Facts & Figures
AC member since 1996Coordinates Washington, D.C.:
38.9072° N, 77.0369° W
58.3019° N, 134.4197° W Population United States: 318.9 million
Alaska: 736,732 Land Area United States:
9.857 million km2
Alaska: 1.718 million km2 Arctic Coastline 1,706 km
The United States is an Arctic nation and privy to northern regional governance and policy decisions through its 50th state, Alaska. It was purchased from the Russian Empire in 1867 for 7.2 million USD and entered into statehood in 1959. As part of the continental but not contiguous United States, Alaska is bordered by the Canadian Yukon Territory to the east and the Canadian province of British Columbia to the southeast. To the north lie the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and the southern parts of the Arctic Ocean. To the west and south lie the Pacific Ocean, with Russia further west across the Bering Strait. Altogether, Alaska has more than 34,000 miles of coastline. Though it is the largest state of the union, it is the least densely populated, with over half of all residents living in just two cities.
Although research like the Arctic Human Development Report considers all of Alaska to be Arctic, Arctic Alaska commonly includes the North Slope Borough, the Northwest Arctic Borough, and the Nome Census area. Larger towns include Prudhoe Bay, Barrow, Kotzebue, Nome, and Galena. The average annual high and low for Barrow are -8.2 °C (17.2 °F) and -14 °C (6.4 °F), respectively. There are very few highways in the Alaskan Arctic, and many rural communities can only be accessed by aircraft or snowmobile in good weather. Alaska largely consists of tundra covering mountain ranges, permafrost, and coastal plains home to bears, wolves, Dall sheep, muskoxen, reindeer, and many birds. The Gates of the Arctic National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge both help to preserve Alaska’s natural landscapes.
Alaska has been host to a number of high political and media profile environmental issues over the past three decades concerning tensions between natural resource extraction and environmental protection. Whether or not to permit drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has been an ongoing controversy since 1977. ANWR, a 19,000,000 acre refuge, is the largest protected wilderness in the US. It is also home to oil and gas reserves ready for exploration and extraction. The key issue of oil exploration in the refuge is the potential disturbance to wildlife, particularly the Porcupine caribou that calve there each year. In 2015, President Obama proposed to declare an additional 5 million acres of the refuge as a wilderness area, which would put a total of 12.8 million acres of the refuge permanently off-limits to drilling or other development. While there has been much debate between conservationists and developers since his declaration, Congress has yet to decide on the proposal.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill has left a long, dark legacy on the narrative of oil exploration and environmental protection in the Arctic. On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef and spilled 11 to 38 million gallons of crude oil over the next several days. Considered one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters, the response was particularly difficult because Prince William Sound’s remote location is only accessible by helicopter, plane, or boat. The immediate effects of the spill include as many as 250,000 seabird, at least 2,800 sea otter, 22 orca, and an unknown number of fish deaths. Though most wildlife has recovered from the spill, the orca whales have yet to reach pre-spill levels and an estimated 16,000 to 21,000 gallons of oil remain on beaches. Still today, there is significant concern over Arctic oil spills from activist groups, local communities, and environmentalists at large, as seen most recently by protests against Shell’s now terminated Arctic drilling campaign.
Pebble Mine, on public-land in the Bristol Bay area of southwest Alaska, is one of the largest environmental concerns in Alaska today. The proposed copper, gold, and molybdenum mine would be the largest open-pit mine in North America at two miles wide and over 2,000 feet deep. If developed, the mine poses serious risks of contaminating the watershed, salmon, and other fisheries with mine-generated pollutants such as heavy metals and acid mine drainage. In 2014, the EPA openly questioned the future of the salmon habitat should the mine open and proposed restrictions that would effectively prohibit the project from moving forward.
Alaska’s Arctic, like the rest of the region, is facing warming at twice the rate as the rest of the globe. Higher temperatures create dangerous ice conditions; decrease the quantity and quality of annual snowfall; change weather patterns; and shift landscapes as permafrost thaws—all of which seriously undermine ecosystem and wildlife integrity.
Over 736,732 people live in the state of Alaska. With one of the highest fertility rates in the Arctic, Alaska has one of the youngest and fastest growing populations of the region. Alaska’s median age is 34 years, with 39% of Alaska Natives under the age of 20. The population is projected to increase by 28% to 915,211 by 2035. This is not only from above-replacement fertility levels, but also from migration to the state. Sixty-one percent of Alaska residents were born outside of Alaska, including seven percent who were born abroad. Internally, over 20% of the population moved in 2009, making it one of the most mobile states of the union. Much of this internal migration was to urban areas below the Arctic Circle like Anchorage and Fairbanks, where about 55% of the state’s population lives. The past century has seen a general trend towards urbanization in America’s Arctic. In 1920, only 6% of the population was urban. Today, about two-thirds of the state resides in cities. This is also true for Alaska Natives, over 36,000 of whom live in Anchorage alone.
First Nations Groups make up 14.3% of the Alaskan population.Tribes are generally divided into six major groupings: Unangan (Aleut), Sugpiaq (Alutiiq), Yupik (Central Yup’ik and Siberian Yupik), Iñupiaq (Northwest Alaskan Inuit), Athabaskans (Interior Indians) and Tlingit and Haida (Southeast Coastal Indians). Of these, the Yup’ik, Athabaskans, and Inupiaq have traditional homelands above the Arctic Circle, with the Yup’ik and Inupiaq spreading across the Russian and Canadian borders, respectively. These groups are hunter-gatherers, and continue to rely heavily on the subsistence hunting and fishing of walrus, seal, whale, polar bears, caribou, and fish. The hunting of Bowhead whales benefits all members of an Inupiaq community, as the meat and blubber is allocated to all members according to a traditional formula. In communities with limited access to fruits and vegetables, the consumption of whale and other vitamin rich raw meats provides important nutrition.
Throughout history, US rule over Alaska was characterized by little tolerance towards Indigenous belief systems, communities, and languages. Indigenous communities were often mistreated, and used as geopolitical assets during World War II and the Cold War. While 1959 marked the statehood of Alaska, for Indigenous peoples of the American Arctic the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Act in 1971 was the main achievement of enfranchisement. The Claims Act, initiated by the discovery of oil on Alaska’s North Slope, gives cash and land titles to Native Corporations on the regional and local level. Since its passage, the Act has been controversial; regardless, Alaska Native’s history and rights have been significantly impacted by its implementation. Native Alaskan culture is thriving today in cultural centers, schools, and community groups. Although there has been a general reduction in the proportion of speakers of most Native languages in Alaska, there are concerted efforts at language preservation across the state.
Alaska faces a number of social issues, including alcoholism and suicide. Alaska has one of the highest per capita alcohol consumption rates in the nation and a rate of alcohol dependence and abuse that is twice that of the national average. Between 1990 and 1993, 66.6% of all deaths in rural Alaska were alcohol-related. Alaska’s suicide rate of 23 for every 100,000 people in 2013 was the second highest in the United States. For Alaska Native men between 15 and 24, the rate is 169 suicides per 100,000—14 times the US national rate. Cited reasons for such drastic numbers include historical trauma, mental illness, unemployment, cultural loss, and spiritual distress.
One of the biggest issues facing Alaskan communities today is climate change. Drastic changes in the Arctic climate have caused slumping, landslides, and severe erosion in coastal areas. With these ecological shifts, climate change is having a very real and immediate impact on communities that live in Alaska. Thinner sea ice with sudden thaws and later freezes make traditional practices of travel, hunting, harvesting, and communication between communities more dangerous and difficult. Decreased snow coverage makes hunting hazardous, forcing hunters to rely on cumbersome, colder tents instead of traditional igloos. The melting of permafrost, combined with more violent storms hitting the coastline that exacerbate erosion and flooding, puts homes, infrastructure, and livelihoods at risk. In extreme cases, such terrain devastation requires the relocation of entire communities. The marine species upon which the Inuit rely on for subsistence harvests and traditional knowledge transfer, including polar bears, walruses, ice-living seals, and many birds, are or will soon be in decline as a result of warmer temperatures and less sea ice. Some face extinction by the end of this century. Decreased access to traditional food sources force Inuit hunters to move to new, more dangerous locations that further exacerbate the travel issues resulting from climate change. These changes to traditional practises also affect the overall culture, as hunting provides spiritual and cultural affirmation, and is a key activity for passing skills, knowledge, and values from generation to generation.
