Byline: Associated Press/Michael Melia
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — As rising temperatures melt Arctic ice caps, the U.S. Coast Guard is ramping up for deployments in northern seas, which are emerging as a new maritime frontier.
The guard’s largest-ever Arctic deployment, planned for this summer, is designed partly to answer questions over how it will perform off Alaska’s north coast. How will cutters navigate without reliable charts mapping the sea bottom? How will communications be affected by the lack of onshore infrastructure? Do service members have the right training for the climate?
Warming temperatures have opened new waterways during summer months through the Northwest Passage above Canada and Russia. The opening has funneled more ship traffic through the Bering Strait — the narrow passage between Alaska and Russia. In an area that once hosted little more than delivery barges, Shell Oil is planning exploratory drilling during the open-water season in the Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea.
The Coast Guard’s service above the Arctic Circle dates to the 1800s, but America’s lead maritime federal agency is weighing more seriously how to respond to potential oil spills, protect fish stocks and rescue boaters in ice-choked waters.
“Before, nobody could get there. Now people can,” said Dana Goward, the Coast Guard’s Washington-based director of marine transportation systems. “As a result, we have any number of activities that go on elsewhere that couldn’t go on — and now are going on — in the Arctic.”
The Coast Guard’s closest base to the Arctic is Air Station Kodiak, where it has three cutters and several aircraft based on an island in the Gulf of Alaska, roughly 850 miles from Barrow.
The Coast Guard has been stepping up Arctic operations gradually as the melting polar ice opens shipping lanes. Since 2008, it has deployed boats and aircraft to small communities on Alaska’s coast, where the guard is looking to build relationships with villagers by providing training on boating safety.
This summer, as part of an operation called Arctic Shield, the guard is planning full-scale deployments of several cutters, helicopters and small craft.