RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
During his trip to Alaska, President Obama has been calling on Congress to speed up funding for the construction of icebreakers. The president says the U.S. doesn't have enough of them. NPR's Jim Zarroli explains.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Icebreakers are huge, loud, lumbering vessels that can cut through solid ice, and they can be enormously valuable at times. A few years ago, for instance, a tanker carrying fuel got iced-in while heading to the city of Nome. The Coast Guard sent one of its two icebreakers to rescue it.
Betsy Baker of the Vermont Law School says icebreakers are essential in the Arctic.
BETSY BAKER: We need them for national security, we need them for national scientific endeavor and we need them for environmental protection.
ZARROLI: Baker acknowledges it might seem counterintuitive. If ice is melting, why does the president want to build more icebreakers? But Baker says that with ice melting, a lot more people are venturing out into the Arctic, such as fishermen and sportsmen. They can get trapped in the ice and the Coast Guard needs to rescue them.
BAKER: When there's not solid ice, the ice becomes much less predictable, much more dangerous.
ZARROLI: Then too, the melting of the ice is opening up a lot of commercial activities in the Arctic. More and more ships are traveling the sea route north of Russia, for instance. There's more shipping and more drilling for oil and natural gas.
Fran Ulmer, who chairs the Federal Arctic Research Council, says there's a real need for more research in the region.
FRAN ULMER: There's so much more we need to know about the Arctic Ocean now that it is opening up and becoming more accessible. So we also need icebreakers to be able to do the scientific research and monitoring and observing that helps people make better decisions.
ZARROLI: Ulmer and other Alaskans have been calling on the federal government to build more icebreakers for years. But they are hugely expensive - about a billion dollars each - and Congress has been slow to approve funding. Heather Conley is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
HEATHER CONLEY: The United States has fallen behind. We used to have a fairly large fleet of icebreakers - up to eight. And over the last few decades that's really atrophied.
ZARROLI: In comparison, Russia, with its huge Arctic coastline and its ambitious economic agenda for the region now has some 40 of the vessels. If the U.S. is going to compete in the Arctic, Conley says, it will have to get busy.
CONLEY: This is going to be an undertaking - not easy, a lot of funding, a lot of technology. And we have to decide what exactly we want this icebreaker to do.
ZARROLI: Conley says the U.S. has been slow to build more icebreakers in part because of a general ambivalence about developing the Arctic. The government has veered between wanting to protect the region and wanting to exploit its resources. But as other countries barrel ahead, the U.S. is being forced to decide what it wants its policy in the Arctic to be. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.