Friday, August 29, 2008

#11 Ice I - A Primer

"Nilas" ice formed overnight; in winter its layers accumulate to form new ice

Grease ice from above surrounded by thicker new ice with fresh snowfall on it.

Thursday, 2008-08-28

All trip long we’ve been wondering whether we would ever find a floe of multi-year ice large enough and thick enough for an “ice liberty” – when the crew can get out onto the ice for a few hours. We think we may have found one, measuring almost 17 miles in length by some eight miles wide. As I write (0820), it is about five miles to port. Depending on how much backing and ramming we have to do to get through the ice we are now in, it could take anywhere from an hour to three hours to go that five miles.

Even if we do not take an ice liberty, we will stop at the floe to deploy some prototype buoys designed for monitoring changing arctic weather conditions over the course of a year. Because there will be less and less ice in the arctic each summer, these buoys are designed to work both in ice and in open water, and can be deployed by air, at sea or on ice. We will plant one on the ice (it has a self-heating drill to settle itself into the ice) and launch one in open water. For more detail on these buoys, see my entry #12 on Walt Lincoln and Peter Legnos, the men who designed and built them.

Above: One of the weather buoys, waiting for enough ice on which to deploy it.

To understand more about sea ice, it helps to make a very basic distinction between new, first-year and multi-year (or old) sea ice.
NOAA and the National Ice Center include several more stages, ranging from New, to Nilas (less than 4 inches thick) to Young, to First Year (thin, medium and thick) to Multi-year ice. For more complete definitions see their “Observer’s Guide to Sea Ice”; if you’d like a copy, email to: ice is “Ice in the initial stages of ice formation.” This includes Grease ice: “A thin, soapy-looking surface layer of coagulated [new] ice. Since summer is ending and winter is on its way, we have seen quite a bit of new ice forming, especially in the colder hours of the night watch.

Multi-year or old ice is “Sea ice 3 m (10 feet) or more thick that has survived at least one melting season, characterized by undulating, weathered ridges and a well-defined melt water drainage pattern.” (see below)
Most of the arctic multi-year ice this summer appears to be drifting toward the Canadian archipelago and building up there. Here, farther north and west, the mix of open water and multi-year ice has ranged from no coverage near Barrow to full coverage. But most days we travel in and out of open drift (4/ to 6/10ths coverage), close pack (7/ to 8/10ths) and very close to full pack (yep, you guessed it, 9/10ths to 100% cover). Much of the multi-year ice we’ve seen is not very thick; maybe two to three meters. Every so often we have had to break through a major pressure ridge, but our captain says none of these compares to the massive ridges he saw in the Arctic Ocean when he was on the Polar Sea, another USCG icebreaker some 20 years ago.
It’s now 0922 and we are closing in on the ice floe, but it will be a few hours until anyone can get out on it. Since this is the Arctic after all, I will write more on ice in my next entries. Until then, the last shot, to the right, shows deteriorating multi-year ice, with close pack ice in the background.

#10 Pictures at the Commission

Images courtesy of CCOM/UNH

How the mapping data is used: Pictures at the Commission?

So, what will be done with the pictures produced from the sonar mapping described in the last blog entry? The geologists and hydrographers on board are already poring over the first processed results of the data, and excited at some of the formations they reveal: possible rifting here, a better picture of known but poorly mapped features there, weird formations that cannot yet be identified: the discoveries and the questions they raise seem endless. The second image above is of the Healy Seamount, a major discovery on the 2003 Healy cruise in the Arctic Ocean. The image is created by taking the kind of colorful swath pictured at the end of yesterday’s blog, interpreting the pings into three-dimensional images of the structures on the ocean floor, and combining it with other information already known about the area from earlier data collection.

