Special Report: Opening the Arctic

Beluga Fraternity takes on a load of oil-service equipment in Ulsan, South Korea, for delivery in the Russian Arctic.

Mariners along Alaska’s North Slope said it was bound to happen. The U.S. Coast Guard knew it too. In early September, it did.

The Arctic Ocean cruise ship Bremen reported a medical emergency and the need to evacuate a passenger. Bremen, which had sailed from Greenland on an ecotourism cruise, was 30 nautical miles off Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

The regional search-and-rescue helicopter at Barrow was unable to fly because of bad weather. The nearest Coast Guard base was over 1,000 miles away. It seemed the only hope for the ill passenger — a 27-year-old German woman with suspected appendicitis — was a pollution-response boat funded by the oil industry at Prudhoe Bay.

The 42-foot Camden Bay, skippered by Capt. Brian Wamack, rendezvoused with Bremen about 10 miles offshore. The nonprofit Alaska Clean Seas vessel, with two oil-company medics aboard, picked up the patient and transported her to a health facility at Prudhoe Bay.

Jim Nevels, maritime supervisor for Alaska Clean Seas who also was aboard Camden Bay, said never before had one of his vessels been called upon for a sea rescue. No one was surprised, however.

50 Let Pobedy, a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker, accompanies Beluga Foresight during the first-ever commercial transit of the Northeast Passage. (Photos courtesy Beluga Shipping)

“We talked about how this was coming because of all the newcomers — the tourists and the other vessels — up here,†Nevels said. “We knew it was going to happen one of these days.â€

Each summer, more and more cruise ships, scientific vessels, maritime adventurers and now even freight carriers ply the icy Arctic Ocean waters. Cargo ships and ecotourism vessels are using the Northeast and Northwest passages as shortcuts between Asia and Europe. Climate change has opened up more areas for ice-free navigation.

During the summer of 2009, Germany’s Beluga Shipping GmbH sent a pair of heavy-lift vessels northward from Korea and past western Alaska to deliver oil-service equipment to the Russian Arctic. It was probably the first-ever commercial freighter voyage through the Northeast Passage. MV Beluga Fraternity and MV Beluga Foresight shaved 3,300 miles off the journey by avoiding the usual Suez Canal route.

Titan Salvage, based in Pompano Beach, Fla., sent its tugboat Havservice 1 far above the Arctic Circle in June under contract to provide pollution-control services to a Russian vessel. The refrigerated cargo ship Petrozavodsk had run aground off Norway’s Bear Island in the western Barents Sea.

Edison Chouest Offshore, based in Louisiana, recently announced that it will build a 360-foot ice-strengthened supply ship for Royal Dutch Shell plc. The oil company plans to use the vessel for exploration and production in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen during an appearance in Nome, Alaska, where he discussed maritime needs in the Arctic. (Dom Yanchunas)

In October, the Houston-based classification society ABS said it will establish a Harsh Environment Technology Center at Memorial University in Newfoundland. The research facility will specialize in assessing the ability of ships and oil platforms to operate in icy conditions, particularly in the Arctic.

Arctic nations are seizing the opportunity to map the Arctic Ocean’s bottom, explore more of the north for natural resources and conduct scientific and security voyages. The advent of true Arctic commercial navigation has prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to expand its services along Alaska’s western and northern coastlines.

In August 2009, Coast Guard officials participated in Operation Arctic Crossroads, a wide-ranging effort to familiarize themselves with navigation needs along western Alaska and the North Slope. The operation included outreach programs with native populations and assessments of future strategies regarding maritime safety, search-and-rescue preparedness, navigation aids and vessel tracking.

Professional mariners have operated above the Arctic Circle in Alaska for decades. For a few months each summer, tugs and barges deliver fuel to native villages along the coast and many river systems. Cargo barges carry containers full of supplies to remote communities and the North Slope oil fields. Bulk carriers haul natural resources from Alaska mines and quarries.

