KOTZEBUE, Alaska - Cold, dangerous and unpredictable, the ocean waters at the top of the world have been known to sink ships and swallow lives.
But the ice is melting in the Arctic and it’s opening up new opportunities for tourism. Cruise liners are setting new courses through previously unchartable waters. It’s new traffic that has international search and rescue forces on standby.
“We loaded up a team of ourselves, pararescuemen, onto a C-17 and flew out of Elmendorf [Air Force Base] to Kotzebue for a simulated mass casualty event,” said Alaska Air National Guardsman Christopher Bowerfind. “Thirty patients [are] on the ground needing medical care, extended medical care with no way to really have quick access to a hospital.”
Working with four team members, Bowerfind coordinates rescue efforts a few miles outside of the rural coastal village in northwest Alaska. Using satellite communications, the team calls in a Canadian rescue helicopter to pick up the victims as part of the mock exercise.
“This is kind of our demonstration of our ability to sustain operations without additional support for 24, 48 [or] 72 hours at times,” said Bowerfind.
For two days, the training covered the simulated emergency of a 250 passenger adventure-class cruise liner in distress in the Bering Strait. Passengers were extracted from the boat, treated for immediate wounds on shore and eventually flown to the nearest regional hospital for more advanced care.
“It's a unique environment because we don't have all the services readily available like we would in the Lower 48,” said US Coast Guard Commander Mark Wilcox.
Russian and Canadian crews also participated in the exercise. Arctic Council U.S. representative Admiral Bob Papp said the joint effort is an example of the increased cooperation between Arctic nations following the 2011 signing of the international agreement on aeronautical and maritime search and rescue.
“You bring the countries working together so that when a real emergency happens, you're not meeting people for the first time,” said Papp. “You have a chance to find out what your problems are, get lessons learned and advocate for the resources you need to improve for the future.”
The exercise took place just as the Crystal Serenity cruise ship passed by Kotzebue. The vessel can carry more than a thousand passengers and is marketed as the first luxury cruise liner to sail from Alaska to New York City through the Northwest Passage.