Alaska is the second largest economy in the Arctic region, constituting 10.8% of GRP at 47,713 USD million PPP in 2010. It has the highest per capita income in the Arctic at 50,150 USD in 2013.
The Alaskan economy is largely based on petroleum production, followed by fishing, mining, and tourism revenues. For many years, petroleum resource extraction has been an effective and crucial component in securing economic growth and productive employment for Alaska. Since the discovery of petroleum at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope in 1968, and long beyond its peak production in 1988, oil has been the backbone of Alaska’s economy. Today, 87% of Alaska’s state budget comes from oil and mineral-related activities. The oil industry accounts for roughly one third of Alaskan jobs, and over half of the state’s entire economy.
Oil is still an important element of Alaska’s economic vitality; however, mature fields, climate change, and falling oil prices pose a major threat to its ability to support growth not only in the future, but also at present. As oil wells continue to produce less, production in Alaska has fallen to less than a quarter of what it was in the late 1980s. Globally, oil prices have fallen steeply since the final months of 2014. Alaska’s state budget for 2015 was based on oil at $105 a barrel; the actual price of oil in February 2016 was $30 a barrel. The state government will face a $3.4 billion shortfall in spending. Governor Bill Walker has proposed a cut in government spending of between 5-8% this year, with a total cut of 25% over the next four years if prices stay low. While Alaska’s per capita income remains significantly higher than the US average, this number is reliant on petroleum production. Alaska can levy one of the lowest tax burdens in the country because of the money brought in through petroleum production. As the economy currently stands, a reduction in petroleum production is a major threat to the wellbeing of Alaskans.
Tourism is a growing industry in Alaska. It is the second largest private sector employer and accounts for one in eight jobs in the state. On average, nearly two million people visit Alaska each year to see mountains, glaciers, and wildlife. More than half of the visitors come by cruise ship, a mode share that is expected to grow. Tourism brings in more than 1.8 billion USD annually, totalling 2.42 billion with the addition of labor income from visitors industry jobs. At peak season, tourism employs 46,000 workers.
With 24,000 miles of coastline and more than three million lakes and rivers, fishing constitutes another key sector of Alaska’s economy. In 2013, 5.8 billion pounds of fish were reeled in by the fishing industry for USD 1.9 billion, leading all states in volume and landing. Dutch Harbor, with Alaskan pollock, snow crabs, king crabs, and salmon, is the most profitable fishery in the state. Bristol Bay, home to the proposed Pebble Mine, has one of the best sockeye salmon harvests in the world, bringing in 28.6 million fish.
Mining is also a contributing sector to the economy, providing 9,100 direct and indirect jobs in 2013 and adding 3.4 billion dollars to the Alaskan economy. Mines in Alaska include gold, silver, coal, copper, lead, and zinc. While investment in exploration has been depressed by high drilling costs and fuel expenses, worldwide interest from China, Japan, and India in Alaska’s mineral potential continues to rise.
The American Arctic has many layers of governance domestically, In addition to being subject to state and federal laws, Alaska has a number of autonomous regions and boroughs, including the North Slope Borough and the Northwest Arctic Borough. Although the US has a constitutional obligation to deal with Indigenous tribes on a government-to-government basis, the state of Alaska does not have the same relationship with the tribes within its borders. Because of the Land Claims Act, tribal governments no longer have regulatory or taxation authority over traditional lands covered under the Settlement Act. The many levels of governance within Alaska have led to innovations in shared governance between federal, tribal, and state governments. Still, with the devolution of authority from national to regional governments in the United States towards Native American communities, there has been an increase of Indigenous political rights and governance authorities. Such a complex governance system has often led to tension between federal, state, and tribal authorities. This is particularly true at the local level, where more than 220 communities across Alaska may fall within the governance authority of a city, a borough, or/and a tribe, all having different political relationships with the state and federal governments.
