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Canada's coast guard wonders if bigger might be better with Arctic presence

Brian CaseEye on the Arctic
A young Barrow resident peeks out from their home. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Wainwright is the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, and has been the site of increased activity and attention this summer. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
An informational sign in a Barrow bus. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Biologists disembark from an Olgoonik Corp. transport vessel on Aug. 30, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Participants in the Arctic Tour experience a summer snowstorm while on the tundra in Barrow. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Shell Oil's Chukchi Sea oil response facility, located in Wainwright. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The whale bone sculpture in Barrow's Browerville neighborhood frames a ship. Alaska's arctic has seen a marked increase of ship traffic this season. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Welcome to the village of Wainwright, where there's a new gravel pad around every corner. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A permafrost freezer in Barrow. The permanently frozen ground is a challenge for house and road constructors, but helpful for preserving meat. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Wainwright is the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, and has been the site of increased activity and attention this summer. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A barge loading material in Barrow. The most northern city in the U.S. doesn't have any deep water port. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Drugs are a huge problem in rural Alaska, including the village of Wainwright, pictured here. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The South Barrow #1 well, the first test well drilled in Alaska's north slope. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A cemetery in Wainwright. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A gallon of orange juice in Barrow is $17.65. Food prices are even higher in smaller Alaskan arctic communities. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kids play on a gravel pile in Wainwright. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Shell Oil's helicopter hangar, at right, dwarfs the U.S. Coast Guard's rented hangar at the Barrow Airport. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The entirety of the U.S. Coast Guard's terrestrial operations in Barrow consist of this small rented hangar at the Barrow airport. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The communications equipment at the U.S. Coast Guard's Barrow headquarters. The Coast Guard is using a rented hangar this summer. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Wainwright is the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, and is the site of increased activity and attention. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Wainwright is the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, and is the site of increased activity and attention. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Wainwright is the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, and is the site of increased activity and attention. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kids play in Wainwright, the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea. The village has been the site of increased activity and attention this summer. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The village of Wainwright is the closest community to Shell Oil's offshore leases in the Chukchi Sea, and has been the site of increased activity and attention this summer. August 28, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

When the Canadian Coast Guard offers help this summer in the search for the lost ships of Sir John Franklin's polar expedition, its efforts will be only one part of its multi-faceted annual mission to the Arctic.

Its return to the northern waters will also feature work that reflects the changing nature of the life in the area: bigger ships are starting to travel and work there and the coast guard will be moving beacons to make way for the larger vessels.

"The one change for us this year is we'll be opening the navigation season by laying all the buoys and checking the beacons," says Bill Noon, one of the captains of the icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

"But in Simpson Strait, [south of King William Island], we're going to be moving all the beacons to accommodate bigger ships -- deeper-draft vessels starting to transit and work in the Arctic. That's a big program for us."

The Sir Wilfrid Laurier sailed north from Victoria in early July. Once out of Juan de Fuca Strait, the icebreaker headed northwest toward the Gulf of Alaska.

Almost immediately, it began fulfilling one of its goals: as a base for science work.

Beehive of activity

Equipped with two laboratories and accommodation for 25 scientists, the cruise is a beehive of research activity, from collecting water chemistry data and sea floor organisms with a grab-sampler to observing marine mammals and birds to compare distribution and numbers with previous years and relate the data to climate factors.

Another coast guard task in the Arctic is icebreaking and escorting. That, too, began quickly this year.

"The Laurier had to break significant ice going into Barrow, Alaska, and also escorted a fishery vessel into Barrow through the ice," says Noon.

Servicing and repairing about 150 navigational aids in the Western Arctic is another focus of the Laurier's Arctic mission.

Included in this year's work for Sir Wilfrid Laurier is about two weeks searching for Erebus and Terror, the lost ships of the 1845 expedition led by Sir John Franklin in the quest for the Northwest Passage.

That search is in collaboration with the Arctic Research Foundation's vessel, Martin Bergmann, a converted Newfoundland trawler now equipped to support scientific research.

"There's a lot of agencies involved, including Parks Canada searching for the Franklin ships, Canadian Hydrographic Service building charts, Environment Canada doing environmental research, and the Canadian Space Agency doing some satellite work also," says Noon.

"This is going to be flat out, a lot going on. It should be interesting."

Secondary mission

This summer's search for the Franklin ships is one of many missions, says David (Duke) Snider, regional director of the Canadian Coast Guard fleet, Pacific Region.

"It really is secondary to all the other missions we're up there for. It's enabled because we're doing other missions," Snider says.

One of those other missions is supporting Canadian sovereignty.

"I think one of the important things is that the red and white coast guard ships are the biggest Canadian flags up there," Snider says.

"In a lot of cases, we are first ships into the areas and the last ships out, so we provide a very clear presence of the Canadian government in our Arctic."

A coast guard presence is important to Arctic communities, Snider says.

'Symbols of the federal government'

"We are there, and we're symbols of the federal government. Our ships make efforts to touch base with folks, and we open up the ships for visits. We're part of the Canadian fabric, and it's all day-to-day, everyday business.

"There is a massive resupply of Arctic communities that goes on every summer, and without the support of the Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers, some of those deliveries may not occur at all. In some specific communities, only the coast guard's heavy icebreakers are able to get in and effect resupply," Snider says.

The coast guard also responds to environmental incidents.

"Our icebreakers are up there carrying additional oil pollution response equipment," Snider says.

"We really are jack-of-all-trades up there."

This summer, there are six Canadian Coast Guard vessels plying Arctic waters, compared with seven last year. The Amundsen is out of commission this year for engine replacement.

Five of this summer's coast guard contingent are from the East Coast. The Laurier is the only one from the West Coast. It returns to Victoria in early October.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.