Down to Earth With: Lawson Brigham

by Sara E. Pratt
Thursday, December 18, 2014

Lawson Brigham, a Distinguished Professor of Geography and Arctic Policy at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and retired U.S. Coast Guard captain, has worn many hats in his career. He has been the deputy director and Alaska Office director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission in Anchorage; chair of the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum of the eight Arctic nations; vice chair of the Arctic Council’s working group on Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment; and a contributing author to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.

Today, he may spend most of his time cutting through red tape to hash out policy, but Brigham began his career in the U.S. Coast Guard, cutting through ice.

As a U.S. Coast Guard officer from 1970 to 1995, Brigham captained four ships and sailed aboard icebreakers in Alaska, the Great Lakes, the Baltic Sea, the Russian Arctic, and around Antarctica. As commander of the polar icebreaker Polar Sea in the mid-1990s, Brigham helmed the first ship to reach both the northernmost and southernmost reaches of the ocean. He also taught at the Coast Guard Academy, where he was head sailing coach in the late 1970s.

Later, his interest in marine policy led him to a fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a faculty position at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., where he held the Office of Naval Research Chair in Arctic Marine Science. His research interests include the Russian Arctic, ice navigation, sea ice, and satellite remote sensing of the polar regions. He received a doctorate in oceanography from Cambridge University and a master’s in management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Brigham is also a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval War College.

Brigham spoke with EARTH Associate Editor Sara E. Pratt at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., from which he graduated in 1970 and where he was named 2010 Distinguished Alumnus of the Year.

SEP: How did you become interested in marine science and why did you decide to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy?

LB: I grew up on Shelter Island on the eastern end of Long Island in the middle of the two forks. There was an estuary in our backyard and I was tied to the ocean from a young age. My father was a boat builder and I started sailing when I was 5 years old. My uncle graduated from the academy and I attended his graduation when I was 6 years old. In addition, I had an inspirational high school science teacher and got involved in science fairs; when I was a sophomore and junior, I conducted projects on clams and striped bass migration and was one of the winners of the New York State science fair held at Brookhaven in 1965. I was selected to go to the academy, where I was a member of the first graduating class in ocean sciences and won the Admiral Smith prize. After I graduated, I was assigned to the [U.S. Coast Guard cutter] Rockaway out of New York City as the marine science officer.

There had been a visionary report, called “Our Nation and the Sea,” which led to the formation of NOAA. It was a time when the Coast Guard was trying to figure out its role in marine sciences. The report was inspiring and [its tenets] stayed with me throughout my career.

Brigham signs the American Geographical Society's Fliers' & Explorers' Globe in 2008 at a ceremony at the University of Delaware. The globe is signed by 75 explorers, from Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart to Roald Amundsen and Neil Armstrong. Brigham's signature appears near the Bering Strait to denote his Arctic achievements. Credit: Kathy Atkinson and Jon Cox, University of Delaware.

SEP: From 2005 to 2009, you chaired the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment for the Arctic Council. What was its goal and what has been the outcome?

LB: The goal was to create a framework guide for Arctic environmental marine protection and safety. We had a team of 200 experts and we came up with 17 recommendations on marine safety, protection of Arctic people and the environment, and enhancement of Arctic marine infrastructure, such as ports, search and rescue, salvage, environmental response, and communications — all the maritime facilities that we have around the rest of the planet. The outcomes of the assessment live on and are being implemented so that we can begin to protect the Arctic Ocean while many use it in safe and environmentally friendly ways. I am very pleased to see the Arctic Council use this study in the way we envisioned.

SEP: The U.N. International Maritime Organization (IMO) is currently developing an international code of navigation for ships operating in polar waters. Why is a polar code needed?

LB: The IMO maritime conventions and regulations today all relate to ships in the open sea, such as near Miami and Panama. Most ships of the world are not polar capable. What we need are enhanced structural standards [for ships] because of the forces of the ice. We need greatly enhanced experience and training in the pilothouse to navigate in ice. And we need special safety gear in the polar regions. You shouldn’t take a cruise ship out of Miami up to the Arctic without some additional equipment. There are now increasing numbers of cruise ships, tankers and cargo ships traveling in polar waters, which is why we need mandatory standards. An ice-strengthened cruise ship, the Explorer, went down in the Southern Ocean in 2007. About 100 tourists were aboard but none of the passengers or crew were lost. We have to be thinking about such a disaster in the Arctic. How would we respond and how would people be rescued? Some 50 cruise ships the size of the Costa Concordia go to Greenland each year. The cruise ship industry has to make improvements. We can’t have one of these disasters happen in the Arctic.

