HARTFORD, Conn. -- As rising temperatures melt Arctic ice caps, the U.S. Coast Guard is ramping up for deployments in northern seas that are emerging as a new maritime frontier.
The guard's largest-ever Arctic deployment, planned for this summer, is designed partly to answer questions over how it will perform off Alaska's north coast. How will cutters navigate without reliable charts mapping the sea bottom? How will communications be affected by the lack of onshore infrastructure? Do service members have the right training for the climate?
The opening seas are also forcing the U.S. to weigh more deeply how and where to be involved in the Arctic. The Coast Guard Academy in New London is hosting a conference beginning Thursday on issues raised by the rising number of boats plying the area for oil exploration, shipping and tourism.
"The time for shaping and implementing Arctic policy is now," Coast Guard Cmdr. Russ Bowman, the chief of the law faculty at the academy and a co-chair of the Arctic conference.
Warming temperatures have opened new waterways during summer months through the Northwest Passage above Canada and Russia. The opening has funneled more ship traffic through the Bering Strait, the narrow passage between Alaska and Russia. In an area that once hosted little more than delivery barges, Shell Oil is planning exploratory drilling during the open-water season in the Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea.
The Coast Guard's service above the Arctic Circle dates to the 1800s, but America's lead maritime federal agency is weighing more seriously how to respond to potential oil spills, protect fish stocks and rescue boaters in ice-choked waters.
"Before nobody could get there. Now people can," said Dana Goward, the Coast Guard's Washington-based director of marine transportation systems. "As a result we have any number of activities that go on elsewhere that couldn't go on and now are going on in the Arctic."
The two-day conference, titled "Leadership for the Arctic," is sponsored by the Coast Guard Academy and the Law of the Sea Institute at the University of California's Berkeley School of Law. It is designed partly to allow the Coast Guard's leaders to hear from experts across academic disciplines on issues including sovereignty, science and the history of Arctic leadership.
Instructors say the Arctic is emerging as a popular topic at the academy, where cadets train and study along the Thames River for careers as Coast Guard officers.
"It is definitely a hot topic on the minds of many. It touches on many things we do," Bowman said. "It's percolating through any number of classes here at the academy."
The Coast Guard's closest base to the Arctic is Air Station Kodiak, where it has three cutters and several aircraft based on an island in the Gulf of Alaska roughly 850 miles away from Barrow.
The Coast Guard has been stepping up Arctic operations gradually as it the melting polar ice opens shipping lanes. Since 2008, it has deployed boats and aircraft to small communities on Alaska's coast, where the guard is looking to build up relationships with villagers by providing training on boating safety.
This summer, as part of an operation called Arctic Shield, the guard is planning full-scale deployments of several cutters, helicopters and small craft. A 225-foot buoy tender will test the Coast Guard's oil spill recovery system for the first time in the Arctic.
"Part of deploying the helicopters and boats is to test the capabilities and to identify logistical issues with full-time Arctic operations so that we can start planning and accounting for that in the years to come," said Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow, a spokesman for the Coast Guard's 17th District in Juneau.
Among the panelists expected for the conference is the commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., who said in address to Congress last year that the Arctic service was limited by having only one operational ice breaker and by an absence of coastal infrastructure. As an example, he said he was not able to stay overnight on a visit to Barrow because finding lodging for his travel party was such a challenge.
Goward, the Coast Guard official in Washington, said the service will likely continue expanding its presence as the Arctic becomes more accessible, but the scale will depend on things beyond the agency's control.
"One of the biggest challenges is the nation doesn't realize it's an Arctic nation," he said. "Generally we don't realize we have these rights and responsibilities. That's going to continue to be a big challenge."
By MICHAEL MELIA