In 2015, Alaska governor Bill Walker signed an Arctic policy bill into law, prioritizing economic and resource development, addressing infrastructure and response capacity gap in the Arctic region, supporting healthy communities, and strengthening a state-based agenda for science and research in the Arctic. The policy was created by the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission, originally the Alaska Northern Waters Task Force, which is committed to “producing a policy for Alaska’s Arctic that reflects the values of Alaskans, provides a suite of options to capitalize on the opportunities and safeguard against risk.” The Arctic Policy and Climate Change committee, out of the Governor’s office, aims to raise the profile of Arctic issues and undertake comprehensive planning.
Federally, the US House of Representatives hosts a Congressional Arctic Working Group, which acts to better inform Congress on Arctic Issues. In the Senate, Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski and Senator Angus King of Maine formed a Senate Arctic Caucus in 2015 to open up a broader conversation about the nation’s future in the high north. Generally, Senator Murkowski is a strong advocate for Arctic policy in the United States and its engagement internationally in the region, including the ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas to which the United States is not party. The US is the only non-ratifying Arctic state.
The foundation of federal policy on the Arctic today is established by the 2009 National Security Presidential Directive 66 – Homeland Security Presidential Directive 25. The Directive focuses on environmental protection and sustainable development, with emphasis on the role of indigenous people and other Arctic residents as stakeholders. The 2013 National Strategy for the Arctic Region implemented the 2009 policy by guiding, prioritizing, and connecting efforts to (1) protect US national and homeland security interests; (2) promote responsible stewardship; and (3) foster international cooperation. It also established the White House-led Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which aims to streamline all Arctic activities at the federal government level. The Strategy was quickly followed by an Implementation Plan for The National Strategy for the Arctic Region, published by the White House in 2014. The Implementation Plan provides specific activities supported by programs overseen by Federal entities to achieve the three priorities. These activities range from creating observation networks for the prediction of sea ice to developing communication infrastructure in the Arctic.
In 2016, the Arctic Executive Steering Committee released a progress report on the implementation of the strategy, and an appendix, the 2016 Implementation Framework for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region. The progress report and updated framework generally shows the United States to be aware of the rapid changes occurring in the circumpolar north. The current administration is committed to reviewing, updating, and adjusting its strategic initiatives to advise US interests in a dynamic region. The newest iteration of the Strategy incorporates new initiatives, emphasizes community sustainability and resilience, and increases the importance of Arctic science and research.
Internationally, the United States has been a member of the Arctic Council since its inception in 1996. The US holds the 2015-2017 Arctic Council Chairmanship, whereupon it established a US Special Representative for the Arctic under the Ocean and Polar Affairs bureau of the US Department of State. Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr. serves at the inaugural Special Representative. The US Chairmanship theme is, “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities” and focuses on (1) improving economic and living conditions in Arctic communities; (2) Arctic ocean safety, security and stewardship; and (3) Addressing the impacts of climate change. The third aim was taken up by President Barack Obama in August 2015 when he became the first sitting president to visit the American Arctic. Hosted in Anchorage, Alaska, President Obama hosted the GLACIER conference on global leadership in the Arctic for foreign dignitaries, Arctic practitioners, stakeholders, and American official to generate momentum in addressing the most pressing issues facing the region.
Since its 2015 Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the United States has become the Arctic nation it has claimed to be since it purchase of Alaska in 1867. The Obama Administration has invested resources and priority in the Alaskan Arctic and the region generally through development funding, policy action, and scientific endeavors.
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- Located between a river and the Norton Sound in Alaska, Shaktoolik is in need of relocation inland, but currently lacks resources to do so.Read More >
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- The Arctic Institute Press Release on the United States handing over Arctic Council Chairmanship to Finland at Fairbanks, Alaska.Read More >
- Engaging new Arctic voices. This is perhaps the purest form of storytelling—simply providing people with a forum to tell their own stories.Read More >
- The president-elect is omnipresent at this year's international climate meeting even though nobody is saying his name.Read More >
2015 National Strategy for the Arctic Region Implementation Report
2014 Implementation Plan for The National Strategy for the Arctic Region
2013 National Strategy for the Arctic
2009 National Security Presidential Directive 66 – Homeland Security Presidential Directive 25
US Department of State Arctic Page