The Arctic: A New Maritime Frontier

2018-12-10T15:32:24+00:00 December 10, 2018|
(Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class George Degener / U.S. Coast Guard)

(Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class George Degener / U.S. Coast Guard)

From: Ocean News Weekly/ By: Ocean Leadership Staff 

What It Was   

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard held a hearing titled: “Preparing for Maritime Transportation in a Changing Arctic.”

Why It Matters

Warming temperatures in the Arctic are melting once unnavigable ice-covered terrain into viable maritime transportation routes. Vessel traffic is poised to increase due to a lengthening ice-free season; however, critical infrastructure needed to support safe shipping does not exist. Challenges in the region, which were discussed during the hearing, include the lack of a nearby American deep water port for search and rescue, pollution, Arctic security responses, icebreaking capabilities, outdated hydrographic survey data, and limited communication operations. These hardships and lack of infrastructure not only jeopardize coastal Arctic communities but also national and ocean security.

Key Points

There was resounding agreement among subcommittee members and witnesses that more infrastructure and port capacity will be critical to the evolving role of transportation in Arctic waters. Capt. Edward Page (Executive Director, Marine Exchange of Alaska) stated that with the nearest U.S. Coast Guard station hundreds of miles away, emergency response to oil spills or tourism traffic in the Arctic would be far more challenging than anywhere else in the nation.

The lack of communication infrastructure is also a major hinderance. An extensive Automatic Identification System (AIS) composed of over 130 vessel-tracking receiver stations in Alaska provides information on maritime activity in the Arctic to the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the state of Alaska, and other maritime stakeholders to help assess and monitor vessel operations. The issue, however, is that there are no communication capabilities with these vessels. Mr./Dr. Willie Goodwin (Chairman, Arctic Waterways Safety Committee) emphasized that there is no way to warn these large vessels if they are entering waters with local residents in small craft or to communicate with them if they are in distress.

Polar Security Cutters (PSC) – formally known as polar icebreakers – were also discussed as a necessity for the U.S. Coast Guard to be able to adequately patrol and enforce safe maritime transportation in the Arctic. Ms. Kathy Metcalf (President and CEO, Chamber of Shipping of America) spoke about enhancing U.S. icebreaking capabilities in the Arctic, as well as in the Great Lakes. Ranking Member Tammy Baldwin (WI) reiterated this point and added that enhancing icebreaking capability will benefit the economy by maximizing the operational seasons in both the Arctic and Great Lakes.

Mr. Andrew Hartsig (Director, Arctic Program, Ocean Conservancy) pointed out that Alaskans have experienced major oil spills and understand what is at stake when “risks become reality.” Averting accidents in the Arctic is imperative due to harsh conditions preventing immediate response efforts. Mr. Hartsig provided ideas for bolstering preparedness and response capacity – including additional vessel routing measures, better preparing the local community to respond to emergencies, and continuing support for construction of new Polar Security Cutters.


“The potential in the Arctic is hard to fully quantify. From more efficient shipping routes to supporting and enabling America’s blue economy, the Arctic is a great resource – one for which we must begin preparing for today to ensure we can maximize its potential while also protecting its environmental integrity and importance.” — Chairman Dan Sullivan (AK)

“The Arctic is home to coastal maritime communities working on the water in small craft. The Arctic also is a frontier where thousands of people are now traveling in large vessels in poorly charted waters. Our federal government can work with us to support the approach we are taking, putting safety measures and infrastructure in place before the unthinkable happens. Or our federal government can take responsibility for addressing human disaster in one of the harshest environments on earth, without infrastructure or even communications capabilities.” — Mr. Willie Goodwin (Chairman, Arctic Waterways Safety Committee)

Find Out More

Watch the full hearing

Related coverage from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership          

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