The U.S. Coast Guard has put its first toe in the waters of an Arctic operational base by deploying some personnel, aircraft and vessels to the City of Barrow for a few weeks during the summer. And in an Aug. 7 media presentation in Alaska’s northernmost city, Rear Admiral Gene Brooks, commander of the 17th U.S. Coast Guard District, characterized this year’s presence in Barrow as a test, to evaluate what the Coast Guard can usefully do around the North Slope.
“We’ve come together to learn how best to support the North Slope,” Brooks said of the Coast Guard contingent in Barrow. “… I don’t have the resources to stay all summer, and I don’t really know if I need to stay all summer. I don’t know if I need boats here at all. I’m pretty sure I’m going to need helicopters and aircraft support.”
In addition to placing two helicopters and two Coast Guard response boats in Barrow, USCG has been flying fixed wing missions to the north from Nome and Kodiak, Brooks said.
“Part of the test is we’ve been flying in and out of Nome at different periods during the summer, based primarily on the Russian fishing vessel pressure on the maritime boundary line of the Bering Sea,” he said.
Bi-weekly flightsThe Coast Guard has been operating biweekly surveillance flights up the Chukchi Sea coast since October 2007 using a Kodiak-based Hercules HC-130 aircraft, Brooks said. The Hercules has to operate from somewhere with a suitably sized hangar, thus limiting possible base locations to Kodiak or Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, he said. The surveillance flights enable the Coast Guard to document coastal erosion near coastal communities, monitor sea ice conditions and observe marine activities in the region, as well as support scientific activities and familiarize flight crews with Arctic operations.
“We started going out because we did not know what was here,” Brooks said. “And … the best way to verify what’s here is to use the mark one modular eyeball. You go out and see … who’s here. That’s what we’ve been doing with these flights.”
In fact a prime motivation for the Coast Guard’s interest in the north has been increased marine activity in the region as a consequence of the receding sea ice cover of recent summers.
“We had seven cruise ships coming through this summer into the Arctic on our side,” Brooks said. “… We’re seeing more research vessels — the Chinese are up here. We’re seeing increased ship traffic of all kinds.”
But the Coast Guard also recognizes the differences between the Arctic coastal regions and its more familiar territory further south.
“The challenge in the Arctic, of course, is the fact that the things we do in Juneau or Ketchikan are not necessarily the things that the people of the North Slope need,” Brooks said. The question is how best to support the North Slope communities, he said.
“This has been a wonderful learning opportunity for us, to learn what the maritime issues are in this part of Alaska and this part of the world and what the people need,” Brooks said.
Community welcomeAnd the North Slope communities have welcomed the Coast Guard presence.
Mayor Edward Itta of the North Slope Borough thanked the Coast Guard for working with the borough and other organizations of the region.
“We sincerely appreciate that,” Itta said. “… I applaud the Coast Guard for the approach that they have taken to come up here and learn. They sat down. They called in and said ‘who do we need to talk to?’”
And Harry Brower Jr., chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, said that the Coast Guard had delayed some of its operations to avoid the whale hunt.
“I’d also like to thank them for listening to our concerns as a whaling community,” Brower said.
Itta said that with increased activity in the Arctic seas, he hoped that the Coast Guard would establish a more permanent presence in the region.
“We need traffic cops here out on our oceans,” Itta said. “We’re looking at them now, the Coast Guard, and we welcome their presence.”
“With the ice cap receding and … anticipated ship travel through the Northwest Passage … it’s reassuring that our own boys are out there on the ocean watching out for us,” said Michael Stotts, mayor of Barrow.
Itta commented on the surprise appearance of a German cruise ship with 400 tourists in Barrow earlier in the summer. Nobody, including the Coast Guard, had been aware that the ship was going to arrive.
“Somebody has to know who is out there and doing what,” Itta said. “… We expect more as the transportation corridors open up here. I just think that initially we need to have a plan on how to deal with that and an Arctic policy of some sort.”
Search and rescueItta also welcomed Coast Guard assistance with search and rescue activities — Coast Guard helicopters had recently helped in a search for a villager lost at sea.
“Our North Slope Borough search and rescue department has been the only entity up here that does any search and rescue or recovery … above the Brooks Range,” Itta said.
And Itta commented on community concerns about the potential impact of oil industry offshore seismic activities on subsistence whaling.
“We expect there will be clashes, but we’re always sitting at the table and welcome industry to come and talk to us,” Itta said. “… Hopefully we’re going to coexist. We have to coexist.”
“We live in a time of change,” said Richard Glenn, vice-president of Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and president of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium. “Change in our climate. Change in our culture. ... And we’re still involved in our traditional lifestyle, even although many things around us have changed. And so we’re glad the Coast Guard has come here. We’ve got together the community to tell them that.”