Maritime domain awareness (MDA) is to have knowledge about what’s going on offshore – who is operating there, and why are they operating there, and what are the risks that the nation faces based on those operations. “Whether it’s the East Coast, or the Straits of Florida, or the Gulf of Mexico, or any other region of the U.S. maritime interest, we need to have MDA for security and safety,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, commander of Coast Guard District 17, which includes Alaska and the maritime environment that encompasses the North Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Alaska, all of the Bering Sea, and all of the Arctic Ocean.
“If you look at the top of the world and the amount of growth and activity up there, the Arctic is probably the fastest-growing maritime environment,” Ostebo said.
The annual NOAA “Arctic Report Card” noted that Arctic-wide 2012 was an unremarkable year for surface air temperatures, a primary driver of melting. But, the report states, “… in spite of these moderate conditions, new records were set for sea ice extent, terrestrial snow extent, melting at the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, and permafrost temperature.”
As the multiyear ice is diminished, there is more open water, especially in the summer months. That means more traffic on the water of all types.
“We’ve had a doubling of cargo tonnage just from last year to this year going through the Bering Strait across the Northern Sea Route. We had 20 or 30 research vessels operating in the Arctic this year. At one point this summer along the North Slope, we had almost a hundred vessels.”
Ostebo said the maritime activity is growing at an unprecedented rate, and where there is an increase in maritime traffic, there is an increased risk for allisions (where one vessel runs into a stationary object or vessel), collisions, groundings, oil spills, sinkings, and any type of marine industry calamity.
“We’re seeing more and larger cruise vessels for ecotourism go up in the Arctic. What if you have a cruise ship that’s plying relatively uncharted waters, with relatively poor weather forecasting, and possible ice conditions, and they’re up in the Arctic and they have a problem?” Ostebo said. “How do you rescue 300 people far off the coast of Wainwright? That would be extremely difficult.”
The rest of the world has an interest in the Arctic, he said. “A good portion of the Arctic itself is international waters and it’s available and open to the rest of the planet, hence you have countries as far away as China and India plying the waters of the Arctic to see what advantages they can find for their own nations up there,” Ostebo said. “The Chinese have the largest conventional ice breaker in the world, the Xue˘ Lóng, which was operating extensively in the Arctic this year, to include cutting through our EEZ [exclusive economic zone]. We ought to know what other people are doing there.”
According to Ostebo, Unimak Pass – between the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean, southwest of Unimak Island in the Aleutian Islands not far from Dutch Harbor – is one of the fastest-growing international straits on the planet, with east/west traffic in the North Pacific, from China, Korea, and Japan, going in and out of Canada and the Pacific Northwest following the great circle route through there because it’s cheaper and faster for them to do that. “We probably see 2 [hundred] or 300 a month – thousands of ships a year of many different flags – going through this very, very narrow pass that has very little infrastructure at all around it and really very little response capability or understanding of it.”
There is a 50 percent increase in Arctic maritime activity (i.e., offshore exploratory oil drilling, international shipping transits, adventure tourism, etc.), which has effectively doubled District 17’s area of responsibility, both in terms of geographic size and maritime customers.
According to Ostebo, the risk of vessel casualties that would require Coast Guard medical evacuation or search and rescue (SAR) support has been heightened by an overall increase in vessel traffic:
- total vessel traffic from 2008 to 2011 increased from 120-plus to 190;
- Bering Strait transits from 2008 to 2011 jumped from 220 to 410; and
- adventurer transits in the U.S. Arctic from 2011 to 2012 increased from approximately 13 to 22.
For perspective, in 2012, 1,559 vessels transited the Suez Canal, according to the Suez Canal Authority.
“You have all the challenges of obtaining situational awareness that you have off our lower 48 shoreline, and then you pile on top of that all the challenges of the Arctic,” said Rich Hansen of the Coast Guard research and development center (RDC) in New London, Conn. “There are a few communities up there – they’re few and far between – if you need something. You’re going to have power challenges. And all of the locations present environmental challenges: extreme temperatures and extreme wind. Because of the extremely low temperatures, the air is much denser, so the wind loading is actually higher, per mile per hour, than you would have in Miami [Fla.], for example.”
Installations might include radars in busier port locations, but mostly it’s the Automatic Identification System (AIS), comprised of radio transponders on vessels continually transmitting their positions, and remote radio tower sites that receive and process the signals. “We’re trying to expand the VHF and UHF radio footprint throughout Alaska,” said Capt. Alan Arsenault, commanding officer of RDC. “We’re pretty well covered in the southeast section with VHF and UHF radio coverage, but up on the North Slope, we virtually have nothing shoreside as far as communicating with our afloat assets using that frequency range. We’re slowly working that process to expand the footprint up there, starting with the shoreside command and control nodes where the communications will be centralized, and a response can be organized in the event of a distress call. But we need the ability to hear a distress call from a vessel on the North Slope. That doesn’t exist today. If somebody hit the distress button on their digital selective calling-enabled VHF radio, that wouldn’t work at all. Up on the North Slope, we don’t have any shoreside capability to respond to anything, but in addition to that, we don’t have any shoreside capability to ‘hear’ any communications traffic.”