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From shipping to adventure tourism, Coast Guard presence is needed in Arctic waters

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

The U.S. Coast Guard announced last week that because of budget constraints and Shell Oil’s recent announcement that it would not be drilling in the Arctic in 2013, the Coast Guard would not resume its Arctic presence this summer. While the exact details are yet unclear, it is likely that the two helicopters and C-130 fixed wing aircraft staged in Barrow last summer, along with communication equipment and increased patrols with Coast Guard vessels, will be pulled out of the area.

Meanwhile, Anchorage this week had the honor of touring the USS Anchorage, a $1.3 billion ship whose duties will likely call it far from its namesake’s state. This is just another in a long list of federal decisions that are shortsighted on both a national and local scale. While the Coast Guard scrambles for funding and makes due with antiquated, refurbished icebreakers, the Navy is continuing to expand its fleet.

While part of the situation necessitating the Coast Guard’s move to the Arctic dissipated following Shell’s 2012 belly flop of a season, many other reasons for a continued enforcement in the area still exist. The Arctic is hotter than ever, and not just from a temperature standpoint. It’s also a hotspot for adventure tourism — often the kind of pushing-the-envelop activity that leads to emergencies of one kind or another. Last year, kayakers, jet-ski riders, unassisted boaters, rafters and even a swimmer or two took on the challenge of Arctic waters. That no one lost his or her life in all that risky business is pure luck.

Even tourists who have a much tamer agenda are likely to get into trouble in the Arctic. As a new frontier, few of the people navigating Arctic waters will have any experience there, where ice floes and temperamental weather patterns are the norm. And since it is such an unregulated place, all that activity will occur without so much as a glimpse of oversight by anyone. If someone runs into trouble in Arctic waters, it is highly likely that their cries for help will go unanswered.

Then there’s the whole issue of increased shipping in the Arctic. No one knows for sure how many vessels will come across the Northern Sea route from Northern Europe past Russia this year, and that activity is largely dependent on what the ice does.

But suffice it to say it will almost certainly be more than last year, and many of those vessels will have little to no communication with America. Activity in Canada’s Arctic waters is also increasing substantially. Last year, Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo told Popular Mechanics magazine that some 1,000 vessel transits are taking place in the Bering Strait each summer.

There is also a lot of science going on in the Arctic these days, science that could and should be supported by a Coast Guard presence. The more we understand about climate change and the impacts it may have in the Arctic, the better we can react with insightful policy that will protect our waters, lands and the subsistence livelihood of Arctic people.

There are also issues of national security. Many nations without Arctic coastline are eying the development potential of areas important to the United States. While it would be wonderful to think we live in a world where nations respect each other’s resources, be they fish or oil, that has not been proven to be the case. Anywhere that holds potential for a lot of money also holds potential for a lot of trouble, especially if those interests are largely unprotected.

It’s easy to express the sentiment that pull-out from the Arctic is misguided when you aren’t the person trying to fund an entire operation like the Coast Guard’s essential presence in Alaska. And certainly resources must be applied where they are needed most.

But on the other hand, once you cut a resource, it is that much harder to get it back later. Surely, no one ever said the Coast Guard was in the Arctic last summer simply to provide support and protection to the oil industry and its activity, but it certainly looks like the interests of those who are still bearing the risk of all the other activity in the north are being undervalued now compared to the attention Shell got last summer.

Carey Restino is editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary was first published. It is republished here with permission.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.