the region's natural resources.
Melting of the ice cap, caused by rising global temperatures has made the once impenetrable Arctic Circle increasingly accessible, sparking intense competition between Russia, the United States and China to assert control over an area that it is thought may hold as much as 40 per cent of the world's oil and gas resources. During a three-day visit to Alaska, which has been primarily billed as a trip to highlight the urgency of Mr Obama's ambitious climate change agenda, the president proposed speeding up the acquisition and building of new coast guard icebreaker ships to help secure year-round access to the nation's polar regions.
"These heavy icebreakers will ensure that the United States can meet our national interests, protect and manage our natural resources, and strengthen our international, state, local, and tribal relationships," the White House said in a statement.
The US coast guard fleet is antiquated, and reportedly has only two fully functional icebreakers, while Russia is said to have 40 of the vessels, with another 11 planned or under construction. China is also a player in the area with one icebreaker and plans to build more.
Russia has been rapidly expanding its influence in the Arctic, earmarking pounds 2.8?billion for Arctic development over the next five years in an ambitious military and industrial programme that is being personally overseen by Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
Last March Mr Putin ordered a full combat military exercise in the area, involving 40,000 Russian troops and dozens of warships and submarines.
Russia's focus on the Arctic has highlighted the challenges of reconciling climate policies with immediate economic necessity.
Mr Obama's visit to Alaska is also part of what he hopes will be a legacy-defining mission to cut American greenhouse emissions by almost a third.
Images of melting permafrost and rising sea levels that are now forcing thousands of people to abandon their coastal homes are intended to drive home the urgency of Mr Obama's ambitious policies to tackle global warming.
During the three-day trip the president has used a mix of traditional politicking and celebrity television to get his message across. On Tuesday, the president spent the day with Bear Grylls, filming an episode of the British survival expert's programme Running Wild in which the pair hiked the melting Exit Glacier.
The president also used the trip to make a significant symbolic gesture to American Indian communities and Alaskans, renaming Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America as Denali, its traditional name. Mr Obama was due to fly to Kotzebue yesterday, the main Arctic town in an area that is battling coastal erosion caused by rising sea levels.
Residents in as many as a dozen of the surrounding villages have voted to relocate their homes inland, a move that may end their traditional way of life, but which many say is now inevitable. "In Arctic Alaska, villages are being damaged by powerful storm surges, which, once held at bay by sea ice, are battering the barrier islands where those villages sit," the White House said, as it announced a set of local programmes designed to alleviate the pressure on the communities there.
Mr Obama has been accused of hypocrisy by green campaigners for
using Alaska to elevate his climate agenda, while only last month giving the final permission for Shell to begin exploratory drilling for oil.
"The risks are incredible. Shell is being allowed to drill for oil in one of the most remote and dangerous places in the world, with none of the equipment ever having been tested," said Michael LeVine, of the Oceana activist group.