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My great Arctic-Alaskan adventure

KODIAK, Alaska — I spent yesterday flying through the Arctic Circle with the U.S. Coast Guard.

As part of my story about how the Arctic fits into our national security framework, I got to board one of the Coast Guard’s “Arctic Domain Awareness” flights, conducted twice a month between spring and early winter to keep an eye on the region.

So at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, a Coast Guard aviation unit and I left the 17th Coast Guard District base in Kodiak, Alaska, and headed due north to Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the U.S. Then we followed the ice and Alaskan coastline until it brought us through the Bering Strait and back down in the scenic (and cold) Kodiak Island. (Story continued below photo gallery)


As you might guess, we saw a lot of ice, nearly nine hours worth of ice. But before you snicker, you should know that the ice was notably thinner than it used to be, according to my guides. Much of the ice we saw was “first-year,” “pancake” ice. It is thin brand-new forming ice, quite unlike the thicker multi-year ice that I think most people imagine when we talk about the Arctic. You can’t walk on it or rely on it. Satellites often can’t even detect it.

So don’t let the surface quantity of ice that we saw fool you. The most recent Arctic Report Card, distributed by NOAA, says that the Arctic will likely never go back to the days of yesteryear when the thick slabs and glaciers were commonplace.

Instead, today, the extremes in the Arctic have just become more, well, extreme. The ice recedes further and further north during the summer–2007 was the lowest amount of ice in the Arctic in recorded history–while it freezes over further and further south in the winter time–it reached one of the most southern tips of Alaska, Cold Bay, last year.

From the airplane as I stared at Mt. McKinley, I thought  about what a true treat it is to see the vast frozen frontier  as it begins to solidify for the winter. (I’m told that the visibility just happened to be unusually incredible yesterday.) Despite our country’s rightful title as an Arctic nation, most Americans will never have the chance to see the far North in their lifetime, in this distant and removed state of Alaska.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t starting to adapt and take to our position in the uncertain region into account. The 17th Coast Guard District is only one example of it.

Other things I learned in the nine hours while onboard the C130:

  • Flying conditions are so extreme and unpredictable that we had to pack overnight bags before we boarded in case we had to land in Anchorage instead of Kodiak due to poor weather
  • Musk Ox must have incredible camouflage, or I was being hoaxed
  • C130s are loud, cold with “bathrooms” I’m glad I didn’t experience
  • Small villages in northern Alaska are really as remote as they say they are
  • The Coast Guard takes special precaution to not disturb the wildlife in areas identified as places where the indigenous people hunt
  • Some C130s, like the one I was on, are several decades old and require a crew of about a dozen people to ensure everything is working properly– the technology is old and not computerized. (The very recently installed new navigation Garmin GPS was a novelty much enjoyed by the pilots.)
  • The Coast Guard makes a mean cinnamon bun at 20,000 feet
  • I’ll be writing more about my Great Alaskan Adventure as I travel from Kodiak to Anchorage, and then more in-depth  in a few weeks about how climate change up here is impacting our national security, the way we do operations and how we position ourselves for the coming frenzy of human activity in the thawing north pole. (Hint: It’s more than just taking awesome flights and almost seeing Russia.)


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    Coast Guard admiral wants more resources in Arctic

    Healy in the Arctic

    Researchers aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy doing research in the Arctic this summer (credit: NASA)

    The Coast Guard pointman for the High North, Rear Admiral Christopher C. Colvin, wants more equipment, research and preparation for the increasingly traveled Arctic, according to this Associated Press story in the Washington Post today.

    Outlining the growing transit of international ships and visitors through the rapidly warming region, the story clearly illustrates how climate change is making operations more complicated and unpredictable for the U.S. military.

    According to the story, “CG admiral asks for Arctic resources” : … Continue Reading

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