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USCG Arctic

The famous polar explorer Richard Byrd once said, “As long as any part of the world remains obscure, the curiosity of man must draw him there, as the lodestone draws the mariner’s needle, until he comprehends its secret.”1

The Coast Guard has a long history of operating in the Arctic spanning from the purchase of Alaska to present day. In 1867 the Revenue Cutter LINCOLN was deployed to Alaskan waters to gain understanding of the newly acquired territory initiating a Coast Guard tradition of Arctic exploration.

Coast Guard icebreakers have supported scientific research in both the Arctic and Antarctic for decades and Coast Guard Cutters HEALY and POLAR STAR proudly continue this legacy. Recently Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, under the 17th Coast Guard District, came into the fold and began providing a platform of opportunity for various members of the scientific community in the form of the HC-130H Hercules. With the increase in focus on the Arctic, the need to understand this foreboding region and to further the efforts to do so have never been greater. It is in the best interest of the country, in line with national, defense and Coast Guard strategic objectives, and necessary to ensure long term success of the Coast Guard, to support scientific research in the Arctic.

The Beginning of Coast Guard Arctic Domain Awareness Flights

Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak began conducting Arctic Domain Awareness (ADA) missions in 2007. The original intent was to increase U.S. and Coast Guard presence in the Arctic via the HC-130H Hercules while simultaneously exposing aircrews to the challenges and intricacies of operating in this high-latitude environment. The earliest missions were relatively simple, if any operation in the Arctic can be labeled as such, flying the Alaska coastline, noting strategic airfields and geographic points along the way. There were, however, missions of higher visibility such as the October 2007 flight to the North Pole and gradually they evolved to encompass numerous objectives including scientific support.

In 2008, University of Washington scientists, many of whom had worked extensively from Coast Guard icebreakers in the past, reached out to the Coast Guard 17th District and Air Station Kodiak to investigate the feasibility of deploying a series of data collecting buoys from the ADA flights for the interagency-sponsored International Arctic Buoy Program (IABBP). With keen foresight the 17th District supported this request and in 2009 the first delivery of an Airborne eXpendable Ice Beacon (AXIB) by a Coast Guard HC-130H was accomplished.

The deployment of this automated floating weather station, which transmits its data through the Iridium satellite communications system for years at a time, initiated a burgeoning partnership and marked the beginning of a new Arctic exploration opportunity for the scientific community.

The Growing Need for Arctic Accessibility for the Scientific Community

The current National Strategy for the Arctic Region states that, “Vast areas of the Arctic Ocean are unexplored, and we lack much of the basic knowledge necessary to understand and address Arctic issues. The changes in the Arctic cannot be understood in isolation and must be viewed in a global context.2

Furthermore the Coast Guard’s Arctic Strategy, released in May of 2013 describes the need to “assist government-sponsored scientific exploration to develop a greater understanding of the changing Arctic environment3

These statements highlight the fact that there is a significant amount about the Arctic that is unknown, and science is working to keep up with this changing environment.

Every year the Arctic sea ice cover expands during the fall, winter and spring to a maximum extent essentially covering the whole Arctic Ocean. Over the summer, it retracts to a minimum in September. The most remarkable aspect of Arctic environmental change is that the minimum (September) extent has declined faster than climate models predict over the last two decades, reaching a new record minimum in 2012,”4 said Dr. James Morison, principal investigator of the Seasonal Ice Zone Reconnaissance Survey (SIZRS) project.

The explanation for this observed extra-rapid decline is a critical scientific question. The absence or presence of ice in any particular place in the Arctic is controlled by two different factors, thermodynamics and the kinetic effects of wind and sea currents. Measuring these two factors has become increasingly essential for answering that question. The balance of these two factors form the base of much of the scientific exploration of the Arctic, but the way in which they do or do not work together has a great effect on ice extent. If a major storm event forces ice out of the Arctic Basin, the greater amount of exposed, open water present allows more solar radiation to be absorbed into the sea rather than being reflected off a frozen surface. This added heat melts more ice from below creating more open water in a vicious cycle termed ice-albedo feedback. Further, the reduction in ice thickness and coverage makes the ice more responsive to the wind and more wind energy that is converted into wave action, which can further break up the ice. It is also theorized that the increase in ocean heat can affect the growth of ice well into the next year.

The increasing sea ice retreat in the summer increases the potential for ship transport and offshore resource exploitation off the coast of Alaska, and this increases the need for better predictions of ice conditions in the seasonal ice zone. The quality of these model-based predictions is critically dependent on knowing the initial conditions at the beginning of the melt season. However, the vast bulk of measurements are made in late August and September when conditions allow traditional icebreaker operations. This limit precludes surface-based observations in the critical May-June timeframe. According to Dr. Morison,

Only ocean sections with aircraft expendable probes and buoys beginning in May or June repeated throughout the melt season can give the information we need to understand and ultimately predict the evolution of the seasonal ice zone.”5

Coast Guard Hercs Answer the Call

Building on early successes, ties with the University of Washington and the Coast Guard through Air Station Kodiak have grown increasingly intertwined. The number of missions has expanded dramatically from one or two in the first test years to nine missions in 2013. To date five research sensors are deployed by Kodiak based Hercules crews.

The previously mentioned AXIB and the Upper Temperature of the Ocean (UpTempO) are buoys that are designed to survive for months at a time sending vital data on the atmospheric and ocean via satellite. The Aircraft Expendable Conductivity Temperature Depth (AXCTD) and Aircraft Expendable Current Profiler (AXCP) are probes that are deployed in leads in the ice at strategic stations in the Beaufort Sea and radio back to receivers on the aircraft information on the water’s temperature, salinity and current down to a depth of 1000 meters. The DropSonde measures atmospheric condition as it drops through the air column from an altitude of 10,000 feet.

Concurrently in 2009 Air Station Kodiak began supporting an inter-government partnership with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division working on their Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gasses (CCGG) aircraft project. This mission is also supported by the ADA mission flights and consists both real-time measurements of methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and ozone as well as flask samples that are sent back to Boulder, CO where the NOAA’s CCGG group is based. The primary goal of these aircraft-based measurements is to understand how the large changes observed in the Arctic climate impact emissions of these gases in the Arctic. In particular the NOAA’s CCGG group is most interested in documenting changes in emissions of methane and carbon. As with the ice-albedo feedback, enhanced methane or carbon dioxide emissions with a warmer climate would result in more warming because both methane and carbon dioxide are strong greenhouse gases. Although some studies have suggested methane emissions are increasing with warmer climates current measurements of methane in the Arctic by NOAA have not confirmed this.

By measuring different trace gasses NOAA hopes to link measured gas concentrations to natural and anthropogenic processes. For example if a high concentration of methane is recorded the scientists can use the presence or absence of other gases such propane or ethane to determine if of the release was due to thawing permafrost or thermogic processes like natural gas leaks that will also have large amounts of ethane and propane. There are a plethora of different processes that affect the gas concentrations in the atmosphere. These need to be studied and understood before trends and baselines can be established and before a declaration of change can be made. Air Station Kodiak’s ADA flights are providing the data needed to model these.

The ADA mission is a great opportunity to monitor what is happening in Alaska. Flights on Coast Guard HC-130H aircraft have given us access to multiple regions of Alaska, all reacting in different ways to the changing climate. Flying from March to November gives us a good snapshot of the entire seasonal cycle for [critical regions that are represented throughout] the Arctic,”6 said Dr. Colm Sweeney, head of the Global Monitoring Division’s CCGG Aircraft Program.

This diversity of measuring equipment provides a large, effectively simultaneous picture of conditions over a desired locale in the Arctic. A typical ADA mission might see the deployment of an ocean going buoy followed by AXCTD, AXCP and DropSonde deliveries along a longitudinal line at up to six different stations along with taking the standard 24 CCGG air samples. Shift this effort 10 degrees of longitude on the following day’s mission and an equivalent amount of data was collected to an entire ship-based expedition requiring weeks. And it can be done months before sea ice conditions allow the first research icebreakers on the scene. Combine this unparalleled collecting ability with the fact that Hercules flights are feasible from early March to November and suddenly the Coast Guard is in a position to facilitate unprecedented understanding of the Arctic environment.

Payoff for the Coast Guard

It is widely accepted that with the retreat of Arctic ice will come increased commercial vessel activity taking opportunity of beneficial sea routes, newly exposed resources and a growing tourism market. September 2012 marked the least extent of sea ice in recorded memory.7 Only four vessels utilized the Northern Sea Route in 2010, but 2012 saw 46 transits.8 Moreover, increased oil exploration drilling is scheduled to begin as early as summer of 2014. The Coast Guard will be required to increase capability and presence in order to respond future operational needs. This need is rapidly approaching and operators are facing unpredictable conditions. As any aviator or mariner knows it will be absolutely vital for crews to have accurate environmental and weather forecasts in order to safely complete a myriad of possible missions.

One of the most vital will be the ability to predict the ice edge. The National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan states:

Sea ice forecasting is one of the most urgent and timely issues in the Arctic region. To ensure the best tactical and long-term ice forecasts are available for safe operations and planning, Federal agencies will work together to better quantify the rates of sea ice melt and regrowth, understand shifting patterns of distribution of ice, develop better maps of the ice edge, expand participation in the sea ice observation program, and coordinate with international partners to enable better model-based forecasting over larger areas. Improved observations will contribute to improved forecasts, which will better inform Arctic maritime safety and security activities.”9

The ability to understand a shifting ice edge will enable planners to adjust the Coast Guard’s Arctic posture for each season accordingly.

Having accurate forecasts of the weather and sea state will be important in responding to incidents such as search and rescue cases and oil spills. The ability to predict conditions in the marine domain is listed as one of the top research priorities for the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Joint Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology. In its Ocean Research and Implementation Plan this is highlighted: “Enhancing environmental observation, characterization, and forecasting of ocean and waterway conditions (e.g., currents, turbidity, surface waves, sea-ice extent, lake levels, biogeochemical conditions) across the global ocean is necessary for safe and efficient marine operations.”10

With the increase in commercial activity already outpacing the Arctic modelers the Coast Guard is faced with operating in an area without the benefits of these accurate forecasts. Furthermore, increased awareness will not only aid operationally the Coast Guard’s Arctic efforts but will assist in the modernization of Arctic governance, a mainstay of Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp’s Arctic strategy.

By providing stalwart support of this scientific effort the Coast Guard is poised to be amongst the first to benefit from the coming revelations, ultimately increasing the service’s effectiveness at carrying out its 11 statutory missions.


The U.S. is an Arctic nation and this is a role that can neither be shirked nor ignored. It is vital that the nation and its agencies embrace this status and become a leading figure as Arctic development takes a frontal position on the international stage. Supporting scientific research in the Arctic is undoubtedly essential and in line with national priorities. The president has outlined in his National Ocean Policy that greater scientific understanding with respect to Arctic environmental conditions must be obtained.11 The National Security Strategy of May 2010 aligns with this policy by directing U.S. support of scientific research in the Arctic.12 Admiral Papp’s vision has clearly placed the Coast Guard as leader in the advancement of U.S. national interests in Arctic waters. Air Station Kodiak and its intrepid Hercules crews are spearheading this effort with support from the 17th District. The relationships and partnerships within the scientific community that Air Station Kodiak has meticulously cultivated could forever change the understanding of the Arctic. Every piece of new data collected will further the nation’s, and by extension the world’s, ability to see with clarity the Arctic environment and the impact it may have on us all.


  2. National Strategy for the Arctic Region, The White House, May 10, 2013. Pg 8 

  3. U.S. Coast Guard Arctic Strategy, May 2013, Pg 25 

  4. Interview with Dr. James Morison, University of Washington, 13 September 2013 

  5. Interview with Dr. James Morison, University of Washington, 13 September 2013 

  6. Interview with Dr. Colm Sweeny,National Oceonographic and Atmospheric Association, 2 October 2013 

  7. U.S. Coast Guard Arctic Strategy, May 2013, Pg 9 

  8. U.S. Coast Guard Arctic Strategy May 2013, Pg 20 (“46 Vessels through the Northern Sea Route,” Barents Observer, 23 Nov. 2012. 

  9. National Ocean Council, National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan. Apr. 2013. Pg 12 

  10. Charting the Course for Ocean Science in the United States for the Next Decade, NSCT Joint Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology, January 26, 2007, Pg 26 

  11. National Ocean Council, National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan. Apr. 2013. Pg 27 

  12. “National Security Strategy”, May 2010, The White House, Washington, DC, pg. 50. 

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