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The Arctic Is America’s Fourth Coast

The U.S. Coast Guard grapples with a transforming Arctic

On Aug. 3, 2017, three weeks after the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Maple had left its homeport of Sitka, Alaska, it arrived in the Amundsen Gulf – the western entry to the Northwest Passage through Canada’s archipelago. Maple, a 225-foot seagoing buoy tender on its way to midlife upgrades at the Coast Guard Yard near Baltimore, was accompanied by the Canadian icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier on a voyage that allowed professional exchanges between the two crews. Maple served as a ship of opportunity to support scientific research conducted by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The voyage was also meant to be a historic commemoration of two Arctic anniversaries for the United States Coast Guard: 60 years ago, over the summer of 1957, three Coast Guard cutters – Storis, Bramble, and Spar, along with the Canadian icebreaker Labrador – completed the first deep-draft transit of the Northwest Passage. The Coast Guard’s history of service in Alaska can be traced back 150 years to 1867, when the Revenue Cutter Lincoln delivered the U.S. diplomats who would accept delivery of the new territory from Russia. The first Arctic patrols began soon afterward, conducted by the Revenue cutters Wayanda, Corwin, and Bear.

The Artic looks far different than it did in 1867, or even in 1957. Over the past 30 years, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Arctic has warmed more than any other region on Earth, causing changes to sea ice, snow cover, and the extent of permafrost.

For the Coast Guard’s 17th (Alaska) District, the summer of 2017 is a time to look to both the past and the future: “We’re using this 150-year milestone to reflect on our legacy of service and our very unique relationship with Alaska,” said Rear Adm. Michael McAllister, District 17 commander, “while at the same time, preparing for a pretty exciting – but to some extent uncertain – future as the Arctic opens up.”

Northwest Passage Arctic USCG

The Coast Guard cutters Spar, Storis (center), and Bramble make their way through Arctic ice during the first transit of the Northwest Passage by a U.S. vessel, circa 1957. Library of Congress

The Artic looks far different than it did in 1867, or even in 1957. Over the past 30 years, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Arctic has warmed more than any other region on Earth, causing changes to sea ice, snow cover, and the extent of permafrost.

Its purchase of Alaska made the United States one of five nations with an Arctic coast, and the rapid pace of change in the region has brought a mixture of opportunities and challenges, both for the country and the people of Alaska. As the extent of Arctic ice continues to shrink in summer, it becomes an increasingly maritime region. Vessel traffic through the 50-mile-wide Bering Strait, between mainland Russia and Alaska, nearly doubled from 2010 (242 transits) to 2016 (485). Last summer the luxury liner Crystal Serenity, carrying more than 1,700 passengers and crew, became the largest cruise ship ever to sail the Northwest Passage, completing its Seward-to-New York voyage in September. In mid-summer 2017, Crystal Serenity and at least one other operators were planning additional Northwest Passage cruises. On July 29, the Finnish icebreaker Nordica set a new record for the earliest transit of the Passage.

Receding Arctic ice has unlocked access to a wealth of natural resources – according to the U.S. Geological Survey, 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil lie inside the Arctic Circle. While the Trump administration signed an executive order in April 2017 aimed at enabling offshore oil exploration in the Arctic, most companies, given recent reductions in oil prices, remain circumspect about investing time and money in a remote marine region fraught with hazards. In July, however, the administration granted an Italian oil company the right to drill exploratory wells in state waters (within 3 miles) off the coast of Alaska. A flurry of exploratory activity in recent years has led to the discovery of new oil deposits above the Arctic Circle, including the Horseshoe and Willow deposits on the North Slope. Several new wells in these deposits will extract oil through hydraulic fracturing – the first application of fracking above the Arctic Circle.

Warming ocean temperatures, however, have encouraged the migration of several species, such as Arctic cod, northward. A U.S./U.K./Canadian study conducted several years ago indicated that other commercially important species, such as salmon and mackerel, were also migrating to cooler waters, and so many mackerel have migrated into the waters off the Greenland coast that the Danish government launched an experimental commercial fishery in 2013.

Fisheries, also, are transforming more rapidly than governance is adapting in the Arctic. In the northern and eastern Bering Sea, the Coast Guard enforces federal management of one of the world’s most productive fisheries, but north of the Bering Strait, fishing has been banned in federal waters since 2009 and, under a five-party international treaty signed in 2015, in international Arctic waters. Warming ocean temperatures, however, have encouraged the migration of several species, such as Arctic cod, northward. A U.S./U.K./Canadian study conducted several years ago indicated that other commercially important species, such as salmon and mackerel, were also migrating to cooler waters, and so many mackerel have migrated into the waters off the Greenland coast that the Danish government launched an experimental commercial fishery in 2013.

For Alaska natives, the earlier recession of ice – particularly of shore-fast ice, which has traditionally bound the entire 1,060-mile Arctic coastline of Alaska from November to July – is a mixed bag. It expands the window of time during which subsistence hunters or fishermen may ply the narrow offshore gaps, or leads, in the ice, but it also increases their exposure to danger by creating unpredictable conditions. In June 2017, four men were lost off the coast – two had departed in a wooden rowboat from the village of Wales, at the tip of the Seward Peninsula; two in an aluminum skiff from St. Michael, on the shore of Norton Sound. All four men perished at sea.

While shore-fast ice may function to restrict human maritime activity, recent years have underscored its other important role for native communities: Like the wetlands of the Gulf Coast, the ice has served as a buffer against powerful storms. Without this buffer, many coastal Alaskan villages have suffered dramatic – even catastrophic – erosion. At least two villages, after failing to stop their homes from tumbling into the sea, have already voted to relocate farther inland.

Melting Sea Ice

Melting sea ice reveals prior control efforts and the advance of erosion toward the seawall being constructed in the village of Shishmaref, Alaska, June 2008. The village of about 600 has voted to relocate due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. GAO photo

The last decade alone has been a period of rapid, consequential, and irreversible change in the Arctic, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. It’s a region where stakeholders exercise an impressive degree of cooperation and shared decision-making. The Arctic Council, established in 1996, provides an intergovernmental forum for high-level discussion of issues common to Arctic nations. The Polar Code, an international safety regime adopted by the International Maritime Organization for the design and transit of high-latitude ships, was adopted in 2014 and is now being implemented. The Arctic Coast Guard Forum, established in 2015, recently adopted a framework for working together on emergency marine response and combined operations in the region.

The Coast Guard’s ability to establish a presence in the highest latitudes is complicated by several factors, but three stand out: weather, distance, and infrastructure.

The U.S. Coast Guard has the authority to enforce applicable laws and international agreements in the Arctic, and it has established and nurtured healthy and supportive working relationships, both with its international counterparts and, in a series of regular outreach and educational activities, with Alaskan communities. In May 2017, in an interview at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the Coast Guard, emphasized that having the authority to fulfill its missions has never been the service’s problem in the Arctic: “We need to do more than paper it with policy,” he said. “We need to populate it with presence.”

 

Above the Arctic Circle

The Coast Guard’s ability to establish a presence in the highest latitudes is complicated by several factors, but three stand out: weather, distance, and infrastructure.

The Coast Guard operates on and over water, and while the maritime season is lengthening in the Arctic, the region is still icebound for more than half of the year. The nearest Coast Guard Air Station (AirSta) to Alaska’s northernmost settlement, Utqiagvik (previously known as Barrow), is on Kodiak Island – more than 940 miles away. The nearest deepwater port, Dutch Harbor, is a 1,300-nautical mile, five-day voyage from Utqiagvik.

MH-60 deployment

A Coast Guard Air Station (AirSta) Kodiak MH-60 Jayhawk aircrew, deployed to forward operating location (FOL) Kotzebue, Alaska, departs on an area-familiarization flight, July 18, 2017. FOL Kotzebue housed two AirSta Kodiak Jayhawks and crews in support of Operation Arctic Shield. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Brian Dykens

While a permanent Arctic presence, at least shoreside, doesn’t make sense for the Coast Guard at this time, the service is charged with carrying out 11 statutory missions in domestic and international waters – waters that, more so every year, include the Alaskan Arctic. Since 2009, the service has surged people and platforms northward to achieve its operational missions and conduct exercises designed to learn more about working in the region, a window of activity known as Arctic Shield.

This year the service established a forward operating location (FOL) in the town of Kotzebue, about 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle, beginning on July 1. Two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and their aircrews were installed at a leased Alaska Army National Guard hangar, and the cutters Healy, Sherman, Maple, Hickory, and Alex Haley were deployed north of the Bering Strait at various times throughout the season. Training exercises conducted as part of Arctic Shield included a simulated oil spill response near Utqiagvik, which featured a seminar that brought Coast Guard, tribal, local, state, and industry agencies together to discuss and exercise pollution response capabilities available to North Slope communities.

Establishing an FOL in Kotzebue extends the Coast Guard’s reach by a considerable amount, McAllister said, enabling its Jayhawks to reach Utqiagvik, to the north, or Bethel, to the south, in a single sortie. In late July, the Jayhawks played a critical role in two rescues in and near the waters of northwest Alaska, in which six people were returned safely home.

In June, just 20 days before the Coast Guard had established its FOL in Kotzebue, the two young boaters who were lost off the coast of Wales were heard shouting for help within 30 minutes of their departure, but bystanders were unable to render assistance because of the weather and the amount of ice between the boaters and the shore. The Coast Guard responded from AirSta Kodiak, 740 miles away, with a C-130 long-range surveillance plane and two Jayhawk helicopters. “We conducted nine searches, in very poor weather conditions,” McAllister said, “and we were unable to locate those gentlemen.”

Boarding Arctic

A Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf boarding team boards a fishing vessel in the Bering Sea in spring 2017. The Coast Guard is charged with protecting living marine resources and routinely inspects vessels’ on-board safety equipment and monitors catch and processing to ensure resources are not exploited. U.S. Coast Guard photo

Wales is 177 miles from Kotzebue. “The uncertainty created by the earlier recession of ice, I think, is manifesting itself in cases that are coming earlier in the season,” said McAllister. “It has definitely caused us to consider expanding the amount of time we need to have our assets up in the Arctic area.”

Officials are working together at both the international and federal levels to establish more robust measures for assuring safety, national security, and environmental health in the Arctic. After years of study and public comment, the Coast Guard will be working with the Russian Federation and the International Maritime Organization to establish a two-way navigation route through the Bering Sea and Bering Strait. The service is working with Congress and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine the feasibility of an Alaskan Arctic port that could accommodate deep-draft vessels such as a national security cutter, oil tanker, or heavy icebreaker.

In the near future, the commandant has said, the Coast Guard’s efforts to project itself into the Arctic will focus on its at-sea presence.

As the commandant has pointed out several times in the past year, investing in onshore infrastructure in the Arctic – a deepwater port, or a permanent Coast Guard station – doesn’t make a lot of sense right now, for two reasons:

First, even in the town of Nome, one of the leading contenders for a deepwater port, there are no roads or rail lines linking the community to the interior, and there are few facilities capable of handling the surge in activity that a large-scale Coast Guard operation, such as a mass rescue or an oil spill cleanup, might require. Last year’s Arctic Shield exercise featured a multi-agency mass rescue simulation off the coast of Kotzebue, at around the same time the Crystal Serenity was passing through the Bering Strait. The scenario was a 200-passenger cruise ship that would suffer an on board fire and have to be abandoned, with severely injured patients evacuated to Kotzebue and those with minor or no injuries evacuated to Nome.

The simulated evacuation to Nome was suspended, said McAllister, due to “real-world weather,” and the exercise focused on leveraging resources to create something like a M.A.S.H. unit to increase capacity in Kotzebue – which, like every other Arctic community, has no trauma center. The medical clinic in Kotzebue has eight doctors and 17 beds. “They essentially doubled the medical capability there in Kotzebue,” McAllister said, “and were able to do a more sophisticated triage of the medical cases. And then we would work with the Department of Defense, and certainly use our Coast Guard forces and the cruise line, to set up that conveyor belt of evacuation, via government or commercial air, to Anchorage.” With such a dearth of infrastructure linking Alaskan communities to the rest of the world, a new port would seem a remote prospect.

Second, at a time when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that more than 30 Alaskan communities face an “imminent” existential threat from coastal erosion and flooding, planning for a coastal installation seems foolhardy. In the near future, the commandant has said, the Coast Guard’s efforts to project itself into the Arctic will focus on its at-sea presence.

 

Closing the Icebreaker Gap

In the Arctic, only one platform is capable of providing a consistent at-sea presence: an icebreaker. For the past several years, much has been made about the “icebreaker gap” between the United States, which has two operational icebreakers, and neighboring Russia, which has 40, and 11 more in production. The Coast Guard commissioned an independent study in 2009 that concluded the service needed three heavy and three medium icebreakers to fulfill its statutory missions in the polar regions.

The worse news is that, despite the urgent need for another heavy icebreaker, no ships of that class have been built in the United States in the last 40 years – and also that the cost of a new heavy icebreaker is estimated to be around $1 billion, or nearly 10 percent of the Coast Guard’s annual budget.

The Healy, a medium icebreaker, was commissioned in 1999 and is used primarily as a scientific research vessel in the Arctic. The Coast Guard’s heavy icebreaker, Polar Star, was built in 1976, along with its sister ship, Polar Sea, which has been inactive since 2010 and now exists as a source of spare parts. Polar Star is the only U.S. ship powerful enough to break the heavy sea ice to access McMurdo Research Station, the international installation in Antarctica, so it spends a good part of every year carving a channel for supply ships in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star sits hove-to in fast ice in McMurdo Station, Antarctica, during Operation Deep Freeze, Jan. 7, 2016. Each year Polar Star – the only heavy icebreaker in the U.S. Coast Guard’s fleet – breaks ice to resupply McMurdo Station, which is managed by the National Science Foundation. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst

The dilemma posed by having the Coast Guard’s two icebreakers at opposite ends of the world is clear: If one gets in trouble, it’s on its own. Reactivating the Polar Sea is not an option – it’s too expensive and too uncertain a prospect. The worse news is that, despite the urgent need for another heavy icebreaker, no ships of that class have been built in the United States in the last 40 years – and also that the cost of a new heavy icebreaker is estimated to be around $1 billion, or nearly 10 percent of the Coast Guard’s annual budget.

