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.

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.