Being able to make such discoveries is a valuable side-benefit of the extended continental shelf mapping project, which has been funded by Congress through NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) since 2002. Larry Mayer, the cruise’s Chief Scientist, and his Center for Ocean and Coastal Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center at UNH, were approached to carry out the mapping with NOAA not only in the Arctic Ocean, but for all of the US coastal areas. Andy Armstrong of CCOM and NOAA is along on this and all of the Healy cruises as the Co-Chief Scientist. CCOM scientists will process the data further when they return to UNH, combining it with data from past years’ Healy mapping cruises to provide more information on where the outer reach of the US-Alaskan extended continental shelf might lie.

The extended continental shelf, or ECS, is that part of a country’s shelf that extends beyond the 200 nautical miles automatically accorded to every coastal state under the LOS Convention and accepted state practice.

Under article 77 of the Convention, the coastal state exercises "sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting its natural resources." Those natural resources include oil, of course. The Convention describes the natural resources over which the coastal state exercises those rights as: "mineral and other non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil" and certain sedentary living organisms on or under the seabed.

Every coastal state has rights over its continental shelf whether or not it has joined the Law of the Sea Convention. Each coastal state also sets its own extended continental shelf limits. However, the assertion of those limits by a state that is not party to the LOS Convention is much more vulnerable to challenge than ECS limits that have been confirmed by the delineation process set out in the Convention. Over 150 states are party to the Convention; the US is the only arctic state that is not.

Article 76 of the LOS Convention lays out a process for delimiting the outer reaches of a state’s extended continental shelf. That process involves submitting ocean floor mapping and other data to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). The CLCS is established by the Convention and comprises 21 experts in geology, geophysics and hydrography. States that follow the delimitation process have the certainty of a "final and binding" status for any limits it sets based on the Commission’s recommendations. But only States that are party to the LOS Convention have the clear right to submit data to the CLCS. So until the US ratifies the Convention, which – remarkably – is far from a foregone conclusion, it cannot obtain the greater certainty as to its shelf limits that comes from Commission review. For more information on the prospects and widespread support for US ratification of the LOS Convention, please see the links at the bottom of my blog page.

Whether or not the US is ever able to submit the data supporting its assertion of extended continental shelf limits to the Commission, the data CCOM is gathering on the Healy cruises will provide the scientific foundation for those limits. It will also provide a much more complete picture of the ocean floor than is now available and offer scientists rich material for further investigation.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

#9 The Healy's Marine Science Technicians

The Healy’s Marine Science Technicians


Coming off of watch this morning offered a good chance to talk with two of the three Marine Science Technicians on board, Rich Layman and Tom Kruger. The MSTs provide direct logistical, hands-on-the-deck support to the science crew for such projects as deploying and retrieving buoys, drilling for science core samples, and dredging for rock samples. They rotate two to a shift; the third MST is “Runamok Chuck” Bartlett.

This morning I finally watched Rich deploy one of the two daily XBTs (expendable bathymetric thermographs). The XBTs are generally scheduled for 0830 and 2030 but today the ice conditions were such that we grabbed the opportunity closer to 0800, since it looked like the large stretch of open water that was then open would be the only one available much of the morning. The XBTs are shot into the ocean to measure water temperature as against depth, an important input for calibrating the multi-beam sonar equipment. Temperature affects the density of water, which in turn affects sound speed. Since the multi-beam sonar measurements we are using for mapping rely on bouncing sound off of the ocean floor and back to the ship, knowing the density of the water through which the sound travels is essential to understanding the data correctly. The XBTs are little missile shaped devices about 10 inches long that carry a temperature sensor. The XBT is attached to a thin copper wire thousands of meters long and can be “shot” from a hand-held device. XBTs are launched into the water from the ship’s fantail and, once the wire spools out to the desired depth, readings are taken from the information that is sent back up the wire. Once this is done, the MST breaks the wire, letting loose the XBT.

