ANCHORAGE - A Coast Guard reconnaissance team is heading to the far north this week to scope out a final frontier that is opening up to ship traffic in a warming Arctic climate.
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The Coast Guard plans to set up an operations base in Barrow as early as next spring to monitor waters now free of ice for longer periods. Weather permitting, a scouting crew today will fly the 1,183-mile trek from the northernmost U.S. town to the North Pole.
"This is a new area for us to do surveillance," said Rear Adm. Arthur E. Brooks, commander of the Coast Guard's Alaska district. "We're going primarily to see what's there, what ships, if any, are up there."
Thinning ice has made travel along the northern coast increasingly attractive, said Brooks, who plans to accompany the crew in the C-130 flight. Tankers and even cruise ships are beginning to venture into the domain once traveled only by indigenous hunters and research vessels such as the Coast Guard ice-cutter Healy.
The ice cap is believed to be warming faster than the rest of the world and shipping routes could become a reality in the Arctic much sooner than previously expected. Recent studies suggest that could happen in as little as a decade.
Another lure is the huge potential for resource development at the top of the world including oil and gas exploration. The promise of untold wealth hidden in the thawing north has launched a race for sovereignty by nations in the circumpolar north.
"This all points to increased traffic," Brooks said. "I've got to get ready for this increased traffic."
He envisions a seasonal base initially, using existing infrastructure in the town of 4,000. Plans are "totally in the beginning stages," but Brooks said the Coast Guard could use a helicopter, small response boats and possibly a fixed-wing plane for traditional missions including assisting ships in distress, security surveillance and search and rescue.
Brooks said he also is in talks with his counterpart in Russia's Far East about managing an expected increase in traffic in the Bering Strait.