Another reason [for the new code] is to harmonize the regulations for all ships instead of having different safety systems and different rules in different parts of the Arctic. Two countries right now have some special regulations, Russia and Canada. The U.S. has no special Arctic ship regulations right now — we’re just using the conventions and treaties. So we have a long way to go.

SEP: What do you think about the predictions of a future ice-free Arctic and what that means for global trade routes and shipping?

LB: The common story in the media is, “The ice is going away and all the ships are coming,” but it’s more complicated than that. There are forces that would like to close it off but there is a long history of the use of the Arctic with whaling, sealing and industrial use. The major drivers will be economic. If commodity prices are high, people will come to develop resources like LNG [liquefied natural gas] off Norway and oil and gas in the Russian Arctic. Yes, the ice is thinner, there is less extent, and the character of the ice is changing, but nonetheless through this century and beyond, nine to 10 months of the year, the place will be wholly or partially covered with ice. It’s remote, it’s cold, and it’s dark. Most of the time, freewater ships of the world won’t navigate there. Special, polar class ships will still be needed.

There is little question that in the decades ahead the Arctic will be used more, but that use will be seasonal and destinational. Trans-Arctic navigation [where you go across from one ocean to another] will still be minimal. The thing that the media has fixated on is the container traffic, like from Shanghai to Rotterdam, but … given the way maritime cargo works, the chance that global marine trade routes will change dramatically is unlikely. Shipping is a huge global machine and the economics of shipping are very marginal. Shipping won’t suddenly divert from the Panama and Suez canals. The variabilities and vagaries of Arctic shipping are not conducive to large numbers of container ships on tightly scheduled routes.

SEP: What areas of research remain to be explored?

LB: The Arctic is the least-explored marine region on the planet, and most of the Arctic is an ocean. There’s still a lack of understanding of the place. Even though tremendous science is being done, there’s still more to be done. To understand and protect this ocean and the people who live around it, we need to adapt and be innovative. As globalization of the Arctic takes place — with natural resource development, growing commodities prices, and more and more people coming to the Arctic by sea — all of those new uses require regulation, understanding of the science and how the system works in order to facilitate its use. For example, even though it’s the 21st century, we do not know enough about oil spills and ice. One area that requires more research is the development of robust prevention systems. Also, we urgently need an observing system to monitor all of the extraordinary climate changes at the top of the world.

SEP: During your Coast Guard career you captained the icebreaker Polar Sea, the first ship to reach both the northernmost and southernmost reaches of the ocean, for which you were invited to sign the American Geographical Society’s Fliers' & Explorers' Globe. Your signature now appears with those of Fridtjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen, Sir Edmund Hillary, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, among others. Tell us a little bit about that experience.

LB: In February 1994, the Polar Sea broke a track into McMurdo [in Antarctica] to allow the supply ships to get in, and then the National Science Foundation had us go off along the 400-nautical-mile length of the Ross Ice Shelf to take oceanographic casts [sampling and data collection]. Along this ice shelf is the southernmost point you can take a ship, in the Bay of Wales. This was close to where the famous Norwegian ship, the Fram, was, where Roald Amundsen got off the ship with his men and dogs to reach the South Pole in 1911. We were sailing along the edge, so we drove the bow of the ship into the shelf and we took a GPS reading and left some red paint 690 nautical miles from the South Pole. We took a little break from the science to celebrate.

Later that year, the Polar Sea made the first surface ship crossing of the Arctic Ocean in company with the Canadian icebreaker, the Louis S. St-Laurent. Submarines had been there, but this was the first full crossing through the North Pole from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The only other ship that came close to reaching the ends of the oceans [but didn’t reach the North Pole] was the Fram. In 1893, Fridtjof Nansen drifted across the Arctic on the Fram, the same boat Amundsen later took to Antarctica. On Aug. 22, 1994, the Polar Sea reached the North Pole, becoming the first in history to reach the ends of the global ocean. Who would have thought it would take until the end of the 20th century to do this? The neat thing was we were doing science at both ends of the world. It wasn’t about sovereignty; it was all done for science.

As the captain, I was honored to sign the globe on behalf of the distinguished crew of the Polar Sea and the Coast Guard.

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