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October 5, 2010

West Ridge Report

The Sun Star

West Ridge Report

October 12, 2010


The Arctic Ocean: 1000 possibilities and perils Jeremia Schrock & Amber Sandlin Sun Star Reporters The melting sea ice By the year 2038, the fabled Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean may finally be open. For the past 30 years, the Arctic has been losing it’s summer sea ice. If the climate doesn’t change, Arctic sea ice will continue to vanish until there is nothing left to melt, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) website. NOAA projections have shown that by 2038, the Arctic may be almost entirely icefree during the summer months.

less weather predictability, higher fuel cost, and the necessity for ships to be built with thicker hulls capable of withstanding an impact with an iceberg. An Arctic Ocean free of summer sea ice is no guarantee for an Arctic free of icebergs, said Eicken. A problem that summertime Alaskan waters would face is icebergs formed from the calving events of the increasingly unstable ice shelves found in the Canadian Arctic. Some of these bergs would subsequently become caught in the Beaufort Gyre to then be flung past Alaska’s North Slope. The Beaufort Gyre is a wind-driven ice circulation pattern near the North Pole.

in the event of an Arctic disaster, Canada and the U.S. would probably work close together. Eicken felt the same. One organization that is concerned with the annual loss of sea ice is the United States Arctic Research Commission (USARC). USARC held its 94th meeting this past week at UAF to discuss issues facing the Arctic region. However, concern by the commission over thinning Arctic ice and its potential ramifications for the region date back to as early as 2002. According to one USARC article, the “Canadian Archipelago will be ice-free and open to navigation by non ice-strengthened ships in summer.”

If [Arctic marine shipping] is done carefully and responsibly it [will] have very little impact on the environment. -Todd O’Hara, UAF Wildlife Biologist

For polar bears and other forms of Alaska wildlife that rely on that sea ice, this is a problem. For Alaska’s human population, it is an opportunity. That opportunity is the possibility of opening the North Slope to trans-Arctic shipping. “Right now, few people think that Arctic shipping is going to be an issue,” said Hajo Eicken, a professor of sea ice geophysics at UAF, citing several potential problems to be faced by a hypothetical trans-Arctic shipping company. These problems include

The impact on Arctic shipping “If [Arctic marine shipping] is done carefully and responsibly, it [will] have very little impact on the environment,” said Todd O’Hara, a UAF scientist who specializes in the wildlife toxicology of Arctic marine mammals. While O’Hara is willing to admit he supports the opening of the Arctic to shipping, he feels that ascertaining the environmental costs of such an endeavor are crucial in determining its worth. O’Hara cited the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as proof that, in the event of a disaster, coordinating an appropriate response is critical. He added that

The unpredictability of polar environments has led organizations like the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and the University of the Arctic Institute for Applied Circumpolar Policy (IACP) to begin discussing the problems of maintaining maritime law enforcement and marine safety in such regions.


*The number of years the United States Coast has been patrolling the Arctic

The Arctic is upon us. - United States Coast Guard

2038* *The year in which the Arctic Ocean will be almost entirely ice-free for the summer.

Dangerous fun One event cited by the USCG occurred off the coast of Antarctica in November 2007. A cruise liner, the MS Explorer, struck an iceberg while sailing through the Bransfield Strait near King George Island. While the passengers and crew were rescued after only five hours adrift, their rescue was made possible because of their proximity to several other merchant vessels, as well as the Argentinean and Chilean coast guard Princess Cruises, one of Alaska’s biggest cruise lines, said that they currently have no intention of expanding their maritime tourism business to the Arctic Ocean in the event that it becomes ice free. A distant protector The biggest prohibition in Arctic marine safety is the lack of infrastructure. In the eventuality that “full seasonal operations in the Arctic” become necessary, the USCG will be the primary provider of maritime safety and security in the region. In fact, an internal presentation within the USCG said, “the Arctic is upon us.” According to an interview in the North Slope newspaper, The Arctic Sounder, Capt. William Deal, the commanding officer of the USCG air station at Kodiak, said any rescue attempt as far north as the Arctic “would likely require use of a Coast Guard icebreaker or air-refuelable helicopters from the U.S. Air Force.” Deal was referencing an event that occurred in June where the USCG sent a C-130 out of Kodiak to assess whether or not a team of Russian researchers near the North Pole was under distress. They were not.

Currently, there is no USCG station or forward operating base located anywhere on the North Slope. However, the building of a USCG station at Point Barrow is currently in the works, according to Jeremy Zidek, a spokesperson for the State of Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHS&EM). “It is certainly a concern that more shipping is going on there,” Zidek added. A changing ecosystem For UAF wildlife biologist Skip Walker, if the Arctic were open today there would be an immediate “increased human presence in the Arctic.” Walker, who focuses on the disturbance and recovery of Arctic ecosystems, foresees an ice-free Arctic as providing Alaska with increased access to its natural resources, making their development more economically feasible. In all likelihood, these developments would act as a stimulant to Alaska’s economy. “As far as ecosystems go, this is a huge question that goes beyond the consequences of the Arctic becoming a major shipping route,” he continued. “Obviously, melting sea ice would allow shipping lanes to open up. But the melting sea-ice also has big impacts on the adjacent land areas.” Walker believes that over the next century, Alaska will see gradual changes to its Arctic ecosystems, adding that the loss of coastal summer sea-ice along mainland areas that are currently tundra “would very likely cause these areas to change to boreal forest,” much as they would have been during the Late Cretaceous period 65 million years ago.


*The amount of money Sen. Mark Begich wants to appropriate to build two new polar-capable icebreakers.

Where do things stand now? ICETECH 2010: A conference held this September by the Arctic Section of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) whose theme was “Performance of Ships and Structures in Ice.” Shell Offshore, Inc: Filed an application with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Oct. 6 to drill an exploration well in the Beaufort Sea next summer. Princess Cruises: Has no intent of expanding their tourist operations to the Arctic Ocean. Hajo Eicken: A professor of sea ice geophysics at UAF who believes that attempting to ship goods across the Arctic Ocean is not cost-effective at the present time. United States Arctic Research Commission (USARC): Has stated that the Canadian Arctic is already open to navigation by non-ice strengthened ships. Held a conference at UAF this month (October) to discuss Arctic issues. United States Coast Guard (USCG): Is preparing to take on a greater role patrolling the Arctic Ocean. Intends to build a station at Point Barrow. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Believes that the Arctic will be ice-free within the next 30 years. Fears that a loss of sea ice will result in severe storms on the Eastern United States. Marinette Marine Corporation: The recipients of a $123 million contract to build a 254-foot Alaska Region Research Vessel for UAF. Todd O’Hara: A UAF wildlife biologist who supports shipping through the Arctic if it can be done safely and responsibility. S.1561: A senate bill sponsored by Sen. Mark Begich which calls for an appropriation of funds in order to build a “fully functional harbor of refuge throughout the year” at St. George Island, and three forward operating bases at Barrow, Nome and St. Paul Island.

The Sun Star: Arctic Shipping  
The Sun Star: Arctic Shipping  

Arctic Shipping; 1,000 possibilities and perils was awarded 1st place at the 2011 Alaska Press Club Awards for Print Media small circulation...