While in Seward Sept. 1, President Barack Obama said he will push for expedited construction of a heavy icebreaker, a cause Alaska’s congressional delegation has been advocating for years.
The administration hopes to accelerate delivery of a $1 billion heavy icebreaker by two years, from 2022 to 2020, and will push Congress to fund the project, according to a White House statement. The Coast Guard’s average annual capital budget is about the same $1 billion.
The need for U.S. icebreaking capacity is evident when compared to our Arctic counterparts, the president noted. Russia has 40 ice vessels in operation or under construction, while the U.S. has two.
“It’s important that we are prepared so, whether it’s for search and rescue missions or national security reasons, whether it’s for commerce reasons, that we have much greater capability than we have now,” Obama said.
He made the announcement in front of the Seward City Dock before touring Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords — a boat trip focused on viewing the effects of climate change.
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star is the country’s only heavy icebreaker in operation and along with the medium icebreaker Healy, comprise the operational icebreaking fleet of two. The Polar Sea, a sister ship to the Polar Star, is inactive and located in Seattle being used as a source of spare parts.
Rep. Don Young said in a formal statement after the president’s announcement that the administration’s acknowledgement of the icebreaking need is an important step for Alaska.
“For too long this conversation has fallen on deaf ears, which is why my colleagues and I called upon the president to address on our nation’s dwindling icebreaker fleet during this visit,” Young said. “I’m encouraged to see the administration recognize some of the region’s broader needs – icebreakers, deep water ports and navigational aids – and hope they do their part when it comes to tackling these significant infrastructure hurdles.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski included $6 million for evaluating the condition and capability of the Polar Sea in the Department of Homeland Security budget passed out of committee. She also voted against a $940 million Democratic proposal to fund a heavy icebreaker earlier this year, saying that despite the need for the ship, the spending would surpass the sequestration spending cap.
For further Arctic support infrastructure, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working through the public process on a $210 million plan to expand and deepen the Port of Nome. The more capable port would provide a home base for smaller support and response vessels tasked with aiding the oil and gas industry and large ships traversing U.S. Arctic waters.
Announced in February, the port plan would require local or state matching funds to about $100 million of federal money, all of which still needs to be secured. The project likely won’t be finished for at least 10 years, corps officials have said.
Maritime Arctic emergency management
The obvious detriments of climate change to Alaska were the focus of the GLACIER conference Aug. 31 in Anchorage, but the potential opportunities resulting from a warming Arctic were not lost either.
Rear Adm. Dan Abel, commander of the 17th District of the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska, said managing growing business opportunities in the region means being prepared for an increasing range of challenges as summer Arctic sea ice recedes.
“Nothing in maritime is risk free, so that’s why we have both sides, prevention and response,” Abel said during a panel discussion on international preparedness and cooperation for emergency response in the Arctic.
Traffic numbers through the Bering Strait are a likely indicator of what’s to come as more water opens up each summer. The number of vessels traversing the narrow passage more than doubled from 220 in 2008, to 480 in 2012, Shell’s first year of drilling in the Chukchi Sea. The vessel count through the Bering Strait was 340 last year, according to Abel.
Activity from shipping, energy, tourism and possibly fishing vessels is just expected to keep growing.
Adding to the challenge are the 12,000-plus bowhead whales and millions of birds that migrate through the Bering Strait twice each year, he said. Separating commercial activity from wildlife and subsistence users is a major task.
“Keeping all of this new ocean traffic moving smoothly is a growing concern for safety’s sake. It’s also important to our U.S. economy, to Alaska’s economy, the environment and national security,” said Gerd Glang, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Coast Survey.
Arctic vessel traffic and summer sea ice coverage are inversely related, and if current models are correct, the Arctic will be nearly ice free by 2040, he added.
As a result, the Coast Guard pushes as many resources north from early July through October as possible. Abel said this year two helicopters typically stationed in Kodiak were moved to Deadhorse for the open water season, cutting response time to Barrow from more than eight hours to about 90 minutes.
Still, Abel said first responders offshore from the North Slope or Western Alaska are likely to be recreational, commercial or subsistence vessels, which is why the Coast Guard has 51 oil and fuel spill response kits stashed in 19 communities in the region.
“The first responders deserve to have a Band-Aid kit,” he said, should an emergency arise.
North Slope Borough Search and Rescue Director April Brower said the majority of the borough’s responders are subsistence hunters because they have adequate gear, understand the dangers of the Arctic waters and how long someone could potentially survive in the elements.
Abel emphasized the importance of the Coast Guard’s relationship with local residents throughout the hour-long discussion.
“Do we have a village, borough, tribal, state federal or international teammate that can help us in our mission?” he said.
As far as search and response efforts go, he also said the Coast Guard’s relationship with Russia is good, despite a strained relationship on other diplomatic fronts.
“I’m happy with the connection I have with my tactical peer 44 miles to the west (across the Bering Strait) in Russia,” Abel remarked.
Glang said much could be done to prevent hazardous situations, or at least respond quicker and safer, simply through improved mapping of the U.S. Arctic. However, obtaining the charts is not that simple.
The federally defined maritime Arctic includes waters above the Arctic Circle, but also the Bering Strait south, encompassing the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands.
In total, the Arctic accounts for about 63 percent of navigationally significant U.S. waters, according to Glang. Less than 1 percent of that has been charted with modern technology.
“NOAA charts in the Arctic are patchwork of hydrographic surveys, which were motivated by economic development and national defense since before Alaska was a state,” Glang said.
Some thorough charts from decades ago are outdated, particularly those around river mouths where channels, shoals and currents constantly change, he said.
Some good news is that 20 percent of the U.S. Arctic water is not deemed high priority for charting because of location and water depth, and about 70 percent of vessel traffic occurs in that area, according to Glang.
This summer, the NOAA hydrographic charting vessels Fairweather and Rainier spent nearly two months surveying Kotzebue Sound, but that work is not cheap.
In 2010, NOAA led the formation of the Arctic Regional Hydrographic Commission, a charting partnership focused on data sharing and preventing duplicative charting with Canada, Norway, Denmark and Russia.
“We promote cooperation in hydrographic surveying and nautical charting,” Glang said. “The commission provides a forum for better collaboration to ensure safety of life at sea, protecting the increasingly fragile Arctic ecosystem and support for the maritime economy.”
Glang said needed information goes beyond accurate charts to simple tide and current data in Arctic waters. Much of the tide and current data relied upon today was gathered in the 1950s over only a few days at each location, when at least 30 days of measurement is required to model accurate predictions.
NOAA has 10 water level observation points in the Arctic and another 16 across Alaska leaving 27 gaps in water level observation, he said, 19 of which are in the Arctic.
The near shore water level and current information is essential not only for preventing disasters, but also responding to them quickly and safely, he said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]