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Coast Guard Looks North to Alaska's Changing Arctic

June 01, 2011|Michelle Theriault Boots

BARROW, Alaska — As sea ice melts, Alaska's Coast Guard is looking north to an Arctic future.

On Tuesday, Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo made his first trip to Barrow aboard a C-130. The Coast Guard officer in charge of all Alaska operations, Ostebo said it’s apparent that environmental changes are reshaping the Arctic ocean ecosystem.

The difference is simple:

"There used to be ice, now there’s water,” the admiral said.

The implications for the Coast Guard could be huge. A new focus on the Arctic and more open water will lead to an increase in boating, shipping, tourism and off-shore drilling operations, he believes. That could happen sooner than some think.

Based on predictions by military oceanographers and others, “an ice-free Arctic for at least part of the summer is very likely in the next 10-15 years,” he said.

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That means the Coast Guard will be spending more time, and resources, in the Arctic soon, he said, and it’s time to plan for that future.

“We have to be proactive and think about how we’d respond today – and even more appropriately, how we can prepare ourselves as traffic increases over the next years. We really do need to start now.”

The “Arctic Domain Awareness” flights are meant to put Coast Guard planes and people in a vast region they are responsible for protecting, with the seasonal, bi-weekly flights typically running a circuit from Kodiak to Galena and then over the coast to villages like Kivalina impacted by coastal erosion, and on to Point Hope and Barrow. Tuesday’s flight went directly from Anchorage to Barrow to allow for time on the ground.

The flight was packed with media, visiting government officials and NOAA scientists who took air and gas samples and surveyed ice conditions.

On the ground in Barrow, Coast Guard visited a planning session for a large-scale search and rescue. If the Arctic has more open water and more maritime activity, the likelihood of a large-scale search-and-rescue operation happening in the cold waters will be greater.  

Already, indigenous hunters in the area seem to have to go further offshore to hunt for seals and whales, he said.

“What we’re seeing with the retreat of sea ice is that the missions that we’re (doing in the Arctic) are changing,” said Ostebo.

He cites a 2007 incident where an eco-tourism cruise sank near Antarctica after hitting ice. The 150 people onboard had to be rescued. If something on that scale happened in Alaska today, the consequences could be devastating. Right now, he says, the Coast Guard’s people and resources are concentrated in Kodiak – 1,000 miles away.

Alaska has major Coast Guard installations in Kodiak and Sitka, historically the locus of operations that heavily involved commercial fishing fleets.

“We have fixed bases set years and years ago and now we find ourselves stretched more and more into the Bering Sea and beyond,” Ostebo said.

The question now is how to locate people in Barrow or another North Slope location. One obstacle is the fact that there’s no natural deep water port on the coast. A floating base may be a possibility, he said, or aircraft flying out of an already existing base.

Whatever happens, he said, the groundwork for an increased presence needs to be laid out soon.

 “You can’t ignore the Arctic,” he said.

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