For a long time, officials have envisioned that commercial traffic would flourish in the Arctic if enough ice would melt in the summers. Now that it’s truly happening, the Coast Guard is trying to cover more of the region with cutters, response boats and helicopters.

“We have open water where we didn’t used to have it before,†Commandant Adm. Thad Allen declared during a visit with local officials at Nome. “What we don’t have is very robust communications, and there are issues with charting and operating vessels up there.â€

The Coast Guard’s Alaskan operations are concentrated in the southern part of the state: mainly Juneau, Valdez and Kodiak Island. Allen said it may be necessary to establish a “forward operating position†— or more than one — to provide seasonal coverage in western Alaska and the North Slope. The Coast Guard is evaluating the possibility of temporarily basing response boats or aircraft in Arctic locations such as Kotzebue or Barrow for a few months each summer.

One probable location for seasonal Coast Guard positioning is Nome. The port city of 3,500 inhabitants is a safe harbor for a variety of oceangoing vessels. The port sees bulk carriers, cruise ships, tugboats, fuel barges and large fishing vessels. Uniquely, a somewhat eccentric fleet of uninspected gold-mining dredges prospect in Norton Sound from their home-port at the Nome harbor.

Nome Mayor Denise Michels said the Port of Nome hosted 234 dockings in 2008, a sharp rise from 34 dockings in 1990. In August 2009, Coast Guard crews sailed a 25-foot response boat in the Port of Nome and Norton Sound to evaluate vessel needs in the area. They also experimented with an 18-foot rescue boat usually based at Saginaw, Mich. The lightweight vessel is specially designed to be dragged easily across ice. The small boats conducted similar surveys at Barrow.

The cutters Alex Haley and Spar also participated in Operation Arctic Crossroards. Meanwhile, the icebreaking cutter Healy and Canadian Coast Guard Cutter Louis S. St-Laurent conducted a joint Arctic Ocean study, which included mapping the extended continental shelf and collecting seismic data. To further aid scientific research, a U.S. Coast Guard airplane dropped the first ocean-drifting buoy in the Arctic Ocean north of the Bering Sea.

Allen said the United States is seeking an agreement with Russia to establish a “vessel traffic separation scheme†for ships in the straits between northwestern Alaska from northeastern Siberia.

Currently, the nation’s northernmost land-based navigation light beacon is a 14-foot-tall steel tower at the village of Kotzebue, 25 miles above the Arctic Circle on the Chukchi Sea’s Kotzebue Sound. The Coast Guard plans to install a similar lighted beacon at Point Hope, about 120 miles above the Arctic Circle. That light, visible in the Northeast Passage and Northwest Passage commercial shipping lane, would help to prevent groundings along the Lisburne Peninsula.

Eventually, the Coast Guard believes it will need more large and small vessels in the Arctic. Top brass worry most about the type of incident foreshadowed by this summer’s medical evacuation from the cruise ship Bremen. Maritime casualties off Antarctica illustrate the potential for disaster in the absence of search-and-rescue capabilities off Alaska’s North Slope. In 2006, the Antarctic ecotourism cruise ship MV Nordkapp ran aground, while MV Explorer struck an iceberg a year later and sank. In both cases, Nordkapp’s sister ship MV Nordnorge arrived to rescue all aboard.

Rear Adm. Christopher Colvin, commander of the Coast Guard’s Alaska district, said there are not enough rescue assets in the Arctic to handle an incident involving large numbers of people.

“We don’t have a presence up there, and I’d love to have a presence,†Colvin told Professional Mariner in Nome, before the Bremen incident had occurred. “Right now, my concern is these ecotour ships with the reinforced hulls. We could get one of those by itself up there with a similar problem, and there’s nobody there to do a self-rescue. How can I rescue an ecotour ship like the one that went down in Antarctica? We can’t do that.â€

The problem only becomes more serious as more cruise, freight, research and mineral exploration vessels push into a wider area than was previously thought possible.

