In past years, these remote gray waters of the Alaskan Arctic saw little more than the occasional cargo barge and Eskimo whaling boat. No more.
This summer, when the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bertholf was monitoring shipping traffic along the desolate tundra coast, its radar displays were often brightly lighted with mysterious targets.
There were oil drilling rigs, research vessels, fuel barges, small cruise ships. A few were sailboats that had ventured through the Northwest Passage above Canada. On a single day in August, 95 ships were detected between Prudhoe Bay and Wainwright off America's least defended coastline, and for some of them, Coast Guard officials had no idea what the vessels were carrying or who was on them.
"There's probably 1,500 people out there," Rear Adm. Thomas P. Ostebo, commander of the Coast Guard's 17th District in Alaska, said at a recent conference of Arctic policymakers near Anchorage. "It's kind of spinning a little bit out of control."