Vice Commandant, Government officials tour North Slope of Alaska

We have written before about the changing conditions in the Arctic, the difficulties presented by its vast expanse and its unforgiving climate. The magnitude and relevance of those challenges to maritime safety, environmental protection and U.S. sovereignty were highlighted by a group of senior officials who returned from the region this weekend.

Post written by Commander Glynn Smith

Healy and Louis S. St-Laurent breaking ice

Vice Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara (left) watches as the Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice along with the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent approximately 560 nautical miles North of Barrow, Alaska, during an Arctic domain awareness flight. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Air Station Kodiak.

Melting Arctic ice is making the Arctic Ocean vastly more accessible by commercial shipping, oil exploration and eco-tourism interests.  This presents new challenges for both the Departments of Homeland Security and Interior who are charged with oversight of these activities.  In order to see these challenges first hand, Coast Guard Vice Commandant, Vice Admiral Sally Brice O’Hara, recently led a cross-government team to the North Slope of Alaska.

Vice Adm. Brice-O’Hara was accompanied by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes, Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Policy Heather Zichal and Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Homeland Security Alice Hill.

“The Arctic is changing in a profound way,” said Vice Adm. Brice-O’Hara, adding, “Our strategy for dealing with this change is to first and foremost study this remote Region much more carefully.”

The team met with local officials and received briefings from oil companies.  These meetings provided insights into what the future may hold for Arctic drilling, as well as the related regulatory requirements.  The team also participated in an overnight camping excursion in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve to gain better familiarity with the pristine region.

Vice Adm. Brice-O’Hara said, “Seeing the region first hand, I am struck by the remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain.  We have more work to do to meet the requirements of increased presence in this region.”

Coast Guard and DHS visit to the Port of Valdez

Capt. Norman Custard, Alice Hill, senior counselor to the Secretary of Homeland Security, Vice Adm. Sally Brice-O'Hara, Capt. Darryl Verfaillie, Betty McIntosh, Alyeska public relations, Capt. Jason Fosdick, MK3 Kenneth Murafsky and Lt. Michael Maas stand at the end of the 800-mile Alaska petroleum pipeline. U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA1 David Mosley.

The team also took a Coast Guard HC-130 flight to see the Arctic Ocean ice cap and joint survey operations by Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker HEALY and Canadian Icebreaker LOUIS S.ST. LAURENT.  The two ships are attempting to map the limits of the Arctic continental shelf to inform discussions about international claims over the Arctic Ocean, and ultimately, its resources.

The team completed their tour by visiting the Vessel Traffic Center as well as shipping terminals in the Port of Valdez, Alaska, and Coast Guard facilities in Kodiak, Alaska.  The trip greatly enhanced the group’s appreciation of the uniqueness of working in the Arctic and the challenge of further defining and carrying out U.S. Arctic policy.

“The unique nature of this operating environment is defined by both the highly sensitive natural environment and the extreme conditions that our people and equipment routinely face here,” Vice Adm. Brice-O’Hara said.

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