Former Lt. Governor and current chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission Fran Ulmer Saturday received a Coast Guard District 17 coin from the district commander, Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, in honor of the work Ulmer has done on behalf of the Coast Guard and the Arctic region in general.
Ostebo made the award at the close of the 399-foot heavy icebreaker Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star’s Juneau visit, a day that featured public tours and a private reception.
Ostebo and Ulmer each spoke of the importance of having the resources — including heavy icebreakers — to look out for U.S. interests in the Arctic.
Polar Star is the nation’s only active heavy icebreaker, and will be a big part of the Coast Guard’s future polar missions as ice retreats and Arctic waters become more active with worldwide shipping and oil and gas development.
“This ship signals the U.S. return to the Arctic, it signals our presence in the international game of heavy ice breaking,” Ostebo told assembled guests, crew members and dignitaries as the early evening turned breezy with approaching storm clouds.
“We are now back in the Arctic with two icebreakers,” Ostebo said.
The Polar Star will head south in 2014 to break out the ice near the U.S. research facility in Antarctica, the McMurdo Research Station. “No more leasing out that obligation we have for our research facility down there,” Ostebo said.
“The Arctic is opening up. We’re going to need ice breakers in the future, and having this ship up here to be part of that is critical to us,” Ostebo said.
The Polar Star went on caretaker status with a skeleton crew in 2006, and was reactivated after $57 million in repairs in 2012 to begin trials this year.
“Thanks to our congressional delegation and other folks the funding was made to recommission this ship,” Ostebo said.
Ulmer, who is a past chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage, also spoke of America’s need to keep in the game where Arctic navigation is concerned. She was appointed to the Arctic Research Commission in 2011 by President Barack Obama after serving the previous year by presidential appointment on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.
Summer arctic sea ice is “50 percent less in extent in the last couple of decades and 75 percent less in total volume,” Ulmer said.
As the ice retreats, she said, more icebreakers are needed.
“That seems a little counter-intuitive but its not,” Ulmer said, “because as the ice retreats and as all kinds of economic pressures combine — not to mention politics and science and technology — it is more important than ever that we have ice-capable vessels be able to do the business in the Arctic.”
Arctic nations, as well as non-Arctic nations, recognize the importance of this, she said.
Ulmer noted that “200,000 cruise ship passengers will visit the Arctic this year. That just blows me away. Russian traffic in the Northern Sea Route quadrupled in one year. Between tourism, shipping, oil and gas activities, possibly fishing... this region is emerging in a powerful way and I’m delighted that the United States Coast Guard and the rest of our federal agencies are stepping up to the plate in the way in which they are.”
Ulmer said “not another federal agency in Alaska is admired and beloved as the United States Coast Guard.”
“Thank you for what your do for our nation, and thank you very much for what you do in Alaska and for what you’re going to do in the Arctic,” Ulmer said.
Heavy icebreakers are the largest cutters the Coast Guard operates, with reinforced hulls and bows designed to crash through more than 20 feet of sea ice. The other heavy ice breaker in the fleet, the 1970s-vintage Polar Sea, has been out of service since an engine failure.
The USCG Healy, commissioned in 1999, is an icebreaker designed to break through 4.5 feet of ice during continuous motion, or ram through eight-foot-thick ice, according to Coast Guard records.
Commissioned in 1976 and stuck for years in a shipyard, the refitted Polar Star is back to work.
The ship’s captain also greeted the guests.
“This day has been a long time coming,” said Polar Star Capt. George Pellissier.
Pellissier said interesting things can happen during ice trials after a ship spends three years being refurbished in an industrial shipyard.
“Brief moments of excitement, especially every time my chief engineer came and said, ‘Everything’s shutting down on you again,’ but here we are. I’m biased, but I think the ship looks good and I hope you do as well.”
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