Monday, September 22, 2008

Welcome VPR Listeners

Thank you for your interest, and thanks to Vermont Public Radio and Mitch Wertlieb for linking you to my arctic blog. Although my time on the USCG icebreaker Healy is past, I will continue to post items relevant to ongoing policy and environmental developments in the Arctic;
but today I simply want to share some images from the trip. You may have heard me describe being in a "constant state of awe" on board. I hope that including some of my photographs in this entry will help to convey some of the splendor of the Arctic Ocean in summer.

For the three weeks we were at sea, it was almost constantly light as the sun never dipped fully below the horizon at most of the latitudes we were traveling through (getting well north of the 83rd parallel, though still short of the North Pole).

Imagine that you are not only always surrounded in light: you
are also floating some 3,000
meters - almost two miles! - above the ocean
floor, suspended over the inky indigo darkest blue of frigid arctic waters.

Imagine, too, that the ship is moving at a slow, steady speed (5 to 7 knots, or m.p.h.) through an ever-changing ice scape: sometimes tightly compacted with tall pressure ridges, other times with broad "leads" of open water:

Sometimes the ice itself or the melt pools on top of it assume a stunning azure, because much of the salt has leached out of this older ice:

Arctic ice infuses the concept of "white" with an entirely new meaning, given its endless shades of frost, grey, snow, and shadow; in mist and in fog and in brilliant sun; in not-quite-twilight, not-quite-dawn shades of rose, pewter, lilac... words eventually fail and you are left to simply soak in the vastness and beauty of the place.

Thanks once again for your interest. I hope you will stay tuned, read a few of my earlier entries to learn more about the mapping trip (see above, right) and that you will send me your questions and comments, either by posting below or by writing to me at

Sunday, September 14, 2008

#19 Conflict in the Arctic? The Tenacity of Media Spin

Just hours after I returned, a week ago, from my trip to the Arctic Ocean, I was dismayed to open the New York Times and find on its editorial page hyperbole verging on that which other 
media sources use to perpetuate the myth of "fierce disputes over territory and natural resