ANCHORAGE - A Coast Guard reconnaissance team is heading to the far north this week to scope out a new frontier that the warming Arctic climate is opening to ship traffic.
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The Coast Guard could set up an operations base in Barrow as early as next spring to monitor waters that are now free of ice for longer periods of the year. Weather permitting, a scouting crew will fly 1,183 miles Thursday from Barrow, 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 recent studies suggest shipping routes could open in the Arctic in as little as a decade. Just a few years ago, scientists predicted it would take a century for the ice to melt.
The melting could also open up oil and gas exploration - a prospect that has nations in the circumpolar north racing to declare their sovereignty in the region.
"This all points to increased traffic," Brooks said. "I've got to get ready for this increased traffic."
Brooks hopes to start with a seasonal base that would rely on existing infrastructure in Barrow, a 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 to assist ships in distress, conduct surveillance, and run search and rescue missions.
He said he is in talks with his counterpart in Russia's Far East about managing an expected increase in traffic in the Bering Strait. Ultimately, he hopes to set up a cooperative relationship with Russia's border guard in the Arctic.
But Russia, like other northern countries, has taken a competitive stance. In August the nation sent submarines to place a Russian flag under the North Pole. Canada and Denmark also are looking to claim waters up to the North Pole. All three nations claim the seabed is part of their continental shelves under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The U.S. has long snubbed the high seas treaty, which recognizes sovereign rights over a nation's continental shelf out to 200 nautical miles, and beyond, if a country can supply proof to substantiate its geographic claims.
President Bush is pushing the Senate to ratify the treaty and join the more than 150 nations currently party to it. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has held recent hearings on the issue and a full Senate vote could come by year's end - a process being closely watched by the State Department.
"As the president has stated, joining . . . gives the United States a seat at the table when it comes to rights that are vital to U.S. interests," said State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson.
In preparation for ratification, scientists are mapping eight areas around the United States to gauge the limits of the nation's continental shelf. Because of its vast spread and resource potential, an area above Alaska called the Chukchi Cap is of particular interest, according to State Department officials.
This summer, researchers aboard the cutter Healy completed a third round of surveys of the Arctic sea floor north of Alaska. At least one more polar expedition will be necessary, said the project's lead scientist, oceanographer Larry Mayer of the University of New Hampshire.
In this year's study, researchers were surprised by ice that was "very forgiving," allowing them to cover a far larger area than anticipated, according to Mayer.
"The ice was much more broken up and receded than in other years," he said.
Mayer would welcome the Coast Guard expanding its Arctic duties beyond research vessels.
"From someone who works there all the time, it would be nice if the Coast Guard had a presence there, just for safety reasons," he said.