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US, other nations gather to work on Arctic issues

Admiral Paul Zukunft (right), commandant of the US Coast Guard, took part in the gathering of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, which includes eight nations working to deal with increased shipping traffic in the Arctic.
Admiral Paul Zukunft (right), commandant of the US Coast Guard, took part in the gathering of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, which includes eight nations working to deal with increased shipping traffic in the Arctic.(David L Ryan/Globe Staff)

Coast Guard leaders from the eight nations of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum met at the US Coast Guard Base in Boston on Friday and signed off on a common doctrine of tactics and information sharing for Arctic operations.

“It’s historic. Eight nations came together to get this forum off the ground,” said Admiral Paul Zukunft, commandant of the US Coast Guard. “When we first started meeting, we were strangers. Now, we’re working together for the common good.”

The Arctic Coast Guard Forum was established in 2015 to deal with increased shipping traffic through the Arctic and how coast guards should best respond to disasters. The United States, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Russia are members of the forum.

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“This is a big deal,” said Lieutenant Karen Kutkiewicz of the US Coast Guard. “We’ve been meeting since 2013 to come to an agreement and now it’s all coming together.”

Under forum rules, each member nation assumes leadership for one year. Friday’s meeting marked the transition of chairmanship from the United States to Finland.

“It really helps with the spirit of cooperation,” said Kutkiewicz. “It’s not the US leading this effort; it’s just about who has what resources and how can they be used. It’s always better to make relationships before you need them.”

Officials stress that the goal of the forum is to keep people safe and be prepared to respond to environmental disasters, such as oil spills.

“Look at the sea ice melting,” said Zukunft. “That’s a whole new ocean that people and ships are going to be moving through. The traffic will affect nations close by. We don’t want the Arctic to turn into a war zone, so it’s time to look for new opportunities to work together.”

As the planet’s temperature continues to rise, the Arctic becomes more vulnerable to increased human traffic and potential disaster.

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The Arctic ice shelf was, at its maximum during this past winter, 5.57 million square miles which was the smallest size in the 38 years that the National Snow and Ice Data Center has monitored the levels.

Access through the Arctic cuts shipping times along popular routes, such as from the Netherlands to China, by up to 35 percent, according to National Geographic.

In the face of such savings, companies already are taking advantage of the more expedient lanes, with more than 1.35 million tons of cargo moving through the Arctic in 2017, according to the North Sea Route Information Office.

Commercial shipping traffic isn’t the only issue the coast guards are gearing up to face though.

Yale Environment 360, a magazine associated with Yale University, found that 40 cruise ships carrying more than 3,600 passengers visited the Arctic in 2015.

“We’re going to have a lot of people moving through the Arctic,”said Kutkiewicz. “What happens when there’s an oil spill or a cruise ship is stranded? Who owns the Arctic? In situations like that, having open lines of communication and established doctrine is so important.”

For Zukunft, the forum offers a way to expand the Coast Guard’s ability to save lives.

“Right now, we have limited communications and are limited in the number of ships, due to the [Arctic] conditions,” he said. “I’m hopeful that, with this forum, we can expand our capabilities and be better able to respond in a disaster situation.”

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Andrew Grant can be reached at andrew.grant@globe.com.