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Coast Guard Prepares As Arctic Heats Up

The U.S. Coast Guard is taking steps to lead the nation's response to changes occurring within the Arctic Circle. Accelerated melting of the polar ice cap, expanded exploration for oil in the Arctic region and the competing territorial imperatives of nations that also are U.S. allies underscore the urgency of Coast Guard officials trying to make their case at a time of diminishing resources.
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine


The Coast Guard Cutter USCGC Healy navigates through ice-free water after escorting the Russian tanker vessel Renda through nearly 800 miles of Bering Sea ice for an emergency fuel delivery to Nome, Alaska. The 420-foot Healy is the Coast Guard’s newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker and is currently the service’s only operational polar icebreaker.

Changes in the north polar area  prompt U.S. maritime officials to shift focus, seek new resources.

The U.S. Coast Guard is taking steps to lead the nation’s response to changes occurring within the Arctic Circle. Accelerated melting of the polar ice cap, expanded exploration for oil in the Arctic region and the competing territorial imperatives of nations that also are U.S. allies underscore the urgency of Coast Guard officials trying to make their case at a time of diminishing resources.

“The Arctic is a new ocean,” says Dana Goward, director, Coast Guard Marine Transportation Systems Management. With a portfolio that includes domestic and polar ice operations, Goward is helping senior Coast Guard leadership plot the Coast Guard’s future strategy in the Arctic.

As a short-term plank of that strategy, the commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Bob Papp, USCG, used his State of the Coast Guard address in Alameda, California, in January to announce plans to send the USCGC Bertholf, one of the Coast Guard’s large national security cutters, to patrol in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, along with two smaller Coast Guard vessels.

In explaining his rationale for sending a large cutter to the region this summer, the admiral notes the expeditionary nature of the mission, saying, “In this part of Northern Alaska, we currently have no shore-based infrastructure, such as hangars for our planes, bases for our boats or barracks for our crews.”

A supply chain nightmare exists for Coast Guard logisticians trying to support cutter operations in the area, Goward acknowledges. The U.S. territorial region both west of Alaska and along the state’s north slope are huge, he says. There is a 1,200-mile range to be covered, from Dutch Harbor, the southernmost Coast Guard refueling station in the Aleutian Islands, to points north. Aircraft flying from the Coast Guard station in Kodiak must travel more than 900 miles to reach Barrow along Alaska’s north shore.

In past decades, the Coast Guard has focused its efforts on the southern part of Alaska, primarily the Bering Sea, and on protecting maritime interests in the Aleutian Island chain. As a result, most permanent Coast Guard air and sea stations in this region are positioned here, Goward relates. But as oil companies step up exploration off the northern and northwest coasts of Alaska—and environmental and international situations bring focus to the region—expanded capabilities are needed.

While expressing confidence in the Bertholf to undertake her mission, Adm. Papp emphasizes the need for additional resources, especially ships, saying, “The imperative for expanded Coast Guard capabilities in the Arctic is now, not 20 years from now.”

This past winter, the Coast Guard’s only operational polar icebreaker, USCGC Healy, was called on to break through hundreds of miles of arctic sea ice so a Russian tanker could deliver emergency fuel to Nome, Alaska, the admiral explains. The Coast Guard is continuing with efforts to return the USCGC Polar Star to service next year, according to the admiral. Polar Star, one of the largest and most powerful Arctic icebreakers in the world, was placed on a special reserve status six years ago pending a decision on long-standing maintenance and repair issues.

Also driving the Coast Guard’s shift in Arctic maritime strategy is that the U.S. Navy’s surface warships, with thinner hulls designed for navigating the warmer open oceans, are not suited for use in the more frigid Arctic/Antarctic waters. The Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines, however, is capable of operating below the ice at both poles for months at a time.

The commandant warns that actions such as refitting the Polar Star and deploying Bertholf are a bridging strategy. Decisions need to be made soon on the Coast Guard’s role and resources in developing a more comprehensive national Arctic strategy, and these decisions could be affected by what is expected to be an extended period of national fiscal austerity.

In developing an Arctic operational strategy, Goward, who served as an active-duty Coast Guard officer for 29 years, explains that the commandant’s emphasis on the expeditionary nature of missions in the region reflects reality. “You have to take everything with you to operate in the Arctic, and then you have to bring everything back to avoid polluting the environment,” he says.

