Coast Guard to move slowly into the Arctic

The U.S. Coast Guard unveiled its draft plan for increased Arctic operations over the next decade at open houses held across Alaska May 12-16.

The preferred alternative action in the draft environmental assessment of USCG Arctic Operations and Training Exercises matches the growth in maritime Arctic activity expected in the coming years with an appropriate USCG presence, 17th District Arctic Planner James Robinson said at an Anchorage open house May 13.

Doing so would mean responding to the “seasonal surge” in Arctic activity, primarily mid-March through mid-November, with a shore, air and sea presence, the report states. Further, the Coast Guard’s plan is a response to Arctic strategies laid out by the White House and Defense Department among other federal agencies over the last two years, Robinson said.

Outside of responding to specific missions, the Coast Guard has not historically emphasized being in the usually quiet Arctic. The USCG cutter Healy, typically used in support of scientific missions, has been its only consistent presence in the region, according to the assessment.

Robinson said when Shell was exploring its Beaufort Sea oil and gas leases in 2012, the Coast Guard positioned a forward operating base in Barrow. Last summer, with no Arctic Outer Continental Shelf drilling occurring, a forward operating base was stationed in Kotzebue to generally learn more about operating in the Bering Strait, he said.

 “We look at our operations and analyze our risk picture,” when determining where to deploy resources, Robinson said.

With no drilling this year, he said the Coast Guard would likely split resources between the North Slope and Western Alaska, working to advance logistical knowledge for future operations.

According to the assessment, the risk picture in the Bering Strait is growing. Maritime traffic transiting the strait increased from 220 vessels in 2008 to 480 in 2012, as summer sea ice continues its general retreat.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected in the coming months to release a deep-draft port proposal for the Seward Peninsula, another federal response to a busier Arctic. A deep-draft port in the Nome area could serve as an operations center for Arctic emergency responders, including the Coast Guard, Corps of Engineers Alaska officials have said.

Robinson said the Coast Guard is reevaluating plans to rid itself of its small former base and airstrip at Port Clarence as a result. With deep water, Port Clarence, northeast of Nome, is cited by the Corps of Engineers as a possible place for civilian or military infrastructure development.

It could help Coast Guard missions mitigate “the tyranny of distance and time” that makes seasonal Arctic operations so expensive, Robinson said.

The Coast Guard is looking for partners of all types, from the military to Alaska Native corporations, to mitigate those costs and maximize efficiency, he said.

USCG C-130 aircraft positioned at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks can fulfill a myriad of Arctic missions, according to Robinson.

While the Coast Guard is often welcomed in rural Alaska, he noted that an emphasis must be placed on reaching out to residents in the villages of Northwest Alaska to assure them the Coast Guard will take steps to minimize its impact on wildlife, marine or otherwise, and will do its best to make sure others do as well.

Keeping a distance from wildlife will be of high priority in the Arctic going forward. All vessels and aircraft will avoid areas of active or anticipated subsistence hunts by contacting those in area villages to determine a proper course of action, according to the assessment.

Additionally, when weather allows, Coast Guard planes will not fly below 1,500 feet and less than a half-mile from polar bears and they won’t be below 2,000 feet when within a half-mile of walruses.

The draft assessment is available for review online at A public comment period on the report is open until May 28.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/21/2016 - 12:58pm