As polar sea ice diminishes and Arctic waters – among the most nutrient-rich marine habitats in the world – become increasingly navigable in the summer months, the remote region is crackling to life. Commercial voyages now occur routinely along the northern coast of Russia, linking East Asia to Europe. While the National Marine Fisheries Service bars fishing in the Arctic until more is known about its marine ecosystems, Dr. John T. Oliver, the Coast Guard’s senior ocean policy adviser, believes commercial fishing in the region will happen, as scientific knowledge increases and necessary infrastructure moves northward. Other mission areas that barely register in the Alaskan consciousness today – drug and illegal immigrant interdiction, for example – will also become more of a concern. “We have all 11 of our statutory missions to carry out in U.S. Arctic waters,” Oliver said, “just as we do in San Diego or Miami.”
In Alaska, some of those missions are more challenging than anywhere else in the nation. Most people don’t understand how big the state really is: laid over a map of the continental United States, with its north coast in Minnesota and North Dakota, Alaska’s southeastern panhandle would extend into Florida; its west coast would reach the Rocky Mountains; and the Aleutian Island Chain would extend beyond the coast of Southern California.
The Coast Guard’s 17th District is responsible for all 3.9 million square miles of it, and for its more than 44,000 miles of coastline. It’s a harsh environment, with rugged terrain, extreme weather, and limited infrastructure that makes many areas difficult to reach – a problem illustrated by the historic winter fuel transit to the village of Nome in December and January 2012.
“There are huge challenges in the Arctic,” acknowledged Oliver, “but the opportunities are commensurate, and really exciting. As the permanent ice pack diminishes, reduced travel times and costs from Asia to Europe and from the East Coast of the United States to the Western Pacific will mean more ships through the Bering Strait. Opportunities for trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, billions of barrels of oil, potential fisheries for crab, and other living marine resources [exist]. The Brooks Range in northwestern Alaska is an absolute treasure trove with everything from coal to gold to zinc to copper. The Red Dog Mine is the largest zinc mine in the world, and is the largest private employer by far in northwestern Alaska.”
By the spring of 2012, all significant regulatory hurdles had been cleared, and a massive drilling rig began its transit to the Arctic, where, along with a second rig, it will begin drilling exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska’s northern coast. The drilling operations will be conducted from July to October 2012 (barring further court or regulatory action) will be the first Arctic offshore oil activity in more than a decade.
While the nation begins to embrace these opportunities, the Coast Guard prepares in its own way to help provide safety, security, and stewardship to Alaska’s people and their environment.
What began in 2008 as Operation Arctic Crossroads, when the Coast Guard tested platforms for helicopters and boats on Alaska’s North Slope near Barrow, has become Operation Arctic Shield, an integrated summer exercise in which the service conducts safety and security operations in the seasonal seas, and evaluates both its operational capabilities and the strength of its relationships with federal and state partners – and perhaps most important, its relationships with the Alaskan communities, many of them tribally administered, whom the Coast Guard ultimately serves.
Operationally, during one of the busiest Arctic summers to date, Arctic Shield 2012 will be the most ambitious yet, according to Capt. Gregory Sanial, chief of response for District 17. “With the overall increase in human activity in the Arctic – it just calls for a Coast Guard presence.”
Beginning in July, Arctic Shield operations will be conducted with multiple cutters, aircraft and personnel deployed throughout the Arctic region.
- Coast Guard helicopters and airplanes will be strategically positioned to conduct search and rescue, law enforcement, and Arctic domain awareness flights.
- Waterborne assets will include a national security cutter, medium endurance cutters, and seagoing buoy tenders. These assets operating off the north coast will conduct the Coast Guard’s statutory missions.
- Communications specialists will deploy to ensure fluid communications and connectivity in support of all Coast Guard operations.
In previous years, the Coast Guard’s Arctic operations typically have been conducted over a two-week span. By comparison, said Sanial, this summer’s exercise will be “enormous. We’re attempting a sustained presence of helicopters and cutters off the North Slope for four months.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the service is the lack of infrastructure in the Alaskan Arctic, where Barrow – population 4,200 – is the largest community. There’s no air station; the Coast Guard is leasing a commercial hangar. There’s no deep-draft port; the smaller cutters will resupply and refuel in Nome, while the larger medium endurance cutter and national security cutter will have to travel to the Aleutian Island port of Dutch Harbor – a nearly 1,300-nautical mile voyage that takes more than five days.