Diplomacy in the Middle of the Arctic Ocean

Posted by Brian Van Pay
September 12, 2008
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy

About the Author: Brian Van Pay is a Maritime Geographer with the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. He is currently on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy on the Arctic Ocean.

On the morning of September 6, I boarded a helicopter in Barrow, Alaska, and took a five minute ride that landed on the Healy, a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker which was anchored a few miles offshore. I was joined by 17 scientists as additional helicopter flights followed. After checking into my room and getting a series of safety briefings, the Healy and its 90-member crew, departed with a fresh science crew (and fresh lettuce) for its 26-day mission.

From our departure in Barrow, Alaska, we headed almost due north. We hit the ice on our second day, and we found a landscape more varied than you might imagine. It was filled with ice of different ages and forms whose colors range from a blinding white to greasy black to bright turquoise. Want to see the view from the front of the ship? Take a look for yourself here.

The purpose of this mission is to collect data that will help define the extent of the U.S. continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. This cruise is especially exciting, because we will soon be working alongside Canada’s icebreaker, the Louis S. St. Laurent (or simply the Louis), which is similarly working to define Canada's continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean.

Under the Convention on the Law of the Sea, every coastal nation automatically receives 200 nautical miles of continental shelf. However, a nation is entitled to additional continental shelf if it meets the necessary criteria defined in the Convention. Typically we call that portion of shelf beyond 200 nautical miles the "extended continental shelf." In fact, this mission will take the Healy more than 600 miles north of Alaska to collect the data we need to determine the exact extent of the U.S. extended continental shelf in the Arctic.

My role on the ship is part scientist and part policymaker. I'll advise the science team and the ship's Captain and crew on the types of data we are seeking to fulfill the requirements necessary to define the U.S. continental shelf. I'll also "stand watch" to examine the data as it comes in and make any necessary adjustments. This is a perfect fit for someone like me -- a former scientist turned policy wonk.

After several planning meetings in Canada and the United States and numerous conference calls, it's great to see this mission finally underway. I have had some exciting experiences and interesting travel since joining the State Department seven years ago, but this assignment tops them all. Check back in as I post more entries on DipNote on why this mission is important, the type of data we are collecting, the cooperative effort with Canada, and life onboard an icebreaker in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

Editor's Note: Read Brian's next entry from aboard the Healy.



Wisconsin, USA
September 13, 2008

Kim in Wisconsin writes:

Keep up the great work, Brian!

Bryn Y.
September 13, 2008

Bryn writes:

That is awesome!

Tennessee, USA
September 13, 2008

Joe in Tennessee writes:

1. Kinda late...

in August: ...With the polar icecaps melting, and oil prices at record highs, a scramble for the Arctic's resources is underway that will transform this forgotten backwater. And Russia is leading the charge, as it signalled last year when a submarine sailed two and a half miles beneath the Polar icecap to the north of Spitsbergen and planted a titanium flag on the seabed.

"We were very proud when our flag was planted under the North Pole. We had a little celebration here," said Yelena Gnezdilova, a local hotelier, whose rooms command fabulous views of glaciers and icy mountains across a shimmering blue fjord. "Here we hope that Russia will develop the Arctic and that our town will play a part in that, but we Russians have always been here. Our pomors tried to master this land 400 years ago."

So, the oil belongs to Russia and we just put a ship there to watch?......watch what?...three moves behind on the oil end...who didn't see this comming? From the pipelines in the Middle East: Iran to Afganistan to Iraq, including the train and 40% of all offshore oil rights in Iraq....

It makes you wonder who cares more about their countries future in all honesty.

United States
September 15, 2008

T in the Midwest writes:

Anyone can drop a flag to the ocean bottom and claim ownership. You are going about it the right way, keep pushing forward.

Wisconsin, USA
September 14, 2008

Kevin in Wisconsin writes:

Hey Brian,

Great blog! You da man baby!

Wisconsin, USA
September 15, 2008

Adam in Wisconsin writes:

Mr Van Pay,

Could you comment on the current air temperature and how the ice conditions compare to your trip from last year? The conditions appear to be very overcast.

New Mexico, USA
September 15, 2008

Eric in New Mexico writes:

So the Russians found the only place left on Earth without a flag for going where no man has gone before....and about as difficult to get to as the moon.

Symbolic as it is, it does not represent a survey marker of terrirorial boundary.

Just as the American flag placed on the moon wasn't.

Nor the flag placed at the South pole.

Interests in Antartica were resolved to the satisfaction and notable cooperation among nation's scientific teams in a hostile envirionment over the years.

No reason the Arctic should prove any different if folks are reasonable about sharing potential resources.

Wisconsin, USA
September 17, 2008

Michelle in Wisconsin writes:

Brian, it's always so interesting to hear about your adventures from your Aunt Sherry (who's fabulous, by the way!), but it's really incredible to read about it from your own words from your blog. I especially liked the part about "checking" into your room, as if you're at the Hilton. I'm guessing the maid doesn't come and turn down the sheets and leave you a mint on your pillow, but what an incredible experience!! Keep up the great work and maybe I'll see you in December wrapping Christmas presents!!

District Of Columbia, USA
September 17, 2008

James in Washington, DC writes:

Sounds like a very interesting trip. I noticed no mention of climate change or the security implications of a melting Arctic (resource competition, rising sea level). Can you discuss? Many thanks.


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