Written by Cmdr. Rick Wester.
Despite snowfall in the North Slope of Alaska last week and cooler than average temperatures all summer, Arctic sea ice extent tracked well below average again this year. This ongoing transformation of the Arctic Ocean from a solid expanse of inaccessible ice fields into an emerging maritime frontier is attracting increased human activity in U.S. Arctic waters which demands an effective, capable U.S. Coast Guard presence.
Shortly following the release of the National Strategy for the Arctic Region this past May, the Coast Guard, under the leadership of the Department of Homeland Security, became the first U.S. federal agency to release and begin implementing its own Arctic strategy. One key objective of the Coast Guard Arctic Strategy and Coast Guard Operation Arctic Shield 2013 is broadening partnerships.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp spent last week in Alaska, underscoring the importance of establishing and maintaining a range of Arctic partnerships. “We cannot do this alone,” said the Commandant. “It requires a collaborative network of domestic and international partners, drawing upon their cumulative authorities, capabilities and experience.”
Kathryn Sullivan, Ph.D., acting National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator, joined the Commandant in Alaska. “This was an outstanding opportunity to see first-hand how the changing climate is affecting Arctic communities and to explore how NOAA and the Coast Guard can address issues together,” said Sullivan. The Coast Guard and NOAA signed a Cooperative Maritime Strategy this year.
Also joining the Commandant was Julia Gourley of the U.S. State Department. Gourley is the U.S. senior Arctic official and representative to the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum of the eight Arctic countries that addresses dynamic and evolving change in the Arctic. It convened the Arctic countries to conclude international agreements on search and rescue as well as oil spill preparedness and response operations.
“Meeting with local leadership in Barrow, Dutch Harbor and Homer has given me additional insights which will help to ensure the U.S. makes informed decisions when we assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015,” said Gourley.
The Commandant and U.S. senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich discussed Coast Guard Arctic infrastructure and capabilities issues along with Rear Adm. Tom Ostebo. Ostebo, who as the 17th Coast Guard District commander is responsible for all Coast Guard Operations throughout Alaska, has a dedicated tribal liaison on staff who actively engages with Arctic tribal leaders and local governments to ensure Coast Guard operations do not conflict with tribal rights, interests or subsistence activities.
While demands for Coast Guard services in Alaska are expanding, budgets are not. Just as collaborative solutions are required for Arctic operations, so too are they required for supporting infrastructure improvements. For example, in a unique partnership with the State of Alaska, a new wing that is being built onto their National Guard headquarters will be leased to Coast Guard Sector Anchorage. Moving into this new state-of-the-art facility will provide better capabilities and closer interagency coordination for a fraction of the cost of their current undersized building. The Commandant personally thanked Gov. Sean Parnell and Alaska Army National Guard Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus for their efforts as they toured the nearly-completed wing.
Partnerships in the Arctic help the Coast Guard to build knowledge, capacity and resilience, and run the spectrum from senators to everyday citizens. Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment Dutch Harbor is an important hub for deployed Coast Guard cutters and is the only permanent Coast Guard unit in the Aleutian Island chain. Helping this seven-person isolated duty detachment to conduct their maritime response and oversight mission is private citizen and neighbor Mary Lekanoff. Known as “Coast Guard Mary,” she has volunteered her time for nearly three decades to assist Coast Guardsmen stationed there or passing through, helping them to feel at home even if it is thousands of miles away.
“We are an Arctic nation, not a nation with an Arctic state,” said the Commandant. “The cross-cutting nature of Arctic issues requires a whole-of-government approach, fully informed by Native Alaskans and other Arctic stakeholders with unique Arctic insights.”