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US must invest in Arctic maritime facilities, new icebreakers

Jan 27, 2016 03:23 PM

After getting an urgent phone call for an emergency relief position, I was making an unexpected airplane trip to catch a fish-processing ship working in the Bering Sea near the Arctic Circle. At Kotzebue, Alaska, the next-to-last stop during my long day of flying, our plane made a scheduled landing, giving me a chance to get out and stretch my legs. Never having been north of the Arctic Circle before, there I was 30 miles above it. Being surrounded by beautiful tundra, an essentially treeless landscape filled with low-lying bushes clinging tenaciously to the ground, was impressive. The town itself has a long Native American history, but in modern times has been known as the “Gateway to the Arctic.” Not many Americans have seen this magnificent area, but on Sept. 2, 2015, President Obama arrived in Kotzebue — the first sitting U.S. president in history to visit Alaska above the Arctic Circle.

During his trip, the president highlighted the effects of climate change up north, such as the challenges facing the village of Kavalina, where hundreds of local residents may soon have to leave their ancestral home due to melting ice and rising sea levels. While there is no doubt that melting Arctic ice is creating severe difficulties for wildlife and residents of the area, at the same time it is creating real-world maritime opportunities that for generations were nothing more than fanciful dreams. In recognition of that, President Obama specifically focused on maritime issues while visiting Alaska.

He first detailed his commitment to building several new U.S. Coast Guard heavy-duty icebreakers. With just two Coast Guard vessels operational, the U.S. has fallen woefully behind Russia in terms of a viable icebreaking fleet. In fact, it’s been almost 40 years since the heavy-duty U.S. icebreakers Polar Sea and Polar Star were commissioned. Emphasizing the importance of having icebreaking capability for the expanding Arctic operations, the president called for a new ship to be built by 2020.

While visiting Kotzebue, President Obama affirmed that a joint U.S. Coast Guard/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collaboration for Arctic surveys and charting would go forward. This multi-agency effort, when completed, will ensure that up-to-date nautical charts will be available for Arctic areas newly opened by melting ice, as well as for established coastal ports such as Kotzebue. The lack of adequate surveys, charts and aids to navigation has been a stumbling block to more fully developing the Arctic — with Russia and especially Canada still years away from having suitable charts available for the Northeast and Northwest Passages. Thanks to this project, however, U.S. Arctic waters will have the surveys needed to meet the projected increase in vessel traffic in coming years.

For many years, the lack of an adequate Arctic port hub has created logistical challenges for vessel operators working in the Chukchi, Beaufort and northern Bering seas — an area roughly the size of Texas and California combined. Currently, a voyage of 1,000 miles or more may be needed to get from those areas to the nearest full-service port at Dutch Harbor. During his speech in Kotzebue, the president confirmed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been undertaking a feasibility study on updating/improving the Port of Nome, the location of choice for a northern Alaska Arctic port hub.

Low oil prices, coupled with Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s well-publicized operational mishaps up north, have led to a diminished interest in starting new oil drilling ventures in the Alaskan offshore waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas — at least until the price of oil rises higher. In the meantime, however, the extraction of other natural resources is moving “full speed ahead.” In the Bering Sea near the Arctic Circle, gold dredging north of Nome is ramping up, with hundreds of tracts leased by the state of Alaska in the past few years. A shipyard in Seattle recently delivered a 50-foot catamaran dredge, built specifically for work off of Nome.

The Arctic is becoming an increasingly favored cruise ship destination, with several companies now offering regular excursions above Canada, Russia and the U.S. Commercial ship traffic through the Northern Passages has increased in recent years. 2013 was a record year for Russia’s Northeast Passage, with 71 ships carrying 1.4 million tons of cargo. In northern Canada, the elusive Northwest Passage is now an open-water reality in the summer with 117 vessels having made the trip in the past five years. While a short summer resulted in less commercial ship traffic through the Northern Passages in 2014, the long-term trend of more and more vessels making the trips is expected to continue, with Russian officials publicly stating their goal of having 80 million tons of cargo move through the Northeast Passage by 2020. Of course, all of this Arctic ship traffic will affect Alaska waters and ports as well.

As President Obama pointed out during his visit last year, the melting of the Arctic ice has brought about unprecedented changes, challenges and opportunities. As this “new frontier” continues to open up, it is clear that innovative companies and the use of new technologies/techniques will be essential for the ongoing development of Alaskan waters. It is now up to Congress to provide the vital funding for these initiatives, so the U.S. can take the lead in the lucrative, sustainable development of our Arctic resources.  
Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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