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The New York Times: New Task for Coast Guard in Arctic’s Warming Seas

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Crewmen of the icebreaker Healy found a marked reduction in summer ice when they sailed north of Alaska this year.
Published: October 19, 2007

WASHINGTON, Oct. 18 — For most of human history, the Arctic Ocean has been an ice-locked frontier. But now, in one of the most concrete signs of the effect of a warming climate on government operations, the Coast Guard is planning its first operating base there as a way of dealing with the cruise ships and the tankers that are already beginning to ply Arctic waters.
The pullback in summer ice has caused the Coast Guard, led by Adm. Thad W. Allen, to plan its first Arctic operating base, probably near Barrow.

 With increasingly long seasons of open water in the region, the Coast Guard has also begun discussions with the Russians about controlling anticipated ship traffic through the Bering Strait, which until now has been crossed mainly by ice-breaking research vessels and native seal and walrus hunters.

The Coast Guard says its base, which would probably be near the United States’ northernmost town, Barrow, Alaska, on the North Slope coast, would be seasonal and would initially have just a helicopter equipped for cold-weather operations and several small boats.

But given continued warming, that small base, which could be in place by next spring, would be expanded later to help speed responses to oil spills from tankers that the Coast Guard believes could eventually carry shipments from Scandinavia to Asia through the Bering Strait. Such a long-hoped-for polar route would cut 5,000 miles or more from a journey that would otherwise entail passage through the Panama Canal or the Suez.

The Coast Guard is also concerned about being able to respond to emergencies involving cruise ships, which are already starting to operate in summers in parts of the Arctic Ocean.

And in yet a further kind of new activity abetted by warming seas, Royal Dutch Shell is preparing for exploratory oil drilling off Alaska’s Arctic coast beginning next year.

“I’m not sure I’m qualified to talk about the scientific issues related to global warming,” the Coast Guard commandant, Adm. Thad W. Allen, said in an interview. “All we know is we have an operating environment we’re responsible for, and it’s changing.”

The commander of the Coast Guard’s Alaska district, Rear Adm. Arthur E. Brooks, said in a telephone interview that the expansion of open water as summer sea ice pulls back means that “almost everything the U.S. does will be doable in the Arctic, we think.”

A new survey by American oceanographers of the seafloor north of Alaska, completed last month aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, provides fresh evidence that the United States has much at stake in the region. The sonar studies found hints that thousands of square miles of additional seafloor could potentially be under American control. That floor might yield important deposits of oil, gas or minerals in coming decades, government studies have concluded.

So far did the sea ice pull back this summer that the expedition was able to scan the bottom several hundred miles farther north than in previous surveys, said the project’s director, Larry Mayer, an oceanographer at the University of New Hampshire. The team found long sloping extensions 200 miles beyond previous estimates.

Though more surveys will be needed to firm up any American claim, countries have a right to expand their control of seabed resources well beyond the continental shelves bordering their coasts if they can find such sloping extensions. That right is guaranteed by the United Nations Law of the Sea treaty, which, after years of fights in Congress, the United States appears poised to ratify. The treaty has the support of President Bush, but ratification requires approval by two-thirds of the Senate.

Senior State Department officials say the United States has to become more involved in the region, and are urging other countries to cooperate to encourage international trade through the Far North.

“Having a safe, secure and reliable Arctic shipping regime is vital to the proper development of Arctic resources, especially now given the extent of Arctic ice retreat we witnessed this past summer,” Assistant Secretary of State Daniel S. Sullivan said Monday at an international conference in Anchorage. “We can have such a regime only through cooperation, not competition, among Arctic nations. Denial of passage through international waterways, even though they may be territorial waters, and burdensome transit requirements will not benefit any nation in the long run.”

The change in Arctic sea and ice conditions has indeed been remarkable, as one stark example demonstrates. The Coast Guard recently produced a video commemorating the transit of the Northwest Passage in the summer of 1957 by three cutters that became icebound, forcing the crews to dynamite the ice to free themselves. Now open water is the norm in summers along many Arctic coasts.

The resulting increase in Arctic activity will mean a greater need for search and rescue capabilities and for environmental protection, Coast Guard officials say. In fact, Admiral Allen says ship traffic could turn the Bering Strait into a choke point like the Strait of Gibraltar.

Environmentalists view the Coast Guard’s interest with dismay about what it suggests for the future of a fragile environment, but also with some relief.

“We should be taking a hard look as a nation at what do we need to do to adequately protect the environment, faced with that kind of massive change in risk,” said Pamela A. Miller, the Arctic coordinator at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, in Fairbanks.

Mead Treadwell, an Anchorage businessman who is chairman of the Arctic Research Commission, created by Congress to advise the government on scientific and other issues in the region, said the Coast Guard’s new plans were only fair.

“It is high time that our coastline in the north enjoyed the same protections other states’ coastal residents have from the Coast Guard,” he said. “The Arctic may be warming, but there’s no indication that conditions at sea are getting any safer.”

Matthew L. Wald reported from Washington, and Andrew C. Revkin from New York. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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