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The Coast Guard in the Arctic

Operating – and planning – in the nation’s emerging maritime frontier

For several years, the U.S. Coast Guard has been on the move in Arctic Alaska. Its leadership, while repeatedly claiming a lack of interest in politicized debates about climate change, has made calculated decisions based on what it can see – and it’s seen more water, for more of the year, off Alaska’s northern and western shores. Recent scientific findings leave little doubt that the Coast Guard can expect longer, busier maritime seasons in the Arctic: In August 2013, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its annual “State of the Climate in 2012” report, compiled by 384 scientists from 52 countries. The report included several observations relevant to the Arctic:

  • In 2012, one of the 10 warmest years in recorded history, the extent of Arctic sea ice reached an all-time low for the era of satellite observation. On Sept. 16, the minimum sea ice extent of 1.32 million square miles was 18 percent – 300,000 square miles, an area larger than the state of Texas – smaller than the previous record low in 2007. Between March and September 2012, 4.57 million square miles of Arctic sea ice had melted.
  • Four independent sets of data indicated that the globally averaged ocean surface temperature was one of the warmest on record.
  • On the heels of sharp decreases during the 2011 La Niña, global sea levels rebounded to near-record levels in 2012.
  • On land, the temperature of the Arctic permafrost, or permanently frozen land, reached a record high in northern-most Alaska.

The report also noted that the Arctic was continuing to warm at about twice the rate of lower latitudes, a fact that scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hypothesized, in a June news release titled “Is a Sleeping Climate Giant Stirring in the Arctic?”, may be due to greenhouse gas releases from the warming permafrost – which contains about half the estimated organic carbon stored in Earth’s soils.

CGC Polar Star

The CGC Polar Star transits near the beginning of the ice edge in the Chukchi Sea north of Wainwright, Alaska, July 16, 2013. Polar Star‘s crew of more than 150 was supporting the Coast Guard’s strategic Arctic goals of improving awareness, modernizing government relationships, and broadening partnerships through its participation in Arctic Shield 2013. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Mooers

In late September, Working Group I of the United NationsIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis,” the first installment of the panel’s “Fifth Assessment Report.” The report, which established the scientific basis for later releases concerning consequences and policy recommendations, was compiled from data collected by more than 800 scientists around the world, and confirmed NOAA’s findings: Over the past two decades, the extent of Arctic sea ice has continued to decrease. IPCC scientists further projected that if this trend holds, the Arctic Ocean will become virtually ice-free in summer before 2050 – an event that had previously been projected to occur at the end of the 21st century.

These continuing changes concern the Coast Guard for one primary reason: More open Arctic water invites more human activity, and the Coast Guard is responsible for safety, security, and environmental stewardship in those waters. Much of the commercial world has already awakened to opportunities in this emerging maritime frontier:

Commercial shipping. Open Arctic water means shorter transits for commercial ships in the region – and transits through the Arctic, along the Northern Sea Route connecting East Asia to Europe via Russia’s Siberian coast, have more than quadrupled in the past year. In July 2013, the Financial Times reported 204 ships had received permits to travel the route. In 2012, 46 vessels carrying 1 million tons of cargo traveled the Northern Sea Route. In 2010, four ships made the trip.

The spring of 2013 saw the first commercial transit, by a Danish bulk cargo vessel, of Canada’s Northwest Passage since the SS Manhattan’s famous 1969 demonstration voyage. The Northwest Passage, which winds through the narrow channels of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, is more challenging than the northern sea route, and isn’t expected to see a comparable increase in activity – but it’s not likely to matter. If the Arctic Ocean becomes ice-free during the summer, ships will be able to sail freely over the North Pole, cutting thousands of miles, hundreds of man-hours, and millions of dollars in fuel costs and canal tolls from their voyages.

All of this traffic must necessarily funnel into and out of the Bering Strait, the 51-mile-wide choke point separating the Alaskan and Russian mainlands. In the past five years, maritime transits through the Bering Strait have more than doubled, a development of great concern to the Coast Guard, which is responsible for regulating and ensuring the safety of vessel traffic in U.S. waters.

Currently, the nearest port capable of receiving a Coast Guard cutter – the only deep-draft, year-round ice-free port in western Alaska – is 800 miles south of the Bering Strait, at Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska. The nearest Coast Guard air station, on Kodiak Island, is more than a 700-mile flight from the strait.

Oil, gas, and mineral wealth. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves, and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas, lie beneath the Arctic, with much of these resources located offshore. Oil companies have already invested billions of dollars to secure offshore rights and investigate the possibilities: In 2012, Royal Dutch Shell and ConocoPhillips received approval from the Interior Department to begin exploratory drilling for offshore oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

The Arctic’s mineral wealth is potentially more profitable: The Center for Strategic and International Studies led a seminar on “The Geopolitical Consequences of an Arctic Spring” and estimates that the region contains $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion worth of minerals, including gold, palladium, zinc, lead, nickel, platinum, gem-quality diamonds, and rare Earth metals. The Red Dog mine, in Alaska’s Brooks Range, is the world’s largest producer of zinc, but is currently able to ship – from a shallow-water port 55 miles away at Kivalina, on the Chukchi Sea – about 100 days a year. In the future, longer ice-free shipping seasons will almost certainly increase mining activity, not only at Red Dog but also among prospectors seeking other riches in the Brooks Range.

Fisheries. More than half of the U.S. fish stock is already contained in the exclusive economic zone within 200 miles of Alaska’s shores. About 12 million pounds of fish are hauled out of these waters every day – all of them south of the Bering Strait. The National Marine Fisheries Service has banned commercial fishing north of the strait until more data is gathered about fish populations and the likely effect of sea ice loss.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...