The ice-choked reaches of the northern Arctic Ocean aren't widely perceived as an international shipping route. But global warming is bringing vast change, and Russia, for one, is making an aggressive push to establish top of the world sea lanes.
This year, a Russian ship carrying up to 90,000 metric tons of gas condensate sailed across the Arctic and through the Bering Strait to the Far East. Last year, a Russian ship went the other way, leaving from South Korea with industrial parts. Russia plans up to eight such trips next year, using oil-type tankers with reinforced hulls to break through the ice.
All of which calls for more U.S. Coast Guard facilities and equipment in the far north to secure U.S. claims and prepare for increased human activity, according to Rear Admiral Christopher Colvin, who is in charge of all Coast Guard operations in Alaska and surrounding waters.
"We have to have presence up there to protect our claims for the future, sovereignty claims, extended continental shelf claims," Colvin told The Associated Press aboard a C-130 on a lumbering flight to the Arctic Ocean.
The advent of Russian shipping across the Arctic is of particular concern to Alaska and the U.S. because "there's one way in and out of the Arctic Ocean for over half the world, and that's the Bering Strait," Colvin said.
The 56-mile wide strait lies between northwestern Alaska and Siberia, separating the North American and Asian continents and connecting the Bering Sea to the Arctic Ocean.
"The Bering Strait will end up becoming a significant marine highway in the future, and we're seeing it with Russia, the way they are promoting this maritime transportation route above Russia right now, today."
Warming has facilitated such travel. The National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado reported last month that Arctic sea ice coverage was recorded at a summer low of 1.84 million square miles. It said sea ice melted to the third-lowest level since satellite monitoring began in 1979.
More open water is something Colvin's veteran icebreaker captains confirm.
They're also concerned about the state of their fleet.
The Coast Guard has three icebreakers, of which only one — the Healy — is operational. The two other icebreakers, the Polar Sea and the Polar Star — "are broken right now," Colvin said. Both are docked in Seattle, with the Polar Sea expected back in service next June. The Polar Star isn't expected back until 2013.
Help could be on the way. A bill that awaits President Obama's signature would have the government conduct a 90-day review of the icebreaker fleet, looking at possibly renovating the current fleet and building new icebreakers.
Colvin said it's imperative the Coast Guard has icebreakers operating in the Arctic, and not only to have a presence there to protect U.S. claims.
"We need to have U.S. vessels with U.S. scientists operating in the U.S. Arctic, conducting research," he said.
Such research was the basis for last week's flight to the Arctic Ocean, deploying two buoys to collect information from both ice floes and the open ocean. However, the buoys in the University of Washington project failed. The first was not deployed after a malfunction aboard the C-130, and the other did not transmit data after it was dropped out the back of the plane and fluttered to the open water via a parachute.
Air base in Barrow?
Icebreakers aren't the only need for the Coast Guard. It also needs operations in northern Alaska since the closest base is in Kodiak, about 1,000 miles to the south.
"What I'd like to see someday is a hangar in Barrow," he said of the nation's northernmost city. It would have to be large enough to house a Coast Guard C-130 and perhaps H60 helicopters.
He bases that need on an incident in October 2008 when the Coast Guard flew one of the cargo planes to the North Pole. They had to stop on the way back in Barrow, and left the airplane outside overnight.
Arctic temperatures caused the seals on the propellers to freeze, forcing a four-day delay to fly mechanics to Barrow to change out all the seals.
"That just doesn't work. We really need a structure that we can put our C-130s in to protect them when we come up here and operate," he said.
Adventurers going to the opening Arctic are another reality for the Coast Guard. Two years ago, seven people went to the Arctic, including two people who had to be rescued while trying to kayak across the Bering Straight. This year, 18 thrillseekers ventured north. Future rescues are a certainty as more people venture to the Arctic.
"I'm sure people will say, 'Why are we going to waste U.S. government money on a rescue?'" Colvin said. "But you know, that's our responsibility, our requirements to rescue anybody that does get in distress."
This month, Shell Oil said it has applied for one exploration well in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's north coast and will seek a permit for a second.
While Colvin said he is always concerned about a possible oil spill, he's not as wary about oil exploratory operations in the summer months in open Arctic water.
"Open water, summer months, 24 hours of daylight, shallow water, that's been done successfully throughout the world, I'm not particularly concerned about that," he said.
"Where I become concerned is year-round production in the winter months up in the Arctic," Colvin said, adding more science, research and information is needed before moving forward.