Coast Guard Commandant Considers Alaska Presence
By Ian Graham
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 3, 2009 Global climate change is a hotly debated topic, and the U.S. government is looking to Alaska to assess how it may affect the nation.
White House and federal agency officials participating in the new Ocean Policy Task Force traveled throughout Alaska and the Arctic from Aug. 17 to 21 to observe activities in the region and meet with local leaders and industry representatives.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad W. Allen, who took part in the trip, discussed in a Sept. 1 “DoDLive” bloggers roundtable how the increasingly accessible and active Arctic region has significant security, environmental, scientific, and economic challenges with broad implications for the nation.
“It was an extraordinary opportunity … to assess the implications of climate change, to talk to the local towns and communities that are being impacted by it [and] get a sense of the types of issues that are going on up there,” Allen said. “All in all, there’s a lot of activity going on up there [to assess the impact of climate change].”
Allen is using the assessment to determine the need for a Coast Guard presence along Alaska’s North Shore. The Coast Guard intends to stabilize its ice-breaking capabilities, assess the need for more people and equipment north of the Bering Strait or off the North Shore and acquire the funding to make any necessary changes, he said.
One major result of climate change will be the recession of Arctic ice and subsequent opening of transportation channels in areas not previously accessible by sea. More cruise ships, oil tankers, fishing boats and other watercraft will be using these areas, increasing the need for Coast Guard manpower and equipment in the region, Allen said.
“The two most problematic things in my mind are a large search-and-rescue case or a large mass-disaster response,” he said. “You can have an incident at sea, and evacuate everyone from a sinking ship, but then you’re sitting 700 miles north of Alaska, and you don’t know what to do with the people in the life boats.
“My big concern is, once an incident like that began, [is] the ability to forward deploy, to get out there and help those folks. We can get aviation assets up there pretty quickly, but aside from some summer deployments, the nearest ships are down by Kodiak, from 900 to 1,100 miles away,” he said.
The Coast Guard has no permanent facilities or personnel on the North Slope of Alaska, though Allen said some aircraft operate out of Point Barrow and Nome, including H-60 helicopters and Alaska National Guard Black Hawk helicopters. These have been used primarily to carry doctors, veterinarians, optometrists and dentists to outlying towns.
“People rely on their dogs and their livestock up there,” he said. “People were lining up to get shots for their dogs before they were seeking medical help for themselves.”
Establishing bases in the area is not a high priority, the admiral said. Until then, said he added, the Coast Guard will continue its operations with the equipment it has in the area.
“We have no permanent footprint up there,” he said. “That’s one of the decisions we’re going to have to make on completion of the high-latitude study. That being said, we will continue to deploy to the North Shore every summer, and we continue to get feedback from people on more things we can do with the assets we have.”
(Ian Graham works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)