U.S. Coast Guard launches seasonal Arctic operations

By Kelsey Lindsey - July 3, 2017

Months after the U.S. Coast Guard signed an agreement with seven Arctic countries pledging combined operations in the region, the agency on Saturday launched its 2017 Arctic Shield operation in Kotzebue to practice and engage in responses.

The seasonal operation will deploy five cutters, aircraft and personnel to the northwestern Arctic city, where they will help with search and rescue, law enforcement and navigation, among other things, in the region.

While previous Arctic Shield operations occupied different northern towns since it launched in 2009, last year the Coast Guard signed a lease in Kotzebue for a permanent base. The location will house two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters from July 1 to Oct. 31 over the next four years.

As the Arctic warms and summer sea ice decreases, the region is becoming more accessible to industry and tourism. Norway and Russia will likely see new oil rigs, while the number of visitors to the region is expected to increase. After a successful maiden voyage in 2016, the Crystal Serenity cruise ship will again sail 1,700 people through the Northwest Passage this year.

This uptick in traffic has led some to worry about the lack of infrastructure in the Arctic, especially if an emergency should occur.

Last summer, the Coast Guard joined multiple agencies including the Alaska National Guard, Alaska Native organizations and Canadian forces for Operation Arctic Chinook, an emergency exercise of a cruise ship rescue.

This year, Arctic Shield will launch Operation Arctic Guardian in Utqiagvik,  formerly Barrow, another multi-agency emergency exercise, this time focused on pollution response.

The U.S. Coast Guard also announced that the multi-nation Arctic Coast Guard Forum will begin live exercises this year, although Chief Petty Officer Shawn Eggert couldn’t confirm the scope and focus of the drills.