The Arctic and the Coast Guard- Part 1

Coast Guard Cutter Healy is the largest heavy ice breaker in the Coast Guard fleet. The CGC Healy is currently underway in the Arctic. USCG Photo

Coast Guard Cutter Healy is the largest heavy ice breaker in the Coast Guard fleet. The CGC Healy is currently underway in the Arctic. USCG Photo

The Arctic has been in the news a lot lately. The Coast Guard isn’t new to missions in the Arctic as you can see if you check out the Coast Guard Historian’s page. The Coast Guard has been conducting operations in the frozen north since at least 1865. The missions in the Arctic are as important now as they have ever been.

According to 14 U.S.C. 2: “The Coast Guard shall develop, maintain, and operate with due regard to the requirements of national defense, aids to navigation, icebreaking facilities, and rescue facilities for the promotion of safety on and over the high seas and waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States; and pursuant to international agreements, operate icebreaking facilities on waters other than high seas and waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.”

The polar operations of the Coast Guard are one of our missions that it seems like a lot of people don’t know about. If you haven’t taken the time to look at what the Coast Guard does in both the Arctic and the Antarctic you really should, there is some really neat stuff. You can find a lot about the Coast Guard’s polar missions here.

One example of the Coast Guard in polar operations is the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a major asset of the ice breaking and research missions in the Arctic. At 420 feet, CGC Healy is the largest of the nation’s three heavy icebreakers and possesses extensive scientific capabilities. The CGC Healy is designed to break 4 ½ feet of ice continuously at three knots and can operate in temperatures as low as -50 degrees F.

Currently the Healy is deployed in support of the Bering Ecosystem Study (BEST), a multi-year project sponsored by the National Science Foundation that studies the ecological processes of sea ice as it retreats through the Bering Sea. If you are interested, you can follow the Healy’s Arctic West 09 trip on this page. The page has not only the weekly posts from the ship itself, but blogs from a number of the scientists that are onboard.

One journal entry that I found interesting was this post that has recordings of the sights and sounds as the ship breaks ice from Deanna Wheeler, a teacher from J. C. Parks Elementary School of Indian Head, Md. who is aboard Healy. She is sharing her Arctic experience right down to the actual sounds of the ship with her students and others.

Great stories about the Coast Guard ice breakers aside, the Arctic isn’t making the news because of the Healy or the men and women doing great work in research in the Arctic, but because of the international implications of the Arctic’s territory and potential resources to be found under the ice.

With the changes that are going on in the Arctic, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is of increasing interest, and some may say concern, to the people of the United States. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans and seas establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources. It is the notion that all problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and need to be addressed as a whole. The Commandant posted about the Law of the Sea Convention in his blog back in March. You can read that post here.

One concern that has been raised by some is that joining the Convention would surrender U.S. sovereignty. This idea just simply isn’t true. The Convention actually expands U.S. sovereignty and sovereign rights over extensive maritime territory and natural resources off its coast.  It provides a 12 mile territorial sea subject to U.S. sovereignty, U.S. sovereign rights over resources within a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, and U.S. sovereign rights over offshore resources (including minerals) to the outer edge of the continental margin, which extends well beyond 200 miles in several areas, including up to 600 miles off Alaska.

It’s rare that a treaty actually increases the sovereignty of a country, but this treaty does.  The Convention does not harm U.S. sovereignty in other respects either.  The dispute resolution mechanism provides appropriate flexibility in terms of both the forum and the exclusion of sensitive subject matter.  The deep seabed mining provisions do not apply to any areas in which the U.S. has sovereignty or sovereign rights.  Further, these rules will facilitate mining activities by U.S. companies.  And the navigational provisions ensure that U.S. military and commercial vessels have worldwide maritime mobility – without a permission slip. This means ships like the CGC Healy and other U.S. ships that transit the Arctic will be able to continue their work.

Check back on The Coast Guard Compass for more about the Coast Guard missions in the Arctic and the Law of the Sea Convention.

A. Thorsson

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