Defense Media Network

The Coast Guard in the Arctic

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

There is already evidence, however, that certain fish species, such as salmon, have begun migrating into warming waters north of the strait, increasing the possibility that commercial fishing vessels may one day appear in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. If and when that happens, the Coast Guard will have 196,000 square miles of ocean, from the Bering Strait to the northern Alaska/Canada border, added to its fisheries enforcement responsibilities.

Nautical and ecotourism. Arctic tourism is sharply on the rise, both among those on pleasure cruises and those who seek adventure in the Alaska wilds. The Coast Guard estimates that up to 1 million adventure tourists may visit the region in 2013. Adventure and ecotourists tend to travel via passenger vessels to areas with – even by Alaskan standards – very little road or air infrastructure, increasing both the likelihood and difficulty of search and rescue operations.

Alaska’s rough and unpredictable weather presents an additional challenge to those venturing into the Arctic frontier – one encountered in December 2012 by Shell Oil when its drill ship Kulluk grounded in stormy seas while being towed from the Beaufort Sea back to its Seattle, Wash., homeport. Fortunately, the accident occurred relatively near Air Station Kodiak, and the Coast Guard was able to recover the rig without injury, loss of life, or the release of any of Kulluk’s 150,000 gallons of fuel and lubricants. The seriousness of the incident, however, compelled Shell to put its Arctic drilling plans on hold for 2013, and highlighted the difficulty such an incident, hundreds of miles from the nearest port or Coast Guard facility, might present to responders.

Healy Arctic

The crew and passengers of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy’s Arctic Shield 2013 patrol pose for a photo in front of the icebreaker on the frozen Arctic Ocean, Sept. 13, 2013. The patrol focused on a Coast Guard Research and Development Center-led, multi-agency simulated oil spill response exercise. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Grant DeVuyst

The lack of infrastructure to support a spill response above the Arctic Circle was detailed by the nonprofit Center for American Progress in February 2012 in a report titled “Putting a Freeze on Arctic Ocean Drilling”, which compared the resources available in the Arctic to those in and around the Gulf of Mexico, where the 2010 Deepwater Horizon tragedy resulted in the loss of 11 lives and the discharge of an estimated 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf. At its peak, the Deepwater Horizon response involved 9,700 vessels, 127 aircraft, and 47,829 people – a level of activity literally impossible to achieve in the Arctic. “We have seen firsthand the threats these activities pose under the best of circumstances in a region where response is readily accessible and well rehearsed,” the report concluded. “There are too many unknowns to allow them to occur in pristine, remote, unknown areas.”

While these areas may be pristine and remote, “unknown,” increasingly, is not a word that describes them: The maritime Arctic is no longer an inaccessible, semi-dormant region for quiet exploration and scientific research; it’s a big, dynamic, rapidly evolving area where resource extraction, commercial shipping, and tourism are happening to a greater extent every year. Along with wealth and recreational opportunities, busier Arctic seas introduce a new level of risk – for accidents, conflict, crime, pollution, or other environmental damage to a fragile ecosystem on which 229 federally recognized native tribes rely for food security and cultural traditions.

It remains the Coast Guard’s job to prevent these things from happening, and to respond when they do.


Operational Challenges

In Alaska, the Coast Guard’s work is performed by more than 2,000 active-duty, Reserve, civilian, and Auxiliary members in its 17th District, headquartered in Juneau. While the Coast Guard isn’t new to the Arctic, its century-and-a-half of experience in Alaska has led it to concentrate its assets and facilities along the southern coast and panhandle, near population centers and, historically, the areas of greatest activity.

In the summer, when the ice melts, the district’s operational theater roughly doubles in size, and overall its personnel find themselves poorly positioned to work in a far northern expanse dotted with far-flung villages and few roads, piers, or ports. The normal method of delivering food and supplies to these communities is for a tugboat to push a flat-bottomed, single-hulled barge onshore, wait for it to be offloaded, and then pull it back out to sea. Traveling from AirSta Kodiak to Point Barrow, Alaska’s northern-most community, is a 940-mile flight – about the same distance that lies between Seattle and Los Angeles, Calif. – over three mountain ranges. A big cutter, sailing from Kodiak through the Bering Strait, takes a week to get to the North Slope.

Traveling from AirSta Kodiak to Point Barrow, Alaska’s northern-most community, is a 940-mile flight – about the same distance that lies between Seattle and Los Angeles, Calif. – over three mountain ranges. A big cutter, sailing from Kodiak through the Bering Strait, takes a week to get to the North Slope.

Over the past decade, District 17 has responded to increased seasonal activity in the maritime Arctic by deploying more people and assets. In 2007, it began conducting Arctic domain awareness flights from March through December. In 2008, it began to send more seasonal personnel to the region; the CGC Healy, the Coast Guard’s 420-foot research icebreaker, began joint oceanographic surveys with Canadian research vessels in the Arctic. The following year, the CGC Alex Haley, a medium endurance cutter, conducted an extensive 21-day Arctic patrol that involved domain awareness, community outreach in the town of Kotzebue, and an exercise in bringing supplies via an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter to an offshore vessel. In 2010, the Coast Guard and partners from the U.S. Public Health Service and the U.S. Army and Air National Guard began an extensive community outreach effort, Operation Arctic Crossroads, that brought safety instruction and medical, dental, and veterinary services to communities throughout much of northwestern Alaska.

District 17’s seasonal activities reached historic proportions in Arctic Shield 2012, the first time the Coast Guard established a sustained offshore presence for all Coast Guard missions in the Arctic throughout the maritime season. At a forward operating location (FOL) in Barrow, the Coast Guard established a seasonal air base by stationing two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters in a rented air hangar, bunking air and support crews in a decommissioned Cold War radar station, and sending surface assets led by the national security cutter Bertholf, whose command, control, and communications systems, cutterboat launch ramp, and helicopter pad enabled it to serve as a mobile base of operations. The Bertholf was accompanied by two ice-capable seagoing buoy tenders and a medium endurance cutter.

Prev Page 1 2 3 4 Next Page


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