But there is good news: Congress has set aside $150 million in this year’s budget for preliminary acquisition activities, and the Coast Guard and the Navy have established an Integrated Program Office for determining requirements and interacting with industry contractors. It’s a start, said Michael Emerson, the Coast Guard’s senior Arctic policy adviser: “We’ve gone on record saying that if we get funded on time, we’ll push out the first of at least a minimum of two icebreakers needed for self-rescue by 2023,” he said. “And we’re actually trying to accelerate that further if there are economies that we can find along the way in the construction phase.”

“The new icebreaker will be armed, just as our other cutters are, for standard law enforcement and for asserting U.S. sovereignty.”

Discussions of what the Coast Guard’s new icebreaker might look like took an interesting turn this year when several experts – including the commandant – mentioned the possibility that it might be armed with cruise missiles. There are no such specifications yet, but the news broke in early 2017 that Russia was building two 374-foot ice patrol ships, armed with deck guns and missiles, designed specifically to be ice-capable surface combatants.

Sea Ice Extent Arctic

Historical and projected sea ice extent.

When envisioning a new icebreaker, Emerson said, it’s important to think beyond how the Coast Guard uses them today. “We’re not looking to build another Polar Star,” he said. “Since we know we’re going to keep these ships for 40 or 50 years, we’re trying to imagine the state of play in the future – and in the future, as the ice recedes, we expect to have sovereignty challenges involving national defense and security. This border that was once ice locked for most of the year, this fourth coast along Alaska’s north and west, is now essentially unmonitored. It’s exposed. The new icebreaker will be armed, just as our other cutters are, for standard law enforcement and for asserting U.S. sovereignty.”

Because of the Coast Guard’s lack of shore presence in the Arctic, and the lack of reliable satellite coverage, the new icebreakers will also have to serve as mobile command-and-control platforms, with a suite of communications and mobile sensing capabilities similar to national security cutters.

With diminishing sea ice and increasingly accessible Arctic resources, the incentive for the United States and other Arctic nations to assert sovereignty is greater than it’s ever been. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), coastal nations can claim sovereign rights to the seafloor resources beyond the internationally recognized 200-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs). These “extended continental shelf” claims are intended to ensure exclusive sovereign rights to explore and exploit natural resources – including gas, oil, and mineral wealth. “We’ve got some of the richest estimated reserves of oil and of strategic minerals right in our backyard,” Emerson said. “So this obviously makes our sovereignty ripe for challenge. If anybody wanted to exploit our extended continental shelf claim, or do any mining or seabed exploitation off of our coast, it would be worth their while.”

As it looks to its future in the Arctic, the Coast Guard remains mindful that the scope of its work is defined by its maritime domain – which, despite the rapid pace of change, is only just beginning to transform into a fourth coast.

The hitch is that, while a surveying crew aboard the Healy is busy mapping and defining the dimensions of this extended continental shelf, the United States still hasn’t ratified UNCLOS, which was finalized in 1982. “Extended continental shelf claims can be evaluated through a mechanism in the Law of the Sea Convention,” explained Emerson. “But having not ratified it, the U.S. lacks a seat at the table, and is limited to filing positions on other coastal state submissions.” The result is that an extra 350,000 to 600,000 square miles of potential riches on the Alaskan continental shelf appear to be unclaimed – and the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon) recently has established a pattern of stopping to do research in this area, often sailing right up to the boundary of the U.S. EEZ. Without U.S. ratification of UNCLOS, the U.S. extended continental shelf claim will lack legal certainty. To some observers – including Zukunft – China’s behavior in the region looks like that of a nation hoping to assert squatter’s rights.

At present, there’s no reason to sound alarms about such activity. The U.S. reluctance to ratify UNCLOS doesn’t pose an immediate risk to national security, but as time moves on, the nation’s potential to develop natural resources, which are currently difficult and expensive to access, will become more challenging in the international arena. As it looks to its future in the Arctic, the Coast Guard remains mindful that the scope of its work is defined by its maritime domain – which, despite the rapid pace of change, is only just beginning to transform into a fourth coast.

“It’s early in the opening of the Arctic,” said Emerson. “I wouldn’t say that tomorrow there’s suddenly going to be this cascade of activity – but we’re seeing increases in shipping, in resource development, ecotourism, and fishing. And I think those things are only going to increase.” As they do, look for the Coast Guard’s presence to grow along with them.

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