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With ship traffic rising, Coast Guard considers building an Arctic presence

Alex DeMarban

The nation's increasing interest in the Arctic led a Coast Guard admiral, several bureaucrats and a gaggle of journalists to Barrow Tuesday.

They came aboard a Coast Guard Hercules C-130 that's specially equipped to play a role in analyzing climate change: inlet tubes on the aircraft allow equipment on board to measure greenhouse gases high above Alaska.

With melting sea ice allowing increased access to the Arctic Ocean, a global race is on to unlock the region's potential, with countries such as Russia, China and the United States jockeying for position.

Ship traffic in the Arctic is on the rise. Oil companies are looking to drill the ocean floor, tourists are seeking new adventures, and shipping companies are chasing a quicker route to Asia's growing consumer market.

The Coast Guard's responsibilities are growing, too.

"There used to be ice most of the year round in the areas that are now open water," said Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, the new head of the Coast Guard's Alaska district. "We ought to understand how the Coast Guard would respond now that that activity's happening, just like we would off the coast of Miami, just like we would off the coast of New England."

A highlight of the day trip included a drop-in visit to a search-and-rescue "tabletop" exercise headquartered in Ilisagvik College in Barrow, the nation's northernmost community with 4,200 residents.

The Coast Guard organized the exercise, which included local agencies and emergency responders.

The question: How ready is the Coast Guard to respond if, God forbid, a tourist ship goes down?

The answer: Not very.

"The Coast Guard doesn't have any publicly assigned assets (in the Arctic). None. Zero," Ostebo said.

There's no airfield to take planes. No facilities to house men. The Coast Guard owns a single, aging icebreaker that's based in Seattle and now headed to Alaska, the Healy.

"How exactly would we mitigate the damage from the mishap? How would we rescue all those people? Where would we take them?"

"If you take 100 people in a mass casualty to Barrow, then what? They obviously don't have the infrastructure to take care of that, so where would you take them for advanced medical care? How would you respond to the salvage of a vessel?"

The effort will help the Coast Guard learn what's needed, and make a case to expand its assets in the Arctic.

"This (trip) is really about education for us," said Ostebo, who'd never visited Barrow before. "Learning about the environment, understanding what the requirements are, and once we have that figured out, what are the right capabilities and where do we put them."

One of the big questions: Does the Arctic need a deepwater port? If so, where is the most "cost-effective and operationally efficient" spot to locate it?

What type of ships should the Coast Guard operate?

Answers to those questions will produce more questions, including: Who pays for what? The media were brought along in part to let the nation know about the Coast Guard's challenges in the Arctic, Ostebo said.

"There's a lot of people that think they know the Arctic and have never been there and have never really seen the challenges that we face," he said.

The tabletop exercise is a lead-in to other efforts expected to take place this summer, such as on-water drills. The Coast Guard is also thinking about creating an emergency towing system for use in the North Slope region, a massive package of towing equipment that can be launched or dropped onto a vessel to pull another ship in trouble.

The city of Unalaska created one now that's now used by the Coast Guard out of that Aleutian Island hub community. It was employed late last year to rescue the 740-foot cargo ship, Golden Seas, said David Mosley, with Coast Guard public affairs.

Before landing in Barrow for the afternoon tabletop drill, the C-130 flew down in a corkscrew pattern so a technician with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could collect data on such gases as methane and carbon dioxide.

The Coast Guard's collaborating with NOAA on the project, which is in its early phase and usually includes measurements of greenhouse gases above Prudhoe Bay and the communities of Kivalina, Barrow and Galena, said Jason Manthey, the technician.

A third effort aboard the C-130 included several officials with a multi-agency planning effort involving federal waters in Alaska, said Debora Cooper, associate regional director of resources for the National Park Service in Alaska.

The Coast Guard is leading the Coastal Marine Spacial Planning effort, a project to look at oceanic development in a comprehensive manner that allows development while protecting the environment, Cooper said.

The trip was a chance for the planners to see some of the areas they're working on. Agencies represented in that effort included the EPA, National Park Service, Bureau of Ocean Energy and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The C-130 also flew past Barrow and out over the jumbled ice of the Arctic Ocean with its back end open for media shots.

This story is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its product.