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GAO offers sobering look at shipping prospects in US Arctic

  • Author: Yereth Rosen
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published April 19, 2014

Less than 1 percent of navigationally significant waters in the U.S. Arctic have been surveyed with modern technology, said a federal report released on Friday.

The report, from the Government Accountability Office, said commercial maritime activity in Arctic waters off Alaska will likely be limited over the next 10 years. A variety of reasons are responsible for that, including high operating costs, limited demand from tourists for Arctic cruises and uncertainties and setbacks in plans for offshore Arctic oil drilling, the GAO report said.

Lack of facilities and infrastructure to support Arctic shipping has also emerged as a limiting factor on shipping activity, the GAO report said.

There is no deepwater port in the U.S. Arctic, the report notes. Most ports north of the Aleutian Islands are shallow, able to serve barge traffic but not such deep-draft vessels as container or tanker ships, the report said. Coastal areas in Arctic Alaska also lack surface links to roads or rail systems, the report noted.

There are only nine fixed aids to navigation in the region north of the Bering Strait, largely functioning to help support vessels that go to the Red Dog Mine port, the report said. On the northern coast, there are 11 privately maintained aids in the Prudhoe Bay region, but there are no federally maintained aids, the report said.

The U.S. Coast Guard maintains the nation's only two functioning Arctic-capable icebreakers, the report pointed out.

The GAO did not make recommendations. Instead, it said, its purpose was to provide an update on the status of shipping and related infrastructure in the U.S. Arctic.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who received the GAO report on Friday, said she disagreed with the assessment that maritime activity in Alaska's Arctic will not increase in the coming decade.

Still, she said in a statement, the GAO report highlighted some important needs.

"I thank the GAO for identifying the enormous need we have for mapping and charting our nation's Arctic waterways," she said. "The shocking fact that we have surveyed less than 1 percent of our critical northern waters should be a wakeup call to decision makers that we must demonstrate vision and act now.

Though other nations have more developed Arctic shipping programs, with more traffic than exists or is projected in the near term off Alaska, lack of support facilities, infrastructure and safety standards is a common problem, according to the Arctic Council. A 2013 update on Arctic Council maritime recommendations reported that there has been progress made in establishing Arctic-wide safety and environmental standards but that more work is needed.

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