In mid-July, the U.S. Coast Guard opened its forward operating location (FOL) for the summer in Barrow, Alaska, where they will remain until October. This year, their mission, entitled Operation Arctic Shield, will focus on operations, outreach, and capability assessment. Since February, the Coast Guard’s 17th District, which oversees Alaska, has been working closely with Alaska Native populations and tribal leaders in what they bill as “the nation’s largest humanitarian outreach effort that is not in response to a disaster (natural or man-made) in recent history.” For instance, on Tuesday, Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, the Coast Guard 17th District commander, and Vice Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, the Coast Guard Pacific Area commander, visited the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission in Point Hope, a non-profit that tries to safeguard traditional indigenous hunting of the bowhead whale. The Coast Guard can often learn from Alaska Natives as well, as they have more experience navigatingthe treacherous seas around their homes.
Over the course of Arctic Shield, teams of 25 pilots, along with other support personnel, will spend three-week tours in Barrow. In addition, two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters were moved from their base at Air Station Kodiak in the south of Alaska to a hangar in Barrow for the summer. Displaying the problems associated with building infrastructure in the Arctic – especially in a place where the ground is shifting due to permafrost melt – the New York Times reports that when the Coast Guard arrived to begin using the hangar, it had sunk several feet into the ground.
It is becoming ever more necessary for the Coast Guard to establish a presence in the Arctic, even if they cannot yet maintain a year-round one. Each summer bustles with more activity than the last, and this year, with Shell trying to drill for oil, more contingency plans than ever before need to be put in place. To try to patrol northern waters from Kodiak, in Alaska’s south, would be like trying to monitor activities on the northern border of North Dakota from north Texas, as the Coast Guard points out in this brochure (PDF). In what is a first, this year, the Coast Guard will test its Spilled Oil Recovery System, equipment that can skim and pump oil off of the ocean, in Arctic waters.
The commander of the CGC Alex Haley observed, “More traffic up there means more people… If we don’t have a presence up there, how are we going to respond adequately?” To see what happens in just a few days in the waters off Alaska’s lengthy coastline, check out this Coast Guard blog. Injured fishermen, maydays, and ship groundings are just some of incidents to which the Coast Guard needs to respond. The North Shore of Alaska isn’t nearly as busy, but with Shell’s oil drilling plans, increased tourism, and maritime activity, in due course, the Coast Guard will need to expand its presence and possibly turn it into a permanent one.
In what seems to be a flurry of U.S. activity in its Arctic waters, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) will send their ship, the Fairweather, to begin measuring sea lanes this week on a thirty-day mission that will take it from Dutch Harbor through the Bering Strait and then towards Canada. The ship will stay close to shore and will focus on shipping hotspots such as near Point Hope and Barrow, AK. Using sonar, NOAA will take the first measurements of the sea lanes since Captain James Cook sailed through in 1778, when he made measurements with hourglasses, sextants, and ropes. Fairweather is no novice at sea, though: she was first launched in 1967 and then refitted in 2004 after fifteen years out of service. Fairweather’s research will not just benefit the oil rigs, tourist ships, and research vessels passing through the poorly charted waters off of northwest Alaska. It will also make it easier for the Coast Guard to do their job, as they need good maps in order to perform their duties. The Search and Rescue Agreement signed by the members of the Arctic Council last year is of little use if countries’ coast guards and navies cannot navigate accurately. With Fairweather’s new measurements and the Coast Guard’s added experience, the U.S. maritime Arctic should be safer.
“U.S. Coast Guard 17: Arctic Shield & Cultural Responsiveness,” Center for a Better Life