Aging fleet slows U.S. in Arctic "chess game"

26 September 2007 | 04:59 Code : 15413 Geoscience events
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The Coast Guard cutter Healy breaks ice to support scientific research in the Arct....

  The Coast Guard cutter Healy breaks ice to support scientific research in the Arctic Ocean near Barrow, Alaska, in July 2006. The cutter, one of three based in Seattle, is eight years old and can continuously break through 4-foot-thick ice. It was designed mainly for Arctic science. The Polar Star, based in Seattle, is in "caretaker status," essentially docked to save money. It and the PolarSea were built in Seattle in the 1970s. The PolarSea remains fully staffed and operational.A Coast Guard fireman relays information from the Polar Sea's engine room back to the main control room of the Seattle-based cutter.When Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen imagines a melting Arctic, it's not a pretty sight: Cruise ships collide with icebergs. Oil tankers and ore ships run aground. Foreign fishermen sneak into American waters.Even worse, the nation's top Coast Guard officer fears he may not have the tools to respond to these future crises.At a time when Russia, Canada, Norway and other Arctic nations are scrambling to stake out turf in the still-frozen north, the United States' two most powerful icebreakers sit at a dock in Seattle, nearing the end of their working lives.One is manned by a skeleton crew. Both are about 30 years old, and nothing is on the drawing board to replace them."We have the responsibility for maritime safety, stewardship and security," Allen said. "But how do you respond up there if you have no presence?"Allen and others are urging the U.S. government to prepare now for the changes global warming will bring to the Arctic. The nation needs to figure out how to protect American interests, handle disasters and enforce laws in a region that will still be ice-choked much of the year, he said."Icebreakers will have an important role to play," Allen said.A National Research Council panel concluded last year that planning and construction should start immediately on two new icebreakers. "U.S. icebreaking capability is now at risk of being unable to support national interests," the panel warned.Each of the new ships could cost $750 million or more, experts estimate.The Arctic ice cap shrank to a record low this summer, opening up the Northwest Passage along Canada's fringe for the first time.Scientists say the ice is melting much faster than global-warming models predict, with the possibility that the Arctic Ocean will be completely ice-free in summer by 2050.But the region will remain frozen in winter. And the Arctic's notoriously variable weather also means that entrepreneurs, tourists, fishermen and explorers lured into the area by its beauty and the promise of profit are likely to encounter bad weather and ice year-round.

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