The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, in the midst of their ICESCAPE mission, retrieves supplies for some mid-mission fixes dropped by parachute from a C-130 in the Arctic Ocean in this July 12, 2011 NASA handout photo obtained by Reuters June 11, 2011. Scientists punched through the sea ice to find waters richer in phytoplankton than any other region on earth. Phytoplankton, the base component of the marine food chain, were thought to grow in the Arctic Ocean only after sea ice had retreated for the summer. Scientists now think that the thinning Arctic ice is allowing sunlight to reach the waters under the sea ice, catalyzing the plant blooms where they had never been observed. REUTERS/Kathryn Hansen

President Barack Obama’s climate action plan may be focused on reducing carbon emissions, but it is also part of a larger national security strategy to preserve U.S. interests in the Arctic region, a former senior naval commander of NATO told International Business Times on Thursday.

"The High North is a region of immense global importance, and as one of the 'balcony states,' the United States has huge interests at stake," retired Adm. James G. Stavridis said.

The former NATO commander described the importance of the Arctic region in an Op-Ed in Foreign Policy on Monday titled "We Have Work to Do in the High North," in which he noted the growing issue of climate change and its impact on ice melting in the Arctic Ocean.

Stavridis' comments follow the climate action plan announced by the president in June, which aims to slash U.S. greenhouse gas output by 17 percent (compared to 2005 levels) by 2020. The effort to curb emissions is an important step in advancing Obama’s new National Strategy for the Arctic Region, which the president released in May.

“Record low extents of Arctic sea ice over the past decade have focused scientific and policy attention on links to global climate change and projected ice-free seasons in the Arctic within decades,” a Congressional Research Service report stated in August. “These changes have potential consequences for weather in the United States, access to mineral and biological resources in the Arctic, the economies and cultures of peoples in the region, and national security.”

The Arctic region is the land and sea area north of the Arctic Circle. The United States, because of Alaska, is an Arctic country. The four other Arctic coastal, or "balcony," states, are Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark's vast autonomous territory of Greenland.

View of Arctic region
There are five Arctic coastal states, the U.S. Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark. U.S. Coast Guard

Today, the region has become increasingly important as new sea lanes have opened during Arctic summers, thanks to record high temperatures, which melt the sea ice.

Between March and September 2012, 4.57 million square miles of Arctic sea ice melted. In fact, the polar ice cap today is 40 percent smaller than it was in 1979, and the environmental changes are attributed to climate change.

Here are some of the consequences of the Arctic's sea ice melting, according to U.S. Coast Guard:

* Shipping and transit increased by 118 percent through the Bering Strait from 2008 to 2012

* 1 million tourists now may visit the region in 2013

* 1 million tons of cargo were shipped in 2012 through the region

The Arctic Ocean and its floor are rich in natural resources, and the Arctic countries are vying for a stake in the abundance of crude oil, natural gas and various minerals located there.

The region holds approximately 12 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas and natural gas liquids. It also holds $1 trillion worth of minerals, such as nickel and zinc.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent in September 2008, Compared with Prospective Shipping Routes and Oil and Gas Resources
Arctic Sea Ice Extent in September 2008, Compared with Prospective Shipping Routes and Oil and Gas Resources. U.S. News and World Report/Stephen Rountree

Since 2005, $3.7 billion in commercial investments have been made in offshore leases, and the amount of exploration and investment in the region is likely to rise as ice continues to melt. But the melting ice and opening of sea lanes could destabilize the Arctic region as countries like the U.S. and Russia may dispute claims to sea areas that were unreachable before.

In 2010, Stavridis said in the Guardian that the U.S. needs to address climate change and its effects on U.S. national security.

"For now, the disputes in the north have been dealt with peacefully, but climate change could alter the equilibrium over the coming years in the race of temptation for exploitation of more readily accessible natural resources," he said.

The development of Arctic oil and gas is part of a “broader energy security strategy, including our economic, environmental and climate policy objectives,” according to the May 2013 White House document.

Obama’s May 2013 National Strategy for Arctic Region built on a 2009 national security directive issued at the end of the Bush administration, which, among other points, discussed “national security and homeland security interests in the Arctic.” The directive established a new U.S. policy for the Arctic region.

In 2010 Obama’s National Security Strategy outlined the U.S. interests in the Arctic.

“The United States is an Arctic nation with broad and fundamental interests in the Arctic region, where we seek to meet our national security needs, protect the environment, responsibly manage resources, account for indigenous communities, support scientific research, and strengthen international cooperation on a wide range of issues,” according to the 2010 strategy.