Both Tom and Rich are new to the Healy and to the Arctic, having been here one and two years respectively. This is a product of the Coast Guard’s fairly strict rotation policy of moving personnel from one ship to another every two or three years, depending on their rank. Rich joined the Healy from his prior Coast Guard post at the National Response Center (NRC), a joint undertaking of the USCG, EPA, DOI and several other federal agencies to monitor hazardous materials spills and emissions. Tom’s last Coast Guard position was with the Coast Guard’s regional reporting station in Louisiana. Given the extensive oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, Tom gained considerable experience in related response measures. It is striking how seriously both take the Coast Guard’s responsibility to patrol illegal emissions of hazmats in national waters. They know their CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) well, which is where they find the listings of current “reportable amounts” of hazardous materials.

Perhaps most unexpected were their observations as to how the reporting requirements serve more than the legislatively intended function of generating self-reports from companies and individuals who cause the spills. A reportable spill can range from one drop – if it creates a “sheen” on the water – to tens of thousands of gallons. The additional effect of self-reporting also encourages companies to report incidents whose provenance is unclear. If a company spots a spill of unknown origin, it is most interested in establishing that it has not caused the spill. This leads in turn to pretty effective protocols for checking and ensuring that their own facilities are not “leaking”. We talked a bit as well about their work in earlier positions requiring the boarding of foreign vessels in US waters to enforce international standards such as those set under SOLAS (an International Maritime Organization treaty on the Safety of Life at Sea).

Monday, August 25, 2008

#8 First Polar Bear Sighting

Polar Bear Sighting

Saturday, 2008-08-23

On night watch, after ten days at sea, we finally saw our first polar bear. On last year’s mapping cruise, which took place at roughly the same time, the science crew began seeing polar bears almost right away. By the end of their 30-day cruise they had spotted 21 of them. Given the even thinner ice cover where we are mapping, we are unlikely to see as many this year.

Yesterday’s New York Times “Evening Digest”* reported that NOAA observers have spotted ten polar bears, “an unusually large number” swimming off the Alaska coast. Some were “heading for shore, some heading for the retreating ice in the Chukchi Sea”, which is where we spent much of our first week of mapping. Tookaq reports that folks back home in Barrow have seen 14 polar bears in town, mostly on land, another sign that the polar bears are struggling with the lack of ice.

As you can see from the photos, the bear we saw was on thick multi-year ice, with intermittent open water as well as melt pools. The melt pools are the bright aquamarine color in the lower left of the picture below.

The polar bear population in the Chukchi Sea region is one 20 such populations identified in the circumpolar Arctic. According to Stirling and Taylor, the populations are divided geographically by ice pattern boundaries and possess slight genetic differences from each other. It takes some 24 years for polar bear populations to double, and scientists are uncertain how diminishing ice cover in summer will affect bears’ reproduction. The IUCN has estimated that “If climatic trends continue polar bears may be extirpated from most of their range within 100 years.” In 2006 IUCN upgraded the polar bear to its Red List of species threatened with extinction, citing climate change as the main reason for the move, see

I have posted some links to US steps identifying the polar bear as an endangered species on the right hand side of my blog, but none to the relevant international agreements. The 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears (ACPB) requires that the five contracting arctic states shall “take appropriate action to protect the ecosystems of which polar bears are a part, with special attention to habitat components such as denning and feeding sites and migration patterns, and shall manage polar bear populations in accordance with sound conservation practices based on the best available scientific data.” What comprises an ecosystem, and how you define a habitat, are not questions easily answered by science, but the general tone of the treaty is one of cooperation based on the best available science. Just how reliant policy makers and lawyers are on scientists to give effect to the policies and laws they draft is being made abundantly clear to me on this trip, and is a theme to which I will return in later blogs and in class.

Other relevant agreements include the 1973 Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species, which included polar bears on its original listing of protected species (Annex II), obligating states to regulate trade in listed species through export permitting. Bilateral agreements cover two other bear populations: a 2000 treaty between the US and Russia regarding the Alaska-Chukotka population and a 1999 agreement between Alaska’s Inupiat and Canada’s Inuvialuit regarding the southern Beaufort region population. For those of you interested in reading more on how other agreements such as the Climate Change Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity may be relevant to protecting the polar bear, Nigel Bankes at the University of Calgary Law Faculty, on whose work I gratefully draw above, is doing interesting work in this regard.

* The NYT Digest, “Stars and Stripes” (a news digest for armed forces serving overseas), and your emails are our only source of news right now, since we are out of Internet range. David Hassilev, our communications guru, obtains the larger files by iridium phone and distributes them via the ship’s intra-net. This sparse coverage of the Olympics, and of VP picks, is fine with us for now. There is a blissful suspension in not being plugged in around the clock to the world’s news, but it is still good to have some sense of what’s going on out there. We should pick up Internet access again in about a week.

Friday, August 22, 2008

#7 Pressure Ridges and Fogbows


Above:  The pressure ridge in which we are currently stuck

Pressure Ridges and Fogbows
Thursday, August 21, 2008

As I write, we are firmly stuck in a sizable pressure ridge, impeding our mapping progress. The usual process is to back the cutter several ship’s lengths and ram forward, sometimes needing to repeat this multiple times until we break through the ice. This afternoon we are in relatively thick multi-year ice, but for much of last night’s eight-hour watch we may as well have been in Tahiti, as someone joked, there was so much open water. We are mapping around 83° N latitude; take a glance at one of the maps in the links to the right to see just how far north this is. Those who were on last year’s cruise say the ice is slushier and less compacted this year at the same latitude, with fewer thick stretches. Three of our science crewmembers are from the US National Ice Center, and I am eagerly awaiting their presentation at one of our nightly science talks.
Coming off of watch this morning at 0800 we were greeted by a fog-bow (like a rainbow, but pure white because it is reflecting the snow and ice in the seascape over which it hovers). Light filled and mesmerizing.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

#6 Tookaq Neakok

       Tookaq on the Bridge

Sunday morning /afternoon, August 17, 2008

A good night’s watch, coming on just after the engine room took on a sea-water leak as we were ramming some of the first serious ice we’ve encountered. It was pretty quickly fixed and we were in and out of mostly first year ice, with increasing multi-year ice. The night watch is ideal for really digging into ideas about the data we are seeing as the contours of the ocean floor literally unroll before our eyes as we track a side profile (created by a single beam sonar) and a swath multi-beam sonar track. I finally feel familiar enough with the process and understanding the data to begin trading ideas with Larry about various ways to approach both measuring and characterizing certain juridical (vs. geological and morphological) aspects of the shelf. More on that process and some of the questions we are poring over in a later entry.

It was a still, clear watch, allowing us to see the moon rise (see photo, below), which was more or less the same time the sun was "setting" or dipping to touch the horizon, around 0200. It is always light.  Always.  After breakfast I went up to the bridge to watch the ice from the bridge’s sweeping wall of windows, then climbed the ladders up to “aloft conn”, the very highest enclosed point – think “eagle’s nest” - 
above the bridge, where the ship is steered. Silas Ayers, Marine Science Officer, was on watch and gave me a great overview of the decisions, timing and protocols involved as he steered the Healy through the ever-changing ice, using “leads” (open water) and other paths of least resistance. Watching the ice is endlessly fascinating. It was a great “lullaby” before heading off to sleep around 0900.

Awoke bolt upright about 1235 remembering I had not “accounted” … a mandatory check-in (by ship intranet) for all crew at lunch and dinner to be sure that all hands are accounted for. I seem to be adapting to a schedule of about 4 hours sleep after our 0000-0800 watch; then grabbing a nap shortly before the watch begins again. Today I got up in what I had thought was time for the protestant church service, which turned out to be at 1300 rather than 1330.

