“Two things keep me awake at
night: small vessel security and
Arctic shipping accidents that we
can’t get to,” he said.
Two of the Coast Guard’s three
icebreakers — Polar Star and Polar
Sea — are beyond their 30-year
service lives. Polar Star has been in
caretaker status since July 1, 2006.
Todd Pacific Shipyards, Seattle,
was awarded a $29 million retrofit
contract in late February to begin
extensive repairs to get Polar Sea
back into service.
The service’s newest icebreaker,
Healy, is not a heavy icebreaker
and primarily is used for scientific
missions, such as bottom mapping.
The Coast Guard estimated that
buying a new icebreaker could cost
as much as $1 billion, and the alternative of extending the service lives
of Polar Sea and Polar Star for 25
years would cost about $400 million per ship.
“I do expect it to be a hot topic
[in the coming year],” Rep. Elijah
Cummings, D-Md., chairman of
the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on the
Coast Guard and maritime transportation, told
“We need to have [improved] equipment. … We
will make some type of substantial improvement over
what we have,” he said. “It’s going to be tough to get
the money we need for new equipment.”
Cummings said increased funding for Arctic infrastructure and an icebreaker would be difficult to sell to
the public because neither issue is currently perceived
as an urgent need.
The economy will be a factor in the amount of vessel traffic in the region, said Mead Treadwell, chairman
of the U.S. Antarctic Resources Center.
“[Traffic] will increase when the price of oil and gas
rise, so that there is greater motivation to explore and
produce Arctic oil and gas,” Treadwell said. “The price
of shipping makes the shorter Arctic route more attractive. As the carbon footprint of a shorter route
becomes economically attractive, the Arctic route
looks better, and as the price for minerals and ores
increases, Arctic mining and, thus, bulk carrier shipping increases.”
If the ice pack continues to recede, however, he said
insurance companies could deem the Arctic a safe ship-
ping lane, opening the way for
more traffic, including cruise ships,
in the region.
“Arctic sea ice continues to melt
back during the summer season,
making that season longer and
longer. The ice will always grow
back in winter, but the pack will be
thinner, and consisting only of
one-year ice rather than multiyear
ice,” Treadwell said.
According to the U.S. Arctic
Research Commission, the United
States has jurisdiction over 34,000
square miles of Arctic territory.
The Arctic has lost as much as 50
percent of its polar ice pack in the
last 30 years.
The Coast Guard maintains a seasonal fleet, based in Kodiak, Alaska,
that uses four HC-130H Hercules
patrol aircraft and four MH-60J
Jayhawk, four HH-65C Dolphin and
three HH-60J Jayhawk helicopters
for aerial response. Icebreakers,
high-endurance cutters and buoy
tenders are used for water response,
while the MH-60Js are used for seasonal search and rescue and can be
deployed to St. Paul Island, Nome,
Barrow, Cordova, Cold Bay and Shemya, depending on
Brooks said this summer he is assessing whether the
service needs bigger helicopters and smaller boats. It
was discovered last year that the HH-65C Dolphins did
not have enough range to operate effectively in the
Brooks said he needs more long-range aircraft, infrastructure such as hotels, berthing areas and communication towers, and medium-endurance cutters like the
283-foot cutter Alex Haley, which is based in Kodiak,
in the next decade.
“We will continue to build on these experiments to
a point where they may or may not become permanent. The point remains, sooner or later infrastructure
will become required,” Brooks said. “We need presence
there for safety and security.”
Vessel traffic has picked up in recent years, but the
service has not seen an explosive increase, Brooks said.
“You can’t just put regular ships in the Arctic without asking for big problems. … [The ice] is not as
thick as it used to be. It’s not as permanent as it used
to be. But it still freezes and thaws,” he said. “There is
still a lot of ice.” ■
U.S. COAST GUARD
A small boat crew from the Coast
Guard Cutter Hamilton boards a
fishing vessel in the Arctic Ocean
last October. Hamilton was the first
Coast Guard high-endurance cutter
to patrol Arctic waters on a homeland security mission.
SEAPOWER / AUGUST 2009