Senate Hearing Outlines Infrastructure Needs in U.S. Arctic

December 6, 2018

As Arctic waters become more easily traversable for shippers and tourists alike, the U.S. does not yet have the infrastructure in place to manage its northern waterways, according to a Senate Subcommittee hearing on the topic.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Arctic sea ice was 42 percent thinner in 2011 than it was in 1979. If the trend continues, the Arctic Ocean could be ice free during the summer months in the next 20 years. These newly opened routes could save shippers weeks in travel, as they are thousands of nautical miles shorter compared to today’s options (e.g. the Suez Canal or Panama Canal). (This is why many flights between the U.S. and Asia take a north-south route over the North Pole, not an east-west route over the Pacific.)

The opening Arctic is also attracting the tourism industry: 26 new polar cruise ships are set to launch in the next three years, a 45 percent increase over today’s polar cruise ship fleet.

The Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard held a hearing earlier today to examine emerging transportation issues in the changing Arctic region. Witnesses discussed the need for more infrastructure and better charting to enable the growth of trans-Arctic commerce.

Deepwater ports and Coast Guard presence: Chief among subcommittee chairman Dan Sullivan’s (R-AK) concerns is that the U.S. does not have a deepwater port in the Arctic Circle: the closest is Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, AK, 1,000 miles away from the Circle. (Closer is the Port of Nome, but it is not deep enough for the Coast Guard’s polar cutters to dock.) Such a deepwater port would provide a staging area for the U.S. Coast Guard’s many missions including search and rescue, environmental response, and law enforcement.

Willie Goodwin, Chairman of the Arctic Waterways Safety Committee, said “…we have nothing, completely nothing up North. So what do we do? We have smaller craft… and they would be the first responders. But without a port or any kind of infrastructure, there’s nothing we can do.”

The lack of landside infrastructure inhibits the Coast Guard’s ability to increase its presence in the U.S. Arctic even as demand for their services increases. Andrew Hartsig, Director of the Arctic Program at the Ocean Conservancy, said “we’re not adequately prepared to prevent future accidents” and must “bolster preparedness and response capacity.”

Icebreakers: Related to that, Hartsig urged Congress to continue supporting the Coast Guard’s plan to procure more polar icebreakers to better meet its national security, search and rescue, environmental protection, and other missions. The National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress this year authorizes six polar-class icebreakers, but they have not been appropriated yet.

The lack of sufficient ice-breaking capacity could hinder the growth of trade up north. Kathy Metcalf, president and CEO of the Chamber of Shipping of America, said that if a shipper thinks an ice breaker would not be available, “the prudent thing to do would be to end trade.” Metcalf noted that many of the current icebreakers are older than their 30-to-35 year lifespans, and even with a maintenance program, “eventually they need to be replaced.” (The recently-passed Coast Guard reauthorization bill requires the Coast Guard to conduct an enhanced maintenance program on the Polar Star cutter to extend its service life at least through 2025.)

Meanwhile, the U.S. is far behind other Arctic nations in this area; chairman Sullivan pointed out that Russia has 40 polar icebreakers and is planning for 13 more.

Accurate charting and dynamic routing: Several of the witnesses spoke of the need for more accurate ocean floor charting so that operators will know where they can and cannot safely navigate their ships. According to Hartsig, less than 2 percent of the Arctic has been charted to modern standards; much of the rest of the data is over half a century old.

Related to modern ocean floor mapping are the vessel routing projects currently underway at the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard concluded its port access route study (PARS) of the Chukchi Sea, Bering Strait and Bering Sea in early 2017 and made it available for public comment, but has yet to complete a final rulemaking. Goodwin said until specific routes are approved, “it’s a free for all.”

Chairman Sullivan asked all four witnesses what they want to see in the PARS. Among the most common recommendations were flexibility, including alternative routes for when the main routes are iced over; specification of areas to avoid—for example, areas where local communities are hunting—that are dynamic and can change with new information; and international alignment, particularly at the terminus of a route where the most congestion will occur.

Communications infrastructure: Finally, chairman Sullivan and the witnesses identified the need for consistent and reliable communications. Limited satellite coverage and sparse cellular networks make it difficult for the Coast Guard and other entities to communicate with one another. Mr. Goodwin pointed out that coastal communities that operate small craft, such as for hunting and transit, cannot communicate with larger ocean-going vessels to warn the bigger ships when they are entering their waters.

Watch the hearing and read the witness testimony here.

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