Instead, I sat down for some quiet time in the “lounge” and a few minutes later Tookaq Neakok came in. We’d kept not finding the time to sit and jaw, so we finally did just that and it was great. Barrow’s Inupiat community sends an observer on the Healy voyages, and he’s along for his first time. Tookaq has several roles: making sure we do not interfere with the community’s subsistence whaling, helping us spot wildlife and ice changes evident to him, getting to know more about Coast Guard operations in the Arctic.
“Inupiak” is used to describe the language when two people are speaking; “Inupiat” when more than two are using it. I love the communal implications of that ruddy distinction.
We are about the same age. Tookaq was born in 1960 and has lived in Barrow all of his life, the youngest of 12 children. His grandmother raised him, and he was named according to Inupiat tradition after her husband, having been born shortly after that man’s death. One is named so as to capture and carry on the essence of the person who is departing. Of Tookaq’s eight daughters, the one who was born shortly after his grandmother died was given her name,  Akbara. This means to run a long time (not like a marathon, Tookaq made certain to clarify, but a solid practical runner). His son, whose name means little black duck, is the youngest, and Tookaq has a nephew currently serving in Iraq. Tookaq told stories of studying in the BIA schools and the shameful punishments and efforts to keep him and his classmates from speaking Inupiat. Now the language is reviving some, as a number of the kids who leave Barrow for college or work return after life elsewhere.

Tookaq’s name means “head of a harpoon”, which turns out to be very fitting. He began a new whaling crew (there are some 40 of them in Barrow) with one of his friends just three years
 ago.  The Quvqan Crew has caught two whales in three years; a remarkable track record, really. He says it’s because they have mostly young strong men, most just out of high school. Obviously, landing a whale is a communal effort. If you are interested in reading more about Inupiat whaling, The Whale and the Supercomputer: on the Forefront of Climate Change, by Charles Wohlforth, is a great source of information. It also provides a look into life in Barrow, and the interactions – or not – between the Inupiat community and the science community that has grown up there since the US decided in the late 19th century to station a research outpost there.

In the hour or so we sat there this morning, Tookaq and I talked a lot about the fundamental changes he has seen in his lifetime. The most profound change is the transition from a subsistence and barter economy to purchasing more of what one needs to live. In just 48 years! His family is
 still able to live almost entirely from subsistence hunting (whale, fish, duck, caribou, a tundra rhubarb-like plant, salmon-berries, black raspberries, blueberries). He observes that the food in Barrow’s only store is far too expensive to buy on any regular basis.

Tookaq thinks that a number of factors have contributed to this transition away from bartering. These include the growing number of non-Inupiat residents in Barrow, who brought currency with them, and the changing weather making it harder to both whale and to hunt on land. He is saddened to see the slow changes to the Inupiat community by virtue of some people now having more wealth than others. When he was a boy they used to trade with the inland communities. Barrow offered fish and whale and the other communities provided caribou. The beads used when one had no goods were varying shades of blue. We talked a lot about food, which proved to be a great common language; about the locavore movement in Vermont; about how long you have to cook whale meat; about how most people don’t know where the food on their plate comes from.

This year in January water came all the way up to the beach in Barrow. No ice. Tookaq said he had never seen that. The ice cellar they have at home in Barrow, basically an underground freezer in the permafrost, is melting, and water is coming in from the sea (permafrost melts from below because of the insulating properties of snow). The one at their fish camp is still functioning pretty well, but that is further inland.

Above, Barrow in September 08

It’s been great to continue conversations with Tookaq, and good to know we still have some two weeks left. When we wrapped up, he said I enjoyed talking almost as much of his grandmother. Given what he told me of the importance of stories being passed on from generation to generation by the Inupiat elders, and of the stories she used to tell, I think I can take that as a compliment, right?

