As access eases, Coast Guard expands summer mission
to determine if more investment in region is needed
By JOHN C. MARCARIO, Assistant Editor
The Way Forward
The Coast Guard will have an extended presence in the Arctic this summer on a mission to
answer two questions: Is a seasonal presence
needed in the region, and should infrastructure be
built to support it?
“The Arctic is becoming more accessible than it has
ever been,” said Rear Adm. Arthur Brooks, commander of the 17th Coast Guard District, Juneau, Alaska.
The service’s work in the region typically is limited
to brief scientific and polar icebreaking missions. This
summer, however, it will deploy 200-300 personnel to
explore various parts of the Arctic.
The specific mission will entail having two helicopters, two boats, a transportable communication van and
a boating safety team in Barrow, Alaska, for a few weeks.
Two boats and a small team also will be deployed near
Arctic oil fields and Arctic domain awareness flights will
take place twice a month from Nome, Alaska.
The 225-foot Juniper-class seagoing buoy tender
Hickory will be doing studies north of the Bering Strait
and another 225-foot buoy tender, Spar, will be doing
waterway analyses along the Alaskan-Canadian border
in the Arctic. In addition, Coast Guard helicopters will
be flying to several remote villages
to conduct area familiarization and
boating safety education, as well as
to the icebreaker Healy, which is
conducting bottom mapping in the
Arctic all summer.
The mission’s findings will be
gathered and a lessons-learned
document compiled. Leaders from
the mission and District 17 will
meet in September to go over the
results. Recommendations for a
way forward then will be made to
the Pacific Area Command and
Coast Guard headquarters.
The service has invested resources in the region before. From
1837 to the early 1900s, the Coast Guard supported the
protection of Arctic whaling fleets. In the 1980s, the
service operated and maintained aids-to-navigation and
radio stations in the Arctic, but both were removed due
to lack of use, said Brooks.
But ongoing climate-related changes have prompted
the Coast Guard to look northward again. The Arctic
has lost as much as 50 percent of its polar ice pack in the
last 30 years, according to Brooks. From 2005-2007, an
ice pack area twice the size of California vanished and
the remaining polar sea ice has become thinner, he said.
This has allowed ships to operate in waters that previously had been inaccessible.
This phenomenon has spurred renewed international
interest in the region as a possible viable trade route, said
Brooks. Given the potential for increased activity in the
region, he said the Coast Guard did not want to take a
wait-and-see approach on bolstering its presence. It
opted instead to begin the fact-finding mission now.
“What has changed was a realization that the Arctic
was opening at a very fast pace and that all of these
impacts — commercial vessels, oil exploration, cruise
ships coming from the Northwest Passage and dropping
Results of the Coast Guard’s summer mission in the Arctic will be
studied this fall, with recommendations then being made for charting the way ahead in terms of presence and assets in the region.
■ Shrinking ice caps have opened the way to previously inaccessible Arctic territory and shipping lanes.
■ More traffic and activity in the Arctic increases the risk for
accidents or other emergencies to which the Coast Guard may
have to respond.
■ At present, the nearest Coast Guard homeport is Kodiak in southern Alaska, an eight-hour helicopter flight from the Arctic region.