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Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs
the rest of the world, allowing, for example, doctors to render care using telemedical technologies and northern hunters to travel with increased safety using global positioning systems as navigation aids (NRC, 2004). In addition to many benefits of advances in technology and communications, rapid cultural change has also been accompanied by some health and social problems in some northern communities, as it has in lower latitudes (NRC, 2004). A significant need for Natives of the Arctic is timely, effective healthcare delivery methods, particularly for diagnostic and acute care, plus regular dental care. More research is needed to better understand how new technologies can help northern indigenous peoples preserve their own cultural heritage, rather than allowing the same technologies to simply play a homogenizing role.
Safety is a key issue for Native Alaskans especially during the spring and fall hunting period. The availability of U.S. government assets (e.g., polar icebreakers) in the region, particularly helicopter support, would be an important aspect for local communities. Of course, an increased U.S. Coast Guard presence in the region would have to be coordinated with local interests and concerns. Recently, much progress has been achieved in the planning and execution of U.S. Coast Guard HEALY cruises in northern Alaska waters. Mechanisms for accommodating overlapping and conflicting interests have been developed, while at the same time increasing outreach to Native coastal communities and enhancing local awareness of U.S. Coast Guard services.
The key concerns identified by residents of the North Slope of Alaska (in the written record, www.north-slope.org, as well through personal communication with the North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta) are to provide baseline data on the current state of and changes in the marine physical and biological environment. In reference to U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker operations, Mayor Itta stressed the importance of collection of scientific information, including during dual-use cruises as part of a regular presence in the summer months. Another major concern for coastal communities, which are heavily dependent on marine mammal subsistence harvests, is the recent increase in offshore oil and gas exploration and production activities. The components of the U.S. Coast Guard mission that address prevention and response to environmental disasters and public safety are viewed as particularly important, with the appropriate presence of icebreakers seen as an important component of the special relationship between the U.S. government and Alaska Natives (Edward Itta, personal communication, 2006). The Canadian Coast Guard’s summer patrol missions, which include regular visits to coastal communities and monitoring of activities throughout the Canadian Arctic, represent a more developed model of how to address such concerns.