Monday, August 18, 2008

#5 Mapping and Grounding/Bear Tracks and Buoys

Mapping and Grounding/Bear Tracks and Buoys

Saturday, 2008-08-16

It helps finally to have realized that the primary reason I cannot sleep is that there is simply too much to be excited about, too many new data points for my brain to absorb, too many things I want to do before the cruise ends. It was a great relief to realize last night that we still have more then 2.5 weeks left.
Ethan Roth and his HARP buoys (HARP= high-frequency acoustic recording package)

There are still so many people I have not spoken with; whose stories I have not yet heard.

I finally had a chance to follow up with Ethan Roth, a member of our science crew from the Scripps Institute Whale Acoustic Lab, whose recording buoys I mentioned in an earlier blog. We talked about the buoy project tonight. (Is it ever night? I love the fact that it is always daylight here – it adds to the sense of forward motion, endless possibility, constant activity…). We stood on the bow (it was probably 35°F), watching us break mostly single year ice. But as I type, we are finally hitting some broken shards of multiyear ice – maybe a meter or more thick. I can feel it in the hull and keep being completely distracted, standing up to peer out our porthole and watch the snowy wet world go by.

From the bow, we saw a long meandering set of polar bear tracks both disappear on the snow into the horizon as they also fell away behind us as the ship moved forward. 

This aspect of motion is a phenomenon I had not really considered until now… the forward motion through a seemingly endless horizon. Where is one moving from? moving to? and at a speed measured by what besides the reliable knot?

This is where the mapping literally grounds us. We are measuring, meter by meter, the solid surfaces of plateau, shelf, rise, floor 
-- or the sediment covering any of these --beneath the ocean surface. The almost skeletal profiles from the single beam sonar give us a view into what is or might not be there under the water. What are those hummock shaped mounds sprouting out of the shelf incline or decline, or out of each other? What are those gassy-looking sub-surfaces? Did they cause these pock marks? And on and on. Those who know better than I do find themselves at a loss to describe, but delighted to see, these things they’ve never seen before. That no-one has ever seen before.

Below: Always light - the ice pack at 3:14 a.m.
on August 16
But back to Ethan: He’s a young oceanographer; a whip-smart, curly-headed, suntanned guy with a face and demeanor both deeply at peace. At the very end of our conversation I misspoke by saying what a great job he has. But in fact what he has is a life, a passion. Not a job. As does each of the scientists on this cruise. It is invigorating to be with super-smart people who pursue their ideas with a singleness and creativity of purpose.

His buoys track the sounds under the ice up here, year-round:  anything the receivers can hear, from passing icebreakers to Beluga whales, to submarines. He was surprised to find that until now, nobody has tracked such sound year round. They only did it when ice allowed, and even then not very often.

As Ethan says, how absurd that we know more about the surface of Mars than our own ocean floor. Especially given that life emerged from the interaction between that ocean and the land we live on. Especially given that the ocean covers more than 71% of the surface of our earth.
There are many things to which he wants to apply his findings (he looked amused and quizzical when I asked, for a second time, what his “primary” interest was). How lawyerly of me.  Of course it is about context. That is what I try to teach, too, whether in comparative law, or property law, or international law; that law is both tool and product of any given culture. I asked about his “primary” interests because he had said that there are so many unknowns, so many questions one can ask about the Arctic.

Ethan wants to collect data and describe what he finds, so that he or others can apply the knowledge so gained. He would apply it to, among other things:
-the problem of seismic noise from North Slope oil exploration;
-questions of marine mammal migration;
-whether marine mammals are affected by anthropogenic noise and if so how.

We spoke of the NRDC case against the Navy regarding sonar off the Northwest coast of the US. Ethan said it appears the sonar harms one type of elusive whale in particular:  beaked whales.  It dives to 1000 metres below sea level. For it, the ocean surface is the scariest place on earth (so to speak). Down deep it preys on the giant squid; Ethan has seen beaked whales with tremendous scarring from battles with those giants. 

