Arctic Search and Rescue: The Coast Guard’s Role

ANCHORAGE, Alaska —   It has been said that the Coast Guard’s bread and butter mission is search and rescue. This year the service was credited with more than one million saves since its creation in 1790.  In harsh climates the rescue stories become more harrowing.  In the Arctic they are extreme life and death situations.

“The growth in all Coast Guard missions above the Arctic Circle has already begun,” said Rear Adm. Gene Brooks, Commander of the 17th Coast Guard District, in Juneau. “The Coast Guard is well-suited to address new challenges and opportunities in this pristine, environmentally sensitive and predominantly maritime domain.”

The Coast Guard’s role in the Arctic goes back to 1897.  Eight whaling ships and 300 whalers were trapped in the ice above Point Barrow, the northernmost point in Alaska. The ship owners appealed to President William McKinley to send help and food.  They were concerned the whalers would starve during the winter.  The Revenue Cutter Bear was deployed in late November under Capt. Francis Tuttle. They sailed from Port Townsend, Wash., to assist, having just returned from a Bering Sea Patrol. Upon reaching Cape Vancouver, Alaska, it was obvious the ship could not make it through the ice to the stranded men.

Tuttle put his men ashore.  They enlisted the aide of the local natives and purchased a herd of reindeer. They were to drive the herd overland. Lt. D.H. Jarvis and Lt. Ellsworth Bertholf were in command of what became the Overland Relief Expedition. On Dec. 16, 1897 the men began their expedition using dogsleds, skis and snowshoes. On March 29, 1898 they reached Point Barrow and the stranded whalers. They had traveled 1,500 miles through dark blizzard conditions and below freezing temperatures. They had driven the herd of 382 reindeer to the men successfully, having lost only 66 of them along the way.

This was the earliest example of a Coast Guard rescue in the arctic. In the last 10 years the Coast Guard has had 28 cases in the Arctic region. Of those four were false EPIRB/ELT alerts, four were medevacs off Coast Guard icebreakers, and the rest assorted emergencies.

To date, the primary source of distress calls in the Arctic are stranded whale hunters. Several cases were handled by the Coast Guard in Juneau in coordination with international counterparts who were closer to the scene.

In 1992 the Coast Guard and Russian counterparts embarked on a search for 63 Russian natives who departed Provideniya, Siberia,  June 29 in walrus skin boats for Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.  The last boat to depart Russia arrived a few days later in Gambell but there was no sign of the others. On July 2 Russian surface units located two boats with approximately 43 people aboard. Coast Guard aircraft from Kodiak searching with permission in Russian air space located the last 20 people in Mechig-menskiy Bay on July 3.  They were repairing damage to the boat sustained in 20- to 30 -foot seas.  The natives continued their crossing without further incident.

In May 2000 the Coast Guard Command Center in Juneau ran communications and logistics for a case at the North Pole.  An amateur ham radio operator notified the Coast Guard that a Russian built bi-plane on skis had broken through the ice while landing, stranding five U.S citizens coming from Norway at the pole. A Cessna flying with them provided survival gear and proceeded to Prudhoe Bay with its passengers. Aircraft to the pole is scarce. Calls were made as far as New York, Greenland and Norway. The Canadian Rescue Command Center in Ontario was able to launch an Otter airplane from First Air Charter Service in Resolute Bay, Nunavut Territory, in Northeast Canada.  The crew rescued the five people at the pole and return to Eureka, a small research facility on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut.  The cost to the Coast Guard was only $1,512 dollars for the watch stander’s time but the cost of the charter aircraft was $43,000.

In July 2004 The Coast Guard Command Center in Juneau facilitated a search for four overdue hunters from Nuiqsut Village.  The command center controllers coordinated searches by the Coast Guard Cutter Healy and their embarked HH-65 Dolphin helicopter, Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak C-130s, the 210th Air National Guard Rescue Squadron, and King Air from the North Slope.  The searchers conducted six separate searches covering more than 3,000 miles.  The Coast Guard helicopter located the four men on the beach in the Colville Delta.  They were all safely returned to Nuiqsut.   The cost of running the assets that were used totaled more than $313,000.

These are the standout cases from the last 10 years, and activity in the Arctic is expected to increase substantially over the next ten.

“We are already seeing more mineral, oil, and gas exploration, more vessel traffic, and more scientific missions. We expect this trend to increase dramatically as the United States and other nations focus on the Arctic as an accessible waterway and a rich source of natural resources,” said Brooks.

Currently there is not any marine shipping activity in the Arctic.  Cargo operations take more southern routes but traffic could increase if it proves to be cost effective to use an ice free Northwest Passage.  Oil and supplies to and from the North Slope travel by pipeline, plane or truck currently.

The Coast Guard in District 17 has begun a program of Arctic Domain Awareness to better understand the environment, its challenges and our expanding missions.  In November bi-weekly patrols of the Arctic by aircraft were instituted.  In September the Coast Guard Cutter SPAR commemorated the 1957 Northwest Passage voyage.

“The existence of a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic had tantalized and frustrated explorers and navigators for centuries,” said Lt. j.g. Tim Brown, navigator of the SPAR, in an interview following the voyage.  “The route offers an alternative to transit through the Panama Canal or around South America and can save hundreds of miles off of a ship’s voyage.”

An increase in Arctic traffic yields a possible need for medevacs of sick and injured crew members and passengers.  More traffic increases the potential for a marine casualty aboard ship. The Coast Guard and international partners may be called upon to execute long-range rescues and responses.

If the long history of cooperation in one of Earth’s most extreme environments is any indication, the agencies responsible for rescues will be ready to act. The Coast Guard is investigating the Arctic and considering possibilities for a seasonal forward operating base.  The monetary cost of rescues are high – bringing assets from South-central Alaska or Canada drives up costs, flight hours and response time. The logistical challenges of operating in the Arctic are great, but by looking at the locations and facilities available and drawing on local experience from the natives and the corporations that have operated for generations in Alaska’s great white north, smart decisions can be made about how to be prepared for the worst case scenarios that may come.

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