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USCG in the Arctic

Fast-paced changes in the region create additional challenges for the service.

 

 

On Sept. 2, 2015, President Barack Obama did something no sitting U.S. president had ever done before: He traveled north across the Arctic Circle, in a historic visit to the Alaska frontier. His first stop that day was Kotzebue, a village of about 3,200 on a flat gravel spit extending into Kotzebue Sound. The president spoke with community leaders and viewed the Kotzebue seawall, a structure built to protect the village from storm surges that have increased in size, frequency, and destructiveness as Arctic sea ice melts for a longer period each summer.

Over the past few years, amid such whiplash-inducing changes in the region, the U.S. Coast Guard has attempted to remain a steady protector of the Arctic’s people and resources during the increasingly long ice-free seasons. As oil companies, cruise ships, gold prospectors, scientists, and others come and go, the Coast Guard is there – as it has been for 148 years, since the Revenue Cutter Lincoln brought the U.S. delegation to accept the new territory from the Russians – planning, adapting, and helping to lead the United States into a new era as an Arctic nation.

In a speech delivered at the local high school that evening, the president focused, as he had throughout much of his tour, on climate change. At the world’s current rate of carbon emissions, he said, Alaska would be six to 12 degrees warmer by the end of the 21st century, temperatures that would worsen the harmful consequences already occurring in Arctic Alaska: longer, more dangerous fire seasons; melting sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost; and coastal erosion from more damaging storms. “What’s happening here is America’s wake-up call,” he said. “It should be the world’s wake-up call.”

Obama’s visit was largely symbolic, his policy pronouncements modest. His pledges to enhance the safety and security in the Arctic were assertive but lacked many specifics, despite the lengthy fact sheet released by the White House. As symbols go, however, the visit was powerful, one of many events in a summer of 2015 that future historians may view as a turning point in the relationship between Alaska and the lower 48 states.

For some, it began in the Pacific Northwest, with the coining of a new word – “kayaktivists” – to describe the hordes of environmental protestors who surged around the Polar Pioneer, an offshore oil drilling rig leased by Royal Dutch Shell, homeported in Seattle, and the Fennica, Shell’s ice breaking support ship, docked in Portland for repairs. Despite the protestors’ efforts, Shell’s exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea began on July 30 – but ended abruptly on Sept. 27, when the company announced its “marginal” discovery of oil and gas in its exploratory well had compelled it to abandon its Arctic search “for the foreseeable future.”

Noble-Discoverer

A 25-foot response boat-medium crew from Maritime Safety and Security Team 91101 based in Seattle, Washington, enforces a safety zone around the drillship Noble Discoverer as it transits through Puget Sound, June 30, 2015. While transiting, the safety zone around Noble Discoverer encompassed waters within 500 yards of the vessel in all directions. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Amanda Norcross

Over the past few years, amid such whiplash-inducing changes in the region, the U.S. Coast Guard has attempted to remain a steady protector of the Arctic’s people and resources during the increasingly long ice-free seasons. As oil companies, cruise ships, gold prospectors, scientists, and others come and go, the Coast Guard is there – as it has been for 148 years, since the Revenue Cutter Lincoln brought the U.S. delegation to accept the new territory from the Russians – planning, adapting, and helping to lead the United States into a new era as an Arctic nation.

 

The Changes

As Obama made clear in his visit, the ongoing changes in the Arctic begin and end with climate. According to the “2014 Arctic Report Card”, an annual update released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the world. The National Snow and Ice Data Center has documented a long downward trend in the summer extent of Arctic sea ice: The nine lowest summer extents of the satellite era have all occurred in the last nine years.

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