Ethan talked about how bad or misleading or misinterpreted science leads to unfortunate results.  He believes that in the sonar case the environmentalists’ claims, that all whales were being harmed, was just not true.  According to Ethan, data seems to show that only beaked whales were beaching themselves. We talked about fundamentalism in both science and environmentalism, and our self-perceptions as environmentalist/realists who believe you can rarely achieve results if you do not compromise. The fact that the Navy is among, if not the, largest funder of marine mammal research in the US arises from a combination of factors – public relations, and recognition that they won’t stop their operations entirely, and need to find a way to reduce harm while doing so – all rolled into one.

It is a remarkable opportunity to have these one-on-one tutorials from such fascinating and skilled and thoughtful people. Larry Mayer, our Chief Scientist, facilitates all of this with his amazing collaborative spirit and purpose.

Friday, August 15, 2008

#4 Breaking Ice!

We have finally hit ice substantial enough to feel the breaker's hull doing its job. For today I am just posting a couple of photos from the bright sunshine and ice we had earlier today. The sun is only now heading toward the horizon, shortly before 10 p.m.

#3 Whale Songs, and the Ambiguity of Maps and Laws

0825 AKDT

We are coming off of night watch in a mild drizzle this morning, about 34 degrees at 0800. In the last 24 hours we successfully retrieved both of Ethan’s buoys. He is exhausted from the grueling physical work of snagging the buoys, with the help of the Coast Guard crew, on rough seas and 30-odd hours of no sleep. In his eagerness, he has already identified the songs of Beluga whales on a first crack at the data the buoys recorded. If we are lucky, he will be able to play the recordings for us soon. He started the recording process two years ago, first dropping the buoys as the Healy headed out on other science missions. He’s retrieved and re-deployed the pair on Healy missions in each of the two subsequent years by sending a radio signal from ship to ocean depths to call the buoys back to the surface. Being underwater they are not subject to the winter ice and can give a slice of the larger picture of behavioral patterns of various marine mammals throughout the years he records.

The other big project was running a “patch” test to make sure that the sonar equipment on the bottom of the ship is properly calibrated before we begin the actual mapping of the continental shelf.
Part of our track is above, the red line. The large ice floe to the northwest is the biggest one we've seen so far, some 30 miles long. The other colored bands are sonar swaths taken by the Healy on earlier cruises.

The patch testing involves some eight hours of ship time (which is not cheap – more on the costs and logistics of running such a science ship in one of my later entries).  The process ensures that the remaining 520+ hours we have – most of which we can use for mapping – will produce the most accurate data possible. In those eight hours we run four tracks – the first about eight miles long over a part of the ocean floor that we think is as flat as possible, and the second a return trip over the exact same path, to test for “roll”. That exact track replication is made possible by (almost) state of the art mapping and positioning technology. If the two tracks show different characteristics indicating that the sonar is not recording properly, adjustments can be made. The same process is done on as steep a section of continental slope as possible to test for pitch and, again, adjust the sonar equipment if necessary. 

Understanding how an entire data set can be thrown off by minor mal-adjustments of pitch and roll lets me see how varying quality data can affect the final submission a state makes to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.  The quality of the submission in turn affects the extent of each claim.

The first of our nightly “Science Talks” brought home this point as well. Larry Mayer, our Chief Scientist, provided a geologist’s overview of Article 76 – the continental shelf mapping provision in the Law of the Sea Convention that is the basis for our primary work on this cruise.  Larry directs the University of New Hampshire's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping (CCOM).  The scientists at CCOM have developed truly amazing images of the sea bottom 
Image from CCOM/Joint Hydrographic Center, more images available at CCOM/JHC

that will help establish, with greater clarity than earlier techniques allowed, where the foot of the US continental slope off of Alaska might meet the ocean floor - a critical measurement under Article 76 for asserting continental shelf extension. Simply put, exceptional data collection and processing into visual images allows states to offer evidence of an extended continental shelf that covers a larger area than would be the case if they relied on data (and technologies) available at the time the treaty was drafted.  Although the technology, because of the scientists who design and apply it, provides remarkable information about the continental shelf, it cannot overcome the basic problem that brought me here: in Article 76 lawyers defined the continental shelf in terms that have almost nothing to do with how geologists define it. The situation is made even more uncertain by the fact that both law and geology are disciplines where the most skilled interpretations of the raw materials (be it statutes or sonar readings) usually carry the day. As Larry phrases it, Article 76 “takes all of the ambiguity of science and mixes it with the ambiguity of law.” I am eager to learn more about the implications of this for lawyers and scientists.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

#2 On Board ...


