Coast Guard needs greater Arctic presence, admiral advises

COAST GUARD: Visit after 35 years finds the ocean vastly changed.

May 30, 2011 

SEATTLE -- Zipping along the northwestern Alaska coast in a helicopter on a summer day, recent Coast Guard Academy graduate Bob Papp scanned for a route his vessel could take through the ice from Nome to Kotzebue, just north of the Arctic Circle. The sea was a hardened expanse, and ice even covered the shore.

That was 35 years ago.

When Papp -- now Adm. Papp, commandant of the Coast Guard -- returned to Kotzebue last August, there was no ice in sight.

It was a powerful reminder of how the Arctic has been altered by climate change, and of how the Coast Guard's mission in the region must change, too, Papp said during an interview aboard the Seattle-based icebreaker Healy.

New shipping lanes, increasing tourism, new access to fish stocks and especially the promise of oil and gas drilling have set off something of an Arctic gold rush, and the Coast Guard's presence in the region is a far cry from what it needs to be, he said.

"There's 49 states that don't really consider us to be an Arctic country," Papp said. "But if there's a cruise ship sinking, or an oil tanker spill -- I know who they're going to point the finger at if there's a problem up there and we're unable to respond."

To that end, the Coast Guard is reviewing what it needs for Arctic operations, including the possibility of an at-least-seasonal air base in northern Alaska.

The agency also hopes to conduct a $5 million study of its icebreaking needs. The Healy, commissioned in 1999, is its only operational icebreaker, responsible not just for breaking ice but also for important science missions, including mapping the continental shelf -- key to establishing U.S. claims to resources in the Arctic.

The Healy sailed out of Seattle on Friday with a crew of 85 for a seven-month deployment to the far north.

Washington will have to decide whether to build new icebreakers at a cost of about $1 billion apiece or fully renovate the older Polar Sea and Polar Star at about $500 million each, Papp said. Both of the older vessels are docked in Seattle, with the Sea being decommissioned and its crew transferring to the Star, which is scheduled to be reactivated in 2013.

In addition, the nation might consider developing a new class of vessel hardened to operate in ice without being an actual icebreaker and better suited to search-and-rescue missions, Papp said.

Other Arctic nations are pushing ahead to take advantage of new access provided by the receding ice. Russia, which has a dozen or more icebreakers, has been sailing tankers and cargo ships between Europe and Asia through the Bering Strait, and China, which is not an Arctic nation, is building the world's most powerful conventional icebreaker.

The U.S., meanwhile, has yet to ratify the United Nations' 1982 Law of the Sea treaty regulating the ocean's use for military, transportation and mineral extraction purposes. Unless it does, Papp said, it will be unable to lay claim to Arctic resources.

"These other nations are all up there doing the hard work to make claims," he said. "We can't assert sovereignty until we sign."

Papp spent part of his visit to the Healy last Thursday meeting with cadets, reminding them of the significance of their oath to serve -- and ribbing them about the Healy's upcoming stop in Hawaii en route to the Arctic.

"How much ice is in Honolulu?" he asked.

"We'll find it, sir," Capt. Beverly Havlik responded.

"It's probably in the mai tais," the admiral joked, referring to the tropical cocktail.

But the visit also included a somber pause at a memorial to two Coast Guard divers who died during the Healy's mission to the Arctic five years ago. Lt. Jessica Hill, 31, of St. Augustine, Fla., and Boatswain's Mate Steven Duque, 22, of Miami, were killed in the training dive about 500 miles north of Alaska.

An investigation that Papp helped conduct determined that a series of errors led to the deaths, including that the divers were too heavily weighted and their support team was so inexperienced that dive tenders didn't realize when Hill was signaling to be pulled to the surface. Since then the Coast Guard has stopped conducting Arctic dives and improved training, Papp said.

"It was a very significant emotional event for me," Papp said. "We could have done better ... We're trying to keep their memory alive by doing things the right way."

The Healy's executive officer, John Reeves, echoed that. Several crew members have returned to the Healy for its current mission for the first time since the accident, he said.

"When we're briefing a mission or going over safety and procedures, it's in the back of my mind, certainly," Reeves said. "The repercussions of that haven't left."

The Healy's scientific mission for this voyage includes recalibrating NASA satellites, collecting sediments, mapping the continental shelf, and retrieving ocean data from moored instruments.

The ship, which has room for 50 scientists in addition to its crew, is scheduled to return to Seattle in late December.

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