“We are seeing these ecotour ships that are headed up to the edge of the ice and are trying to get through the Northwest Passage — and they’re getting through,†Colvin said. “There is increased oil activity up there. They’re trying to explore.â€

Pollution casualties are a risk, too. At Prudhoe Bay, Alaska Clean Seas maintains a fleet of 13 landing craft and recovery vessels, including a 55-footer and a 45-footer. The nonprofit operator was founded in 1979 by the oil drilling and pipeline companies at Prudhoe Bay. That’s 30 years of experience evaluating the emergency-response needs of the region.

“The whole trend is just starting to hit,†said Nevels. “It used to be just the (oil) industry was up here. Now there’s cruise ships that go by, and there are tourist boats and now these freight haulers. There’s potential for open-ocean spills.â€

When a medical emergency occurred aboard the cruise ship Bremen in the Arctic, the sick passenger had to be transported to shore by a pollution response boat, because the nearest Coast Guard base was over 1,000 miles away. (Courtesy Jim Nevels)

Off Alaska’s North Slope, the native population and existing commercial mariners say they notice less ice in summer than there used to be. Hard evidence supports their observation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the world’s oceans were the warmest on record in 2009. In August, Arctic sea ice covered 2.42 million square miles, 18 percent less than in the late 20th century. The warmer Arctic is accommodating more storms, NOAA said.

This year, Barrow shattered its all-time record with 67 consecutive days above freezing, versus the previous mark of 50 days. The navigation season is not necessarily lengthening.

“In an overall picture, it is changing,†said Nevels of Alaska Clean Seas. “But we still have the same seasons that we’re able to put in the water and take out of the water.â€

Climate change isn’t the only catalyst for additional navigation in the Arctic, and it may not even be the strongest. Economics probably is. The Russian Arctic is experiencing population and commercial growth as oil exploration accelerates. With higher fuel and crew costs and the piracy threat on the Suez route, it makes sense to send ice-strengthened ships across the Arctic route.

Beluga calculates that its 2009 Northeast Passage voyage — Ulsan, South Korea, to Novyy Port, Russia, and on to Rotterdam — conserved 200 tons of fuel oil in each of its two 453-foot vessels. At $400 to $450 per ton, that’s a total of $160,000 to $180,000 saved. The northern route lasted 23 days, compared to the usual Suez voyage that takes 32 days.

The growth in commercial navigation in the Arctic means a greater demand for professional mariners and specialized maritime training. When navigating along the Alaska coastline, local knowledge is vital, Nevels said.

“The navigation is shallow-water,†he said. “It’s very shallow in the near-shore environment. There’s sandbars and barrier islands around here. A lot of that is because sometimes the ice scrapes up the bottom, and it changes the bottom somewhat.

“You can go out a half a mile and have it be a foot deep. It’s charted, but there’s no aids to navigation. You definitely need experienced vessel captains.â€

Sidebar: International claims in the Arctic spur calls for more icebreakers

The flurry of maritime activity in the Arctic demonstrates the need to build more oceangoing icebreakers, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. That goal may be getting closer to reality.

The nation’s newest polar icebreaker — USCGC Healy — was delivered in 2000. At the time, the Coast Guard had three such vessels. In 2006, however, the 30-year-old Polar Star was taken out of service and placed on caretaker status. That left only the 420-foot Healy and the aging 399-foot Polar Sea in the active fleet.

Rear Adm. Christopher Colvin, the Coast Guard’s commander in Alaska, said two icebreakers are not enough if the United States hopes to keep pace in the race to clarify Arctic territorial claims and develop resources.

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent and the U.S. Coast Guard’s Healy plow through the ice on Sept. 11, 2008. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard/Michael Anderson)

“We have a shortage of icebreaking capability,†Colvin said in an interview with Professional Mariner in Nome. “We’re locked out of the equation.â€

Canada, Norway, Denmark (Greenland is a largely self-governing territory of Denmark) and, in particular, Russia, have boosted their presence in the Arctic Ocean in recent years, as climate change has expanded navigable waters. The nations are mapping their continental shelf and preparing to exploit previously unreachable oil and natural gas.

In recognition, U.S. Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, introduced a bill calling for the construction of two Arctic icebreakers for the Coast Guard. The price tag is an estimate $750 million each. In September, the House authorized funding for an icebreaker study, which would determine whether the Coast Guard needs new vessels or should refit existing ones.

“Clearly today there is more and more work going on to determine the need (for icebreakers), not only in the United States but internationally, with a number of countries that are operating in the Arctic,†said Frederick Harris, chairman of the American Shipbuilding Association.

“Certainly America’s shipbuilders would embrace the opportunity to build new icebreakers for the United States,†said Harris, president of General Dynamics Nassco. “We have a number of American shipyards who can do that — designing and building these ships.â€

Polar Sea’s designated service life originally was 30 years, but the vessel recently underwent an overhaul and is in its 31st year on the water. Colvin said Healy and Polar Sea are sufficient for annual scientific voyages and other traditional needs above Alaska. Their role will likely need to expand, however.

In 2007, Russian explorers in a submersible planted their nation’s flag on the North Pole seabed at a depth of 14,000 feet. Russia’s government attempted to claim territorial waters extending from the mainland to the North Pole. The United States and Canada scoffed.

International agreements limit the Arctic nations’ territorial claims to within 200 miles of their shorelines, plus the continental shelf. The zone allows each nation to claim minerals and to regulate vessel traffic, fisheries and the environment. The remainder of the Arctic is international waters.

In reality, if possession turns out to be nine-tenths of the law in the Arctic, Russia’s fleet of five nuclear-powered Arktika-class icebreakers would trump the U.S.’s two active ships. Even China plans to build a polar icebreaker to support scientific exploration and to assess commercial shipping possibilities through the Arctic, according to a Chinese government announcement in October.

“If the objective is sovereignty — a completely different deal now — that is a completely different activity than science,†Colvin said.

Alaska’s congressional delegation urges federal investment in a robust Coast Guard presence in the Arctic.

“Russia’s increased involvement provides pressure on the U.S. to increase our maritime presence and actively conduct coastal mapping to determine where our continental shelf ends,†said Young’s spokeswoman, Meredith Kenny. “We don’t have adequate hydrographic data. We don’t have Arctic search and rescue capabilities (or) oil spill response in ice conditions. … We really have a lot of work to do up there.â€

Harris said Nassco’s facility in San Diego, among other shipyards, would be interested in bidding for new polar icebreaker work. Healy was constructed in New Orleans at Avondale Industries, now a division of Northrop Grumman Corp. Now-defunct Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Co. in Seattle built Polar Star and Polar Sea.

Great Lakes carriers say they, too, need more Coast Guard icebreakers. Five of the Coast Guard’s ships there are nearing the end of their useful life span. That region’s latest new cutter is Mackinaw, a combination buoy tender-icebreaker delivered in 2006. Rep. James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, is seeking $153 million to build a sister ship to the 240-foot Mackinaw, which was constructed at Wisconsin’s Marinette Marine Corp.

“We don’t have the icebreaking capacity on the Great Lakes that we have had historically,†Oberstar said. “Not only will this funding ensure that our nation’s vital industries are supplied during the winter — construction of this icebreaker will create jobs at U.S. shipyards and the related supplier industries at a time when job creation is so vital.â€

The Arctic and Great Lakes icebreaker proposals could end up competing for funding, complicating matters for the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus.

“I think you would see those decoupled,†Harris said. “The shipyards that would build them for the Arctic would be on the East or West Coast or the Gulf, and the ones that would build for the Great Lakes would be the yards that are on the Great Lakes. They’re just too different.â€

If the U.S. builds more polar icebreakers, Alaska wouldn’t be the only state to benefit. “It would be a great economic stimulus project for the shipyards and suppliers,†Kenny said.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff