It is no secret that the consequences of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine stretch far beyond the European battlefield. In the far north, the eight-country Arctic Council, an international intergovernmental forum that addresses Arctic issues, came to a grinding halt as member countries refused to participate in meetings hosted by or in Russia. After a pause, member countries are pushing ahead, recalibrating as an opening Arctic threatens to overwhelm the weakened and over-extended Russian state.
Off Greenland, the Danish Joint Arctic Command just finished hosting Exercise Argus, an annual Danish-led training event. The exercise, designed to enhance search-and-rescue and marine environmental responses in the Arctic, offers the U.S. Coast Guard an opportunity to obtain some experience operating in Polar waters.
For the exercise, a range of U.S. Coast Guard elements, joined by units from France—an Arctic Council observer state—worked with Danish and Greenland-based assets. The international team prepared for a complex maritime accident, a catastrophe that most Arctic observers suspect will be inevitable in the years ahead.
Before the exercise commenced, a 225-foot seagoing buoy tender, the Coast Guard Cutter Oak (WLB 211) arrived in Sisimiut, Greenland, becoming one of only a handful of U.S. ships that have operated north of the Arctic Circle. At sea, the tender was joined by a French patrol boat, FS Fulmar (P740), and the capable Danish Knud Rasmussen-class patrol boat, HDMS Ejnar Mikkelsen (P571), as well as by smaller local law enforcement and pollution-response craft.
Arctic Disaster Response Exercises Are Needed More Than Ever
“The Arctic is emerging as a new maritime frontier with increasing commerce and human activity” said Vice Admiral Kevin Lunday, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area. “For 150 years, the U.S. Coast Guard cutters have assured U.S. access and protected our enduring national interests in the Arctic. We have done so working together with Alaska Native and indigenous peoples, allies, and partners to ensure maritime governance. Together, we are committed to achieving the goal of a safe, secure, and cooperative Arctic.”
Greenland makes a perfect laboratory to test maritime emergency response. While the local disaster response resources are limited, global interest in Greenland is growing by leaps and bounds. The country expects a record of 463 cruise ship calls this year, only about 30% less than the busy U.S. tourist port of Ketchikan, Alaska. In addition to the tourists, shifting trade routes through the Arctic will increase cargo traffic of all kinds.
In addition to managing the challenge posed by search and rescue operations, maritime accidents off Greenland will occur in fragile ecological areas, threatening Greenland’s productive fishing grounds. As the globe anxiously searches for food in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Greenland’s healthy and well-managed fisheries are producing more than 190,000 tons of protein, an increase of almost 37% since 2008. A poorly-managed maritime accident could decimate Greenland’s fishing industry.
While “Exercise Argus” is a modest annual project, only reinforcing the basic building-blocks of disaster response, it is doing good work at setting a foundation for cooperative disaster response in the Arctic. Last year, a different U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender, USCGC Maple (WLB-207), joined French, Danish and local Greenland units in practicing airborne medical evacuations, damage control, logistical support, and search and rescue in glacial ice fields. The capstone activity simulated a vessel accident and a concomitant pollution release, letting local units test pollution control equipment alongside Coast Guard experts from the Coast Guard’s elite Atlantic Strike Team.
Now that the exercise is a routine project, it is potentially time to start shaking things up. While no opportunity for a pleasant summer team-building effort should be passed up, the participants should think about holding similar exercises in the Spring and Fall, when the days off Greenland are short and the conditions, on occasion, are grim.
Greenland Is Opening
The Greenland coast is a beautiful and untamed place. And while the attraction is understandable, the region is unprepared for the pulse of coastal activity headed towards it.
The challenge is enormous. It is hard to ask any country to make the leap from virtually nothing to suddenly operating infrastructure capable of handling the most modern, super-sized cruise and container vessels in the global commercial fleet. But that’s what the world is asking of Greenland. Today, at least nine construction cranes loom over Nuuk, a city of just 18,000 people. Greenland’s capital is rapidly shifting from a sleepy port consisting of old 1950’s and 1960’s-era harbor infrastructure into a modern container facility and cruise ship hub.
It is a lot for any country to manage. But the maritime challenge off Greenland is even more complex. While Greenland can regulate coastal development and port utilization rates, neither Greenland nor Denmark have much influence on the civilian cargo vessels that just happen to pass by. That’s a problem. The moment the Arctic thaws and opens to general civilian traffic, Greenland will be at the center of many globe-spanning trade routes, an unready host to what will likely be unregulated wild-west.
