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In Barrow, waiting for the Arctic boom

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published June 17, 2011

BARROW -- The ice piles high on desolate Arctic beaches when the north winds blow in June. The wind, too, stirs the desert dust that comes to coat the half-melted snow berms along the muddy roadways here. This is not a pretty time in the nation's northernmost community. As the solidly frozen months of winter transition into the partially frozen months of summer, everything -- even the lingering snow -- is coated in dust and grime.

Dust clings to houses. Dust coats the haunches of dead caribou hung to age and a polar bear skin hung to dry. Dust swirls behind the four-wheelers that share the rough, dirty roads with trucks. It is a cold dust, too. With the sun hidden behind a thick layer of clouds, the daytime temperature edges only a few degrees above freezing.

June is the start of summer in the eyes of most Americans, but it is barely spring here. The maximum average temperature is 38 degrees. The average overnight low is 29, still three degrees below freezing.

In this environment, it is hard to think about an ice-free Arctic, or even a partially ice-free Arctic, where ships ply the waters just offshore. But the scientists say it is coming, and the knowledgeable eyes of the local Inupiat Eskimos register that the open water is already out there beyond the ice. The locals know how to recognize the water sky, where the underbellies of clouds go dark from the reflection of water below.

Flying 100 feet above sea level in a Coast Guard HC-130 on the ocean side of this outpost of about 4,000 people, you don't need to read the sky. You can look out the yawning cargo door in the rear of the plane and see open water, then water filled with floating pans of ice, then more open water.

There are no ships in sight, but the Coast Guard believes they are coming. The trend lines show a steady increase in Arctic shipping traffic. A region that once witnessed only a few dozen vessels arriving for the brief summer now sees more than 100, and the number is steadily growing. Some in the agency fear what might happen if -- as some scientists predict -- Arctic sea lanes begin to open to shipping in the decade just ahead.

More ships and more people will mean more problems, said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, the Alaska region commander. He talked here about the need to "prepare for the inevitable." Ostebo is well aware of how unprepared America is for a developing Arctic. He knew before he arrived for his first Arctic tour.

A map of Alaska tells the story well enough. From Prudhoe Bay, where the oil industry maintains its own small fleet of some 40 offshore service and safety vessels, northwest to where Barrow sits at the point of a peninsula at the very edge of the continent, is 180 miles of nothing: No port, no ship maintenance facilities, no Coast Guard station, and little in the way of oil-spill response capabilities as environmentalists and oil-industry watchdog groups have been quick to point out.

The situation does not get any better as one moves south and west towards Russia, either. It is 75 nautical miles (there are no roads anywhere in Northwest Alaska) to the next North Slope community, Wainwright. It is even smaller and less equipped than this one. The same for Point Lay, another 72 miles on, and Point Hope, another 135 miles, and Diomede Island, another 170 miles, and finally Nome, about 500 miles in a straight line to the southwest. Nome has a port, but little in the way of docks or other infrastructure. Still, there is an airport served by jets and an Alaska Air Guard base with a couple of helicopters that could help with rescues in the event of an Arctic shipping disaster.

Everyone agrees the resources are inadequate

"Our capabilities get stretched thin when we get beyond Kodiak (Island)," said Lt. Rick Janelle, the Coast Guard's commercial passenger vessel safety coordinator. He was one of a number of Coast Guard, National Guard, state and North Slope Borough officials who met here at the end of May to discuss how to handle a cruise ship disaster off the northern coast.

This is not a farfetched possibility. Five years ago, a Canadian cruise ship hit submerged ice near Antarctica and sank. Rescuers were lucky to get the more than 150 passengers off safely in good weather. There are now similar ships plying Alaska waters. One of the smallest among them -- the 41-ton, 164-passenger Bremen -- had a little problem in 2009. A crew member appeared to have appendicitis and needed to be evacuated for emergency surgery. Bad weather grounded the North Slope Borough helicopters that normally conduct search and rescue operations. The Coast Guard was powerless to do much from its base almost 1,000 miles away in Kodiak. The Bremen eventually steamed toward Prudhoe to meet a pollution-response boat dispatched by the oil industry. The ailing 27-year-old woman was transferred from the Bremen to the 42-foot Camden Bay, which delivered her to the Prudhoe clinic.

Some took that event as a warning. What, they wondered, could be done to save people if a cruise ship itself went down off northern Alaska, as happened off Antarctica. A "table-top exercise" the Coast Guard coordinated on the last day of May examined possible scenarios and responses. The exercise underlined the problems in trying to stage a major rescue with few assets. The borough's Search and Rescue department does have a couple of well-maintained Bell 412 helicopters, a version of the venerable Huey from the Vietnam War era, but Price Brower, the coordinator for search and rescue operations, notes the helos lack deicing capabilities. They are fine for looking for lost snowmachiners and hunters who can hole up and hold out until bad weather breaks, but that really isn't an option if a ship is sinking.

The Coast Guard has talked about opening an all-weather, "forward operating position" either in Barrow or Kotzebue in the summer to deal with increasing marine traffic and potential problems in the Arctic. The agency already does that at Cold Bay near the head of the Aleutian Islands chain in far Western Alaska. An old, World War II military airstrip and facilities at Cold Bay provide a convenient base for air operations out into the chain west of Dutch Harbor, a major Alaska port. The Coast Guard does not use Dutch itself because of the weather-related problems of getting into and out of the local airport.