In recent years, the region has been the center of focus as scientists have reported an increase in the melting of the polar ice cap, especially from the edges of the Arctic subcontinent. “You would think that with the ice melting, it’s more accessible, but it’s actually more dangerous,” he says, adding that in some cases, the remaining ice refreezes in large, uneven chunks that create navigation hazards. In addition, without large portions of the ice cap, winds whip up larger ocean waves, which speeds up shore erosion. The threat of environmental danger in the Arctic region, where oil companies are expanding existing operations as well as searching for new sources of oil and natural gas, also is a concern for the Coast Guard.


The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy breaks a path in the ice of the Bering Sea for the tanker Renda about 250 miles south of Nome, Alaska, in January.

The organization recognizes not only the prospect of possible oil spills from malfunctioning rigs but also from transportation accidents, such as the 1989 grounding of the tanker Exxon Valdez, which spilled millions of barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Alaska.

Along with oil, Goward says, access to other natural resources plays a part in developing the Coast Guard’s Arctic strategy. Parts of Alaska are rich in key minerals. The Red Dog Mine, for example, located in an isolated part of Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough along the coastline on the Chukchi Sea, has the world’s largest natural deposits of zinc and also a large deposit of lead. The shipping port for the Red Dog Mine, located 55 miles west of the facility, currently is available only a few months of the year. But with the changing climate, experts expect the port to become more available over time, which means an expansion in mine operations, Goward predicts.

The Coast Guard also is trying to answer the challenge of protecting U.S. fishing rights over its territorial waters in the Arctic region with a smaller fleet of ocean-capable vessels. “How can we protect these fisheries if we can’t even be there,” he asks, adding, “How can we keep foreign fishing vessels from doing the same thing in the Bering Sea, or the Arctic Ocean, what they did to Georges Bank in the 1970s?” Georges Bank is a region of the North Atlantic off the New England coast, which became the subject of a dispute between the United States and Canada when the area was overfished.

Since the 1500s, sailors have long sought a polar shortcut across the Arctic to reduce the time and distance for transoceanic shipping. Goward notes that because of the melting sea ice, shippers already are plotting possible sea lanes within the Arctic Circle. While these routes are not immediately viable, the possibility of ocean-going cargo vessels transiting the seas north of the major continents could occur “within our lifetime,” he predicts.

A coalition of nations with interests in trans-Arctic shipping currently is developing a Polar Code designed to govern such issues as crewing, construction and equipment for ships to help them meet the extraordinary demands of traveling through Arctic waters. Goward says participants expect to complete work on the code by 2014, with implementation expected to begin in 2015. Just as it does now in enforcing maritime shipping rules in the Atlantic and Pacific, the Coast Guard can be expected to have a role in enforcing any Polar Code maritime regulations in the Arctic.

Military leaders in other nations also are paying closer attention to the Arctic for the very same reasons that are driving the development of a long-term Arctic strategy for the U.S. Coast Guard. Earlier this year, for example, the United States, Canada and Denmark held joint exercises in the region. Military officials with the eight biggest Arctic powers met in April to discuss regional security concerns in Canada.

U.S. officials shaping a strategy for the Arctic carefully are watching the activities of two of the United States’ largest neighbors with interests in the region—Russia and Canada. Goward notes that for many years, Russia claimed parts of the Arctic continent that fell within an arc across the top of the planet defined by the easternmost and westernmost edges of its territory along the Arctic Circle. Noting the cooperation of Russia in last winter’s supplying Nome with heating oil, Goward characterizes current Russian-U.S. relations when it comes to the Arctic as good.

When it comes to resolving territorial and other disagreements in the Arctic, Goward notes, however, that the United States “doesn’t have a seat at the table” at the one international forum designed to help resolve such matters.

That is because the United States is the one remaining large nation that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), better known as the Law of the Sea treaty. Every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully has pressed for Senate ratification of the treaty.

Because the United States is not a part of the convention, it does not have representatives on various committees that work to resolve differences over such issues as territorial boundaries or shipping rules. In one case, he says that in a dispute over freedom of navigation with Canada, the United States was unable to press its case before the international panel because it is not a signatory to the treaty. That could be a factor in future jurisdictional disputes between the United States and other nations when it comes to the Arctic.

U.S. Coast Guard: www.uscg.mil
Coast Guard Commandant’s State of the Coast Guard address: www.uscg.mil/seniorleadership/SPEECHES/2011-02-10_State_of_the_Coast_Guard.pdf