Can the Coast Guard cope up North?

Ready or not, the long-discussed new Arctic reality has arrived.

The Coast Guard knows Alaska better than anyone, but even it may struggle to adapt to operating at the very top of the world.

Coast Guard leaders have been warning for years that there would come a day when melting Arctic ice meant more commercial and tourist vessels would make their way to waters they could never before reach. That reality is upon us now, and despite a steady stream of requests by the Coast Guard for help with its Arctic rescue and patrol responsibilities, nothing seems to have improved.

No less an outlet than the New York Times reported Sunday about the Coast Guardsmen who are getting set to spend more time operating up north, and the challenges their facing with even basic jobs. Wrote the Times’ Kirk Johnson:

When the United States Coast Guard arrived in this remote corner of the Arctic this month to begin its biggest patrol presence in the waters north of Alaska, only one helicopter hangar was available for rent, and it was not, to put it mildly, the Ritz.

Built by someone apparently more familiar with the tropics than the tundra, the structure had sunk several feet into the permafrost, with the hangar entrance getting lower as the building sank. Squeezing two H-60 helicopters into the tiny space? Think of parallel parking a stretch limousine. And for this — the only game in town, take it or leave it — the owner demanded $60,000 a month, a price that made Coast Guard leaders gasp.

“Not perfect, but you’ve got to learn to do it somehow,” Josh Harris, a Coast Guard aircraft mechanic, said as he stood surveying his first and not entirely straight attempt at towing in an aircraft. In the land of the midnight sun, the Coast Guard’s learning curve is steep indeed.

What’s got to be maddening for the Coast Guard is that no one anywhere should have been surprised by this. Its leaders have been frank and open about its creaking, aging fleet; about the way Arctic temperatures can make airplanes’ fuel start to harden; and their almost Marines-and-Ospreys-style fatalism that the increased traffic up North could mean that a ship sinks or has an accident and the Coast Guard may not be able to get there.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp earlier this year went as far as to warn that he would have to let more drugs enter the United States because he did not have enough ships to patrol for Eastern Pacific and Caribbean smugglers and also cover the North. That fell on Washington like a a feather and did about as much good.

Problem is, all the churn about U.S. capability in the Arctic is no longer just theoretical. As the Times’ Johnson wrote, petro-giant Shell is expanding its presence up there whether the Coast Guard and Washington are ready or not:

Shell Oil, driven by a search for profits, is preparing for its first drilling operations next month in two spots northeast and northwest of Barrow. The environmental group Greenpeace, vehemently opposed to Arctic drilling and its risks, has sent its own ship north for what the group says is a research project. Freight haulers have been streaming through, seeking a shortcut across the top of the world, and passenger cruise ships loaded with tourists have started to stake out new routes.

Shell plans to have a daily Boeing 737 flight between Barrow and Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, just to ferry personnel. The company will also have its own helicopter service from Barrow — population 4,000 — to the ocean drilling sites. The Coast Guard, in conjunction with the Navy and other agencies, is planning an oil spill cleanup response exercise on the water early next month.

“More traffic up there means more people,” said Cmdr. Kevin Riddle, the captain of the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley, which was preparing to deploy north this month from its base in Kodiak, Alaska. With cruise ships full of hundreds of passengers potentially needing rescue, tanker ships going adrift in coastal areas or getting stuck in sea ice, and the energy boom itself, Commander Riddle said, once largely empty waters are getting more crowded.

“If we don’t have a presence up there,” he said, “how are we going to respond adequately?”