A thirty-year resident of Alaska, Mead Treadwell (MBA ’82) is chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. The commission, which reports to the President and Congress, sets direction for the U.S. government’s $400 million annual Arctic research program, involving fifteen federal agencies. In the private sector, Treadwell is chairman and CEO of Venture Ad Astra, which invests in and develops new geospatial and imaging technologies.

“From 2007 to 2009, we are marking the International Polar Year,” notes Treadwell, who lives in Anchorage. “One of our goals for Arctic research is to put in place an environmental observing system that helps us understand changes in the Arctic, a critical component of the global system. We can’t get a fix on climate change just by focusing on what comes out of tailpipes. We also have to understand that Mother Nature is changing the way she stores and releases carbon and heat.”

Tell us about the Arctic Commission’s mandate and activities.

Seven of us are appointed by the President to recommend research goals and to help the United States build international cooperation in Arctic research, most notably in earth sciences, climate, biology, and human development.

While we focus on research goals, our advice is tied to major policy issues as well. For example, the commission advocates ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in effect since 1994. Some U.S. legislators oppose UNCLOS, also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty, asserting that it cedes too much power to the UN. At the commission, we believe ratification will spur research in the Arctic Ocean that will have major benefits for the United States. The treaty offers the chance to unequivocally delimit and define sovereign lands on the ocean floor — at least the size of California and rich in resources — to add to the territory of the United States. In fact, after acceding to the treaty, and completing our mapping of the coastal United States, we anticipate adding to U.S. territory an area equal to twice the size of California.

Do other Arctic countries like Canada, Russia, or Norway have stronger cultural or nationalist feelings about the North? If so, is the United States at a disadvantage in trying to forge domestic political consensus around Arctic issues?

I think the United States has a long tradition of questioning Alaska’s relevance, dating back to criticism of the Alaska Purchase in 1867, dubbed “Seward’s Folly.” However, to know the Arctic is to understand the strategic role this region plays in America’s security and economy.

After this past summer, which saw an open Northwest Passage, a dramatic reduction in the sea ice cap, and the activities of several countries asserting their claims, Washington woke up. The Senate decided to look again at ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty. The National Security Council and the State Department are now leading a review of U.S. Arctic policy.

The Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee and several other interagency committees are now looking at issues arising from a newly accessible Arctic Ocean; the Navy and Coast Guard also have a fresh focus on the region. The President’s science adviser has expressed strong interest, and President Bush himself has now urged ratification of the UNCLOS.

Please delineate the Arctic’s economic and strategic importance.

We produce 20 percent of America’s oil out of the Arctic today, and the U.S. Geological Survey estimate is that 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas will come from the Arctic. There are multibillion-dollar mineral reserves — copper, zinc, gold, diamonds, lead — as well. Most people don’t know that FedEx and UPS have very large hubs in Alaska and that most of the world’s international air cargo now traverses the Arctic.

As for the shipping routes, humankind has for hundreds of years been looking at this dream of the Arctic as a new Mediterranean. Henry Hudson’s goal of the Northwest Passage is realizable in our lifetime. Finally, the Arctic has always been a first line of defense, dating back to the Cold War’s Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line of radar installations and continuing today as America’s primary missile-defense site.

Which of these issues worries you most?

That’s a tough question. As someone who was trained at HBS and has made my living trying to take assets that most people don’t understand and turn them into assets that are monetizable, I like to look at the resources of the Arctic and what they can do for mankind. And it’s not just what we have in the ground; it’s also our location and our air and sea routes. So I think about the economic role that we play as well as protecting the Arctic environment. When I was a deputy commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation, we all worked very hard to help knit the eight Arctic nations together on protection of the Arctic environment through entities such as the Northern Forum and the Arctic Council.

Most of the things we need to do to protect the Arctic environment and understand climate change rely on research. So I’d have to say I worry about two things. One is realizing the Arctic’s great resource potential. The other is understanding the Arctic environment in order to protect the Arctic, its people, and its biodiversity. These two worries are real and compatible.

Several countries have conflicting Arctic sovereignty and resources claims. Will the rule of law prevail, or will we see gunboat, or icebreaker, diplomacy?

It’s in the mutual interest of all nations to ensure that the Arctic is accessible, safe, secure, and reliable. By safe we mean available search-and-rescue, as well as no oil or chemical spills and no rust buckets allowed. By secure we mean no single nation has control or the ability to unfairly tax ships passing through. Reliable means having enough ocean-transport and sea-lane rules in place so firms can invest without political risk.

When it comes to territory, there will be some differences of opinion among geologists, I think, in interpreting the shape, structure, and composition of certain parts of the Arctic Ocean floor. Some experts have said the entire ocean is likely to be carved up.

But in the end, I doubt it will be gunboats that lead to determination of these issues. I hope and believe it will be scientists meeting and reaching a consensus, probably in a United Nations tribunal, called for by the Law of the Sea Treaty.

So you don’t foresee a U.S. invasion of Canada, or vice versa?

Laughter No! I sincerely doubt that. It is likely that nations will agree to disagree on some things and agree to agree on the fundamentals. The fundamentals, in my opinion, are that no matter who owns what in the Arctic, we want to make sure that human activity does not bring large new pollution events, interfere with subsistence culture, or jeopardize international freedom of the seas.

Global warming will eventually lead to significant increases in resource exploitation in the Arctic. When might that begin?

Much of the economic development going on now is not due to climate change as much as it is to advanced technology and global demand. Climate change is making the Arctic accessible in people’s minds. Russia plans to ship oil and liquefied natural gas from its north to East Coast U.S. ports in this decade; between 2000 and 2010, energy shipments out of Russia are likely to grow by 100-fold through the Arctic. There is a major anthracite coal reserve in northern Alaska, and if we’re going to burn coal anywhere in the world, that’s some of the best to use. Major development exploration is going on there now.

Amid all this demand for energy, in October we had an eight-nation Arctic energy summit in Anchorage where we talked not just about extractive resources but also about the Arctic’s vast renewables: hydro, wind, geothermal, and tidal. When the world is ready to use hydrogen, we’ll be the supplier.

What about shipping?

Most ice experts predict that the so-called Northeast Passage, off Russia, is more likely to be a reliable long-term shipping route before the Northwest Passage, because ice is likely to last longer in the archipelago of the Canadian North. Some projections find that summertime passage over the North Pole itself could be possible in several decades. But already, with existing technology and today’s ice conditions, an Institute of the North study demonstrates that bringing a container from Europe to Asia viathe northern route could well be competitive with the $1,500 per container charged by shipping companies for transport from Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal. Our commission is conducting an Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment for the eight Arctic nations, looking at scenarios in which ice conditions and so forth are not the limiting factor.

Are Northern people convinced that climate change is real?

Life may not have changed much by the Charles River. But in Alaska, life is changing dramatically, with shoreline erosion and melting glaciers. I have some scientist friends who were on an icebreaker last summer, and they came upon some polar bears on a small, solitary ice floe that was literally hundreds of miles from shore. These things are happening, and there’s something for everybody to be concerned about. If people care about what’s in their gas tank, or biodiversity, or national security, they need to pay attention to the Arctic.

What tends to get overlooked amid media attention to a warmed-up North?

Despite everything we hear about melting ice and an accessible Arctic, it is still a cold, dark, forbidding place that requires special provisions and extensive preparation. Last spring, we mourned the deaths of two sailors on a British submarine; the summer before that, two U.S. Coast Guard members were lost. They died in accidents in the Arctic in the name of exploration. The Arctic is indeed changing, but it remains a very tough place to work.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1982, Section F

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