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Arctic activity highlights need for strong leadership in Alaska

OPINION: If ever there was an indicator of the changing climate of the Arctic, this is it, and we’re not talking about temperature here. When 820-foot cruise ships are sailing past your front door, Arctic policy creators might want to pay attention. Courtesy Crystal Cruises

In two years, a floating city with a population larger than most Alaska villages plans to pass through the ice-choked waters of the Northwest Passage. The luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity hopes to float peacefully from Seward to Nome, through the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, traversing the northern regions of Canada before returning down the East Coast to New York City.

The Crystal Serenity blows any vessel that has traveled this challenging route to date out of the water. It will carry more than 1,000 passengers, who are paying between $22,000 and $120,000 to take the 32-day trip. The 68,000-ton vessel has 13 decks, multiple pools, tennis courts and a sushi bar. It’s hard to imagine anything more out of place in the challenging Arctic waters, where savvy adventurers have consistently been thwarted in their attempts to overcome extreme weather and constantly changing ice conditions.

Crystal Cruises claims it is taking extraordinary precautions as it plans the trip -- it has an escort vessel with ice-breaking capacities and a helicopter traveling with it, and is working with the Canadian Coast Guard in planning the trip. It will also have an expedition team experienced with navigating the icy passage. The company also notes it has oil pollution mitigation gear on board, just in case.

If ever there was an indicator of the changing climate of the Arctic, this is it, and we’re not talking about temperature here. When 820-foot cruise ships are sailing past your front door, those creating Arctic policy might want to pay attention. The problem with this theory of the opening Arctic waters, the theory that is attracting the resource developers, shipping companies and adventurers alike, is that while the ice may be receding, it doesn’t recede consistently from year to year. And while scientists say the odds of finding an ice-free August in Arctic waters are going to be higher in the future than they were in the past, variables are always a factor. The problem with variables, of course, is that you have to be prepared for them. And anyone who says Alaska is prepared to handle rescuing 1,000 people off a cruise ship is ill-informed.

If a ship the size of the Crystal Serenity ran into an iceberg today and started taking on water in Alaska’s Arctic waters, mariners in the region would surely launch a rescue mission while everyone waited the hours and even possibly days for U.S. Coast Guard responders to arrive. Typically what happens when a disaster occurs for which no planning has been done and little protocol is set up is chaos. So while there is some communication going on today about what to do in situations like this, and some resources are being dedicated to the region, the effort is not nearly up to pace with the tempo of those wishing to take risks in Arctic waters.

The Coast Guard is far from properly equipped to handle the response. It needs more icebreakers, for one, and reports from a recent hearing in Washington, D.C., are not promising. According to a report in a Navy League magazine, lawmakers were less than convinced that the Coast Guard itself supported building a new icebreaker, which is expected to cost more than $1 billion. The bottom line is this kind of equipment is expensive, and the resources of the Coast Guard are already spread thin. Investing budget dollars in the Arctic without an overall increase is not likely to be popular with the rest of the nation. Alaskans must be their own advocates and sell the benefits as well as the needs of the Arctic to the Lower 48 in order to see any protections or safeguards put in place.

Luckily, several opportunities exist in coming weeks and months to address these subjects.

The nation’s newly appointed Special Representative for the Arctic, Adm. Robert Papp, will be in town this week for a forum discussing Arctic issues and the upcoming U.S. chairing of the Arctic Council. The forum, facilitated by Nils Andreassen, director of the Institute of the North, will be held from 1:30 to 3 p.m. on Aug. 14 in Anchorage at the NANA Regional Corporation offices at 909 W. Ninth Avenue. The public is invited to participate, with five minutes allotted to each speaker. Advanced sign-ups are encouraged by contacting Hillary LeBail at lebailhn@state.gov.

Also attending the forum will be Ambassador David Balton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and Fisheries, and Julie Gourley, Senior Arctic Official.

The State Department will present ideas they’ve heard thus far for the chairmanship program as well as receive feedback about the future of the Arctic.

In addition, the state’s Arctic Policy Commission will be holding meetings in the Arctic this month, soliciting public testimony on its draft final report.

The meetings will all be broadcast live on the internet through AKL.tv and archived on the commission’s website at www.akarctic.com.

For those in Nome and Kotzebue, the commission will be in Nome on Aug. 26 with public testimony starting at 11:30 a.m. (location has yet to be determined, check the commission’s web site for updates) and at the Nullagvik Hotel in Kotzebue on Aug. 27 with public testimony starting at 12:30 p.m. Draft agendas as well as the final report draft can be found on the commission’s website.

Those with thoughts and concerns about how our state and our nation is preparing to respond to the changes, development and risks emerging in the Arctic would do well to speak up and explain that the Arctic is, in fact, important.

Carey Restino is editor of the Arctic Sounder and Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman, where this commentary first appeared.

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