Coast Guard to beef up Arctic mission

Published 29 October 2007

As global warming melts the ice around the Northern Pole, neighboring nations are eager to stake a claim to the heretofore frozen region’s natural reaches; the melting will also allow a route for ships from Europe to Asia which is 4,000 miles shorter than the route through the Panama Canal; the U.S. Cost Guard wants to keep an eye on all this

The Russians send a submarine to plant the Russian flag on the ocean’s floor underneath to polar ice cap. Canada has created a UAV squadron dedicated to monitoring the Northern Pole. Now, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that a C-130 departed Barrow, Alaska today to fly 1,183 miles to the North Pole as part of an increase in Arctic orientation flights. The crew, which includes a representative from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Barrow community, will assess changes in maritime activity in the region as recently observed climate changes provide greater access to the Arctic. “The northern reaches of the Arctic is a new area for us to do surveillance,” said Rear Adm. Arthur E. Brooks, commander of the Seventeenth Coast Guard district based in Juneau, Alaska, which is at the forefront of the service’s Arctic operations. “We are expanding our patrols because we are seeing increased activity in the region and we need to know what is going on up there.” The growign interest in — and the greater interest in claiming national cliams to — the arctic circle is an unintended result of global warming. Climate changes are casuing large potions of the ice cap to melt, allowing freer access to natural resources which only a few years ago would have been prohibitively diffcult. There is another consequence to the melting away of the Arctic ice: The region is the focus of increasing interest as a shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, offering a potential route between Europe and Asia which is 4,000 miles shorter than a transit through the Panama Canal. Among the needs the Coast Guard has identified is the potential for a traffic routing system to define shipping lanes in rapidly changing waterways.

The Coast Guard is the principal U.S. federal maritime enforcement agency in the Arctic with broad safety, security, and environmental stewardship missions. The service expects its responsibilities in the Arctic will increase in coming years, as increased access brings additional needs for traditional missions such as search and rescue, pollution response, fisheries law enforcement, marine safety, waterways management, maritime security, and oceanographic operations. To meet these increased demands it is considering the establishment of a forward operating base in Barrow by next spring to monitor and respond to maritime traffic in the region. “The Arctic is emerging as a functioning body of water with implications for commerce, tourism and transport,” said Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard. “The great distances and harshness of the Arctic climate means we have to be prepared for a new defined mission set in an enormously challenging environment. Our nation needs further analysis of trends in Arctic activity and the associated risks to the region, clear national policies and priorities that address the new challenges in the Arctic, and continuing research to provide better understanding of the Arctic.”

The Coast Guard has some experience with Arctic issue, bringing more than a century of experience in the region. The service is marking the 50th anniversary of three cutters breaking through ice to cross the Bering Strait and into the Arctic Ocean to determine the feasibility of the Northwest Passage as a route for cargo vessels to resupply the early warning radar network — a critical front for national defense at the height of the cold war. The cutters’ three-month voyage across the northern edge of the North American continent helped resolve much of the uncertainty about the 4,500 miles of semicharted waters through which they sailed. The Coast Guard cutter Healy, an icebreaker based in Seattle, completed a mission in September with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to map the sea floor in the Arctic region. The cutter will return to the region in the spring.