The Coast Guard cutter Polar Sea performs icebreaking and scientific mission in both polar regions. (Coast Guard)
With the Arctic Ocean warming at an alarming rate, the enhanced ability of foreign vessels to navigate through the region is putting a greater demand on the U.S. Coast Guard to confront what may be the newest threat to U.S. national security.
“With increased activities in the Arctic come increased risk,” said Cmdr. Karin Messenger, deputy chief of the Coast Guard’s emerging policy staff in Washington, D.C. “The remote nature of the region and the operational conditions will make any national or international emergency response, such as a mass rescue operation, challenging.”
The U.S. became an “Arctic nation” in 1867 with the acquisition of Alaska. The U.S. Arctic domain encompasses almost 41,000 square miles with more than a dozen villages and towns.
The closest U.S. deep-water port to Barrow, Alaska — an Arctic population center on the state’s northern coast that typically is only accessible by plane — is about 1,100 nautical miles away in the Aleutian Islands. The closest U.S. Coast Guard Air Station to Barrow is 945 nautical miles south of Barrow, in Kodiak, Alaska.
Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the lower 48 states over the past 60 years, according to Coast Guard data. But despite this trend, the sea service’s response capabilities in the region, for now, are limited and seasonal.
The Coast Guard has three ships capable of breaking through polar ice.
The Polar Star generally is used in the Antarctic to aid in research funded by the National Science Foundation. The ship is the largest non-nuclear ice breaker in the world, but still can operate in the Antarctic only about 185 days a year, according to Chief Warrant Officer 2 Allyson Conroy, a Coast Guard Pacific area spokeswoman based in Alameda, Calif.
The Polar Star’s sister ship, the Polar Sea, is not operational. Conroy said the Coast Guard uses the medium-sized ship Healy in the Arctic.
As the Arctic becomes more navigable, what remains to be seen is the extent to which it may evolve into a conflict zone as the nations that border the sea — and some that do not — vie for the region’s abundance of natural resources.
The Coast Guard estimates the Arctic has 90 billion barrels of oil and 30 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves.
But greater commercial activity in the region is not a given. A Government Accountability Office report published in mid-April noted that unpredictable weather could severely hamper growth of commercial enterprise in the Arctic. Sea trading deadlines could not be met in that kind of harsh environment, said the GAO’s Lorelei St. James.
“There are basic foundation issues that have to be faced,” St. James said, citing the fact that there are few detailed maps of the region, and none complete. St. James predicts that at the pace the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is producing maps, it may be another 50 years before complete maps of the Arctic are available to facilitate safe navigation throughout the region.
In addition, St. James said it’s still cheaper for oil to be gathered from land sources on the continental U.S. She speculated that the availability of on-land drilling for oil would decrease the likelihood of too much investment in exploration in the Arctic’s rough waters.
President Obama issued the National Strategy for the Arctic Region in May 2013. The report highlighted the importance of creating an “area free of conflict, acting in concert with allies, partners, and other interested parties.” It outlined three objectives: advancing U.S. security interests, wielding responsible stewardship, and strengthening international cooperation in the region.
Messenger said the Coast Guard is fully on board with that basic philosophy. “The Coast Guard continues to view the Arctic as an area for international cooperation and consensus building,” she said.
A new Arctic Coast Guard Forum, modeled after the North Pacific Coast Guard Forums, has been created to deal with some of the challenges of secure and environmentally responsible maritime activity in the region. The international organization is set to have its first executive level meeting in September, Messenger said.
As the region begins to open up to commerce and tourism, the Coast Guard understands the challenges the region poses for security. “The Arctic continues to have a harsh, unpredictable climate and requires the Coast Guard — and all mariners — to remain vigilant.”