But Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo said even if funding were available now, it would be 10 years before a Coast Guard icebreaker could be operating in the Arctic.
In a speech to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Thursday, Ostebo said an ice breaker in the region may be even more important as ice recedes.
“Less ice in the Arctic, or an open Arctic, does not mean an ice-free Arctic. In fact you could make the argument that you really need more ice breakers now than ever, because you don’t know when the ice is coming in and out,” he said. “Every time you go up there you have the opportunity to run into ice that has broken off from somewhere else. The margins of the season up there are always going to be in flux and the opportunity for somebody to get stuck in the ice is there.”
As more traffic moves into the Arctic, requiring a greater Coast Guard presence, Ostebo said an icebreaker has to be part of the solution. He said he’s often asked if the Coast Guard should build an air station and a port in the region.
“My answer to that is if I have an icebreaker I almost don’t have to do that. Why? Because if I have an icebreaker with a flight deck, I can put helicopters on it. I don’t need a port if I have a place where I can take care of a whole lot of our folks. If I have the ability to respond from offshore and move that response capability around, that may actually be better,” he said.
Ostebo said the Northern Sea Route into the Bering Strait seems to be getting the most traffic. He called it a very busy area with poorly charted waters and no formal vessel traffic separation schemes to manage the traffic.
He said some of the largest ore and chemical vessels he’s ever seen are transiting the passage. Some are carrying more than a million gallons of fuel and would pose huge problems if there were ever a collision or grounding, he said.