BARROW, Alaska - The Coast Guard has officially launched aviation operations here, the northernmost city in the United States.
In a place where whale bones are scattered in front yards, pipelines run aboveground, and trash cans are spray-painted with positive messages like "kids are our future," the Coast Guard is something new.
For years, the 4,200 people of Barrow sailed the Arctic without the Coast Guard. The North Slope Borough search and rescue team took care of its own people, and the Coast Guard was called only in extreme cases. Times have changed.
Barrow is surrounded by open tundra and the Arctic Ocean. As sea ice continues to disappear, the city will begin to experience increasing boat traffic, both from companies planning to drill for oil and travelers looking for a shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
That is why the Coast Guard sent an aviation team more than 900 miles from its home in Kodiak to Barrow: It needs to be prepared if something goes wrong.
Arctic Shield 2012 is the result of that preparation. The Coast Guard has sent outreach teams into the North Slope for several years, but this is its biggest deployment yet and the first that will allow it to provide around-the-clock search and rescue.
The Coast Guard sent two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters with support teams to Barrow to reduce response time to incidents in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. They arrived in Barrow two weeks ago.
From July to October, the Coast Guard will have the two teams working out of a small rented hangar at Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport.
The Coast Guard's first official day of search and rescue operations was Monday, the same day a new team arrived.
"We just started to bring people up for (search and rescue missions)," Lt. Randall Black told the Kodiak Daily Mirror (http://is.gd/hFTR8e).
Black is one of the pilots making the 900-mile commute to Barrow this summer, bringing parts, fuel and people from Air Station Kodiak. The Coast Guardsmen are stationed at the Barrow location for two to three weeks at a time, then replaced by a new group. It's a rotation used by North Slope oil workers and now taken up by the Coast Guard. The aviation detachment uses 15 people; the supporting communications detachment has 11.
Black estimates around 15 trips will be made to Barrow, unless more are needed. "We're the engine that makes everything run, and we enjoy that," he said.
Operating out of Barrow is difficult, even for pilots used to Kodiak's ferocious conditions. Barrow combines flat tundra, strong winds and low cloud cover, which makes flying difficult. "There's a learning curve," Lt. Tim Williams said. "It's a new area."
Logistically, the Coast Guard has to make sure it has the right equipment and supplies in advance. Anything not on hand has to be flown from Kodiak, causing delays. "We're maximizing what we have," Williams said. "If a helicop ter needs a part it takes at least three hours to get here."
The Coast Guard has also been working to minimize the impact it has on residents. Barrow has few places for temporary workers to stay, and limited facilities for people who don't live year-round. Adding 26 people and two hungry helicopters to the town might otherwise put an added burden things like grocery stores.
"There is a lot of subsistence here," Williams said. "We don't want to interfere with that so we take operations outside of the town."
The team has done some community outreach over the last few weeks to help Barrow residents understand why the Coast Guard is working there.
An open house last week gave residents the opportunity to Coast Guardsmen and the North Slope Borough rescue team, then look over their aircraft and equipment.
Coast Guard Lt. Vincent Jansen also gave a briefing during a North Slope Borough assembly meeting to discuss the Coast Guard's planned aviation operations around the area.
"For the first week and a half everybody didn't know what to expect," Lt. Tony Dewinter said. "We've been talking to people. We go out into the community, and everyone has questions for us."
The Coast Guard group who flew back to Kodiak on Monday said the community's response has been welcoming.
"Everyone was really nice," Coast Guard aviation electronics technician Jason Pope said. "We'd walk to work and they'd talk to us."
Extensive ice coverage has meant ship traffic is slow to arrive in the Arctic this summer. Conditions are expected to change in the next few weeks, and when boats arrive, the Coast Guard may have a chance to put that talk into action