Operations at Cold Bay are easy to justify given all of the fishing activity in the North Pacific Ocean and the large number of cargo ships now passing along the North Pacific Great Circle Route from the ports of Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, through the Aleutians and on to Japan and China. Harder to justify are expenditures to finance a base of any sort in a small, icy, coastal village that has no port and -- at the moment -- sees little traffic.

Some in the Coast Guard are skeptical about any real increase in traffic at any time in the foreseeable future, too. High insurance rates for Arctic shipping will, they argue, keep shippers from using the Northeast Passage between Europe and Asia. The Northeast Passage, or so-called "Northern Sea Route," along the Russian coast is expected to open to regular shipping long before the Northwest Passage along the Canadian coast.

The Northeast Passage cuts about 3,300 miles off the journey from Europe to Asia via the Suez Canal, and there are no marauding pirates to worry about the along the way. Shipping companies are already flirting with the Northern route. A German company, Beluga Shipping GmbH, used the route to haul oil-service equipment from Korea to the Russian Arctic in 2009. It was believed to be the first commercial freight shipment along the route through the Bering Strait and then west.

It is not expected to be the last. A Russian shipping company, Sovcomflot, plans this year to send the largest tanker ever east from Murmank with a load of condensate for Asia. Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Joe Ralston, the former supreme allied commander for NATO in Europe, has warned that Russian "shipping is expanding exponentially. Russia's northern-route shipping volume is predicted to increase 500 percent this year over last, and Russia is granting permits for foreign vessels to transit its northern route."

Where to drop anchor?

Any traffic bound for Asia from Russia passes through the 53-mile-wide Bering Strait. The Coast Guard calls it "Alaska's Strait of Gibraltar." Smack in the middle of the strait sit two islands -- Russia's Big Diomede and America's Little Diomede. Little Diomede has no port. Big Diomede has a small port that dates back to when the Soviet Union heavily fortified the island during the Cold War, but it isn't equipped to help with shipping problems in the strait.

Port Clarence, just east of the strait and north of Nome, is an old Coast Guard port frequented by the Revenue Cutter Bear when whaling was big business off the northern Alaska coast in the mid- to late 1800s, but the Coast Guard basically left the area when whaling ended.

The agency was largely gone from the Arctic for almost 100 years. It returned in 2007 to begin regular airborne patrols -- what it calls "Arctic Domain Awareness" flights. The flights monitor greenhouse gases over the Arctic and keep an eye on what is going on along Alaska's coast. Mainly, though, they just show the flag because while Arctic shipping is a growing concern, so too is oil.

In the old days, the oil came from whales. Now it comes from the ground. Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic coast is one of the largest oil fields in North America. There is speculation a lot more oil awaits discovery offshore -- at least $1 trillion worth -- beneath the Arctic seabed, according to government estimates. The prime prospects are in the Barents Sea between Russia and Scandinavia, but the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska also looking promising.

Meanwhile, there is discussion of the potential for mining manganese nodules from the Arctic seabed, along with copper, nickel and cobalt. Many believe the Arctic holds great promise for the future, but at this point that is all it is -- promise. On the globe's last real frontier, there is a huge gap between what may be, might be, or could be and what is. A lot has changed here over the years and little has changed.

From whales to oil

Barrow is decidedly different than it was 150 to 200 years ago. Life is more comfortable. No longer do people live in sod homes. Now they get around on gasoline-powered four-wheelers, snowmachines and motor vehicles instead of on dog sleds or foot. Visitors arrive via aircraft rather than whaling ships. The economy is fueled by oil from beneath the ground rather than oil rendered from dead whales.

A local supermarket boasts fresh fruit and vegetables and a latte stand. And, of course, television and the Internet have the residents of this rural outpost as wired into global happenings as the denizens of the country's largest urban areas.

But in other respects, little has changed. The Inupiat still do their whaling in small, dangerous open boats. Hunters still head out into the surrounding countryside to kill caribou, or take off onto the sea ice to pursue seals. Polar bears remain a local danger that keeps everyone on his toes. Wind and weather still largely dictate the day-to-day lives of the people. And all the talk of the Arctic of the future remains largely so much talk.

"As the Arctic Ocean becomes more accessible," Ralston argued in May, "our nation's 1,000-mile northern coast is suddenly strategic and our vital national interests have a new frontier. (Secretary of State Hillary) Clinton is bringing the United States to the table at the right time to protect our sovereignty, national energy and economic security and to add wisdom and diplomacy to policies being forged. We're watching history being made."

Maybe that's the case somewhere, but it's hard to find much of anything happening on the ground along Alaska's Arctic coast now. To the east of Barrow, the moon station that is Prudhoe Bay still pumps oil. It has been doing so for more than 30 years. Prudhoe was the first big Arctic development in Alaska since whaling. At this point, it is the last. Despite all the talk about the future of the Arctic, the region at present appears calm.

The U.S. Census counted 3,469 people living in Barrow in 1990. By the start of the new millennium, there were indications the Arctic might be the new future. Barrow had grown rapidly to 4,581 by 2000. But the population has been in decline almost ever since, with only a small uptick in the last few years. The 2010 census put the population at 4,212, which doesn't exactly make Barrow a boomtown. If the Arctic is looking at a wild, new future, it would appear it is still a way off.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)

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