Unsavory operators—with the full connivance of certain nation-states—are already planning to flood the zone, speeding ahead of regulatory regimes, crushing collaborative regional enforcement mechanisms, overwhelming limited law enforcement resources and degrading local sovereignty.
The Arctic’s rapid transformation will be replete with both risk and opportunity. In the rush for profit, Greenland and other normally law-abiding Arctic stakeholders will face enormous pressure to forgo regulatory prudence. The rush to exploit the massive economic gains from such a sudden expansion of local economic activity simply won’t wait for leisurely-paced governments to catch up. The private sector will move ahead, accepting risk—living with potentially more risk than is prudent. Maritime observers know what will happen. In past maritime gold-rushes, necessary support infrastructure was often left as an afterthought, added only after a catastrophe.
America has experienced something similar in Alaskan waters, but, in comparison to Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, the U.S. state of Alaska has had a far longer time to address a far less complex set of maritime challenges.
In Alaska, change came fast, but the changes, in retrospect, were manageable. While tourist traffic increased quickly over the past few decades, ship-borne travelers had been pulling into the relatively small and scenic “Inside Passage” port of Ketchikan for more than a century. At first, traffic grew slowly; the “large” ships carrying over 1,000 sightseers only began calling in 1970. Fifty years later, multiple super-sized cruise ships regularly tie up at Ketchikan, dwarfing the small village.
And it all works.
The town can address virtually every tourist need. But this didn’t happen all at once. America’s cruise industry had more than fifty years to help build the docks, hotels and other supportive infrastructure needed to support their passengers, while the U.S. Coast Guard and the Alaskan government had more than a century to make things safer, gradually charting passages, marking channels, organizing bases and developing working emergency response protocols. Even then, many worry that modern-day Alaska is still unready to manage a major emergency aboard a large cruise ship.
Today, Ketchikan—a city of about half the size of Nuuk—is bustling. But it hosts everything a busy port full of big ships needs to keep ships moving and safe. It has big Coast Guard base, four PANAMAX-sized cruise ship berths, a good-sized shipyard, substantial vessel maintenance support, a major hospital and airport, and a well-organized disaster prevention and response infrastructure, including vessel and port inspection teams, ready pollution control units, and a wide array of emergency response personnel, trained for all-hazard responses. At Nuuk, enormous cruise ships are clamoring for pier space while the harbor is still working to provide the visitors with the necessary resources. Given the torrid pace, only realistic practice can reveal local readiness gaps.
Exercises like Argus not only help prepare Nuuk for a busy future, but the joint exercises aid the entire region, helping all the Arctic—and a few Polar—stakeholders run through their disaster-response playbooks.
It’s a good start.
To safely manage a thawing Arctic, the U.S., Denmark, and the rest of the Arctic states have an enormous amount to do and very little time to do it. Russian aggression is no reason to put off more ambitious disaster drills in the far North. In fact, Russia’s senseless waste of resources in Ukraine, coupled with the evidence of systemic corruption throughout the Russian state, suggests that the other Arctic stakeholders carry out far bigger capability-building activities far further north than Nuuk.
It is a big change. A year ago, Arctic stakeholders were grappling with a resurgent Russia gradually suborning the Arctic. The situation has reversed itself, and now, Arctic stakeholders are grappling with the far more daunting prospect of prostrate Russia and and the potential for an “open-but-lawless” Arctic.
Wise (formerly TransferWise) is the cheaper, easier way to send money abroad. It helps people move money quickly and easily between bank accounts in different countries. Convert 60+ currencies with ridiculously low fees - on average 7x cheaper than a bank. No hidden fees, no markup on the exchange rate, ever.
How to access the offer?
1- Click here
2- Select “Register''
3- Enter your email address, create a password, and select your country of residence
4- Fill out the required personal information, and the free first transfer offer will be applied automatically.
Benefits of the Multi-Currency Account:
- Free to create online
- Hold 50+ currencies
- Get multiple local bank details in one account (including EU, UK, US)
- Convert currency at the real exchange rate, even on weekends
- Spend whilst travelling on the Wise debit card without high conversion fees
Wise International Transfers:
- $1.5 billion saved by customers every year
- Send money to over 60 target currencies
- Lower fees for larger transfers
- No hidden fees. No bad exchange rates. No surprises.
- Send your money with a bank transfer, or a debit or credit card