We are on board! Barrow, AK, long a center for arctic science, was full up. Rather than the usual accommodations at the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, our team stayed in the city gym overnight before being transferred by helicopter to the Healy yesterday. With our team of 38 it was an all day affair, but now all are on board and we are underway to the Chukchi Cap. There we will pick up where Larry Mayer, our chief scientist from CCOM-UNH, left off last year mapping the US continental shelf. 

Before we get to the Chukchi Cap, though, we are stopping to retrieve and then re-deploy two buoys that have been recording marine mammal calls since they were dropped a year ago. It is a precarious and dangerous process in arctic waters, especially today as seas are high. Once Ethan Roth (from the Scripps Institute Whale Acoustic Lab) has had a chance to brief us on what the data reveals, I will post a summary here.

I have been assigned the night watch, midnight to 0800. With Larry Mayer and three others on that watch (all trained in something other than law!) we are responsible for making sure the multi-beam and single beam sonar equipment is operating properly and capturing the data we need to determine the contours and extent of the continental shelf.

It is beautiful on the open Arctic ocean. Ice drifts by occasionally, but we have seen only the smallest of pieces so far, none larger than six to seven feet in length.  That is all for today: more on the ice later.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

#1 Basic Arctic Facts

Let's start with some Arctic basics:

Can you name the eight Arctic States? For the complete list see below.

Where/what is the Arctic? There are many definitions. To quote the Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Center: "The Arctic Circle is technically everything above 66 degrees, 30 minutes North Latitude. However, other definitions rely on the presence of tundra vegetation, distribution of 'Arctic' animals like the walrus, the presence of permafrost, the temperature of the region or even the southern limit of pack ice during the winter." For more from this source, and some Arctic FAQs, see

What is the Arctic Council? A cooperative forum, not an international organization, in which the Arctic States and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and other entities address areas of common concern- see

How does the Arctic differ from Antarctica, beyond having polar bears rather than penguins?: Antarctica is governed by a unified treaty regime; the Arctic is not. Consensus appears to be growing -- see, e.g. the May 2008 Ilulissat Declaration  --
that the Arctic does not need a new, comprehensive treaty because a range of existing treaties and binding agreements combine with existing "soft law" instruments to offer sufficient structures and norms to address the most important arctic issues.

For the kids (and others) to test their knowledge of arctic fundamentals, visit EducaPoles, the educational site of the International Polar Foundation.

That's it for starters. As to the eight states in question, they are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Icebreaking into the Arctic

The USCGC HEALY embarked Barrow, Alaska, in August 2008 to map the US extended continental shelf, or ECS, in the Arctic Ocean (HLY 0805). Healy sailed again from 7 August to 16 September, 2009 (HLY 0905) to continue ECS mapping, joining with the Canadian icebreaker, the Louis S. St.-Laurent. The two vessels mapped together again in 2010 (see HLY1002) and 2011 (HLY1102).

As the only law professor on the science crew, I was along on HLY 0805 and 0905 to better understand
the science behind the legal process that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea establishes for states making ECS submissions. As to why the US is mapping now, even though it has not yet acceded to the Convention, read on both here, and in the Law of the Sea notes below.

Thanks to
Vermont Law School and especially to Larry Mayer, Director of the University of New Hampshire's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, for making my part in the trip possible.
Thanks, as well, to Adriane Colburn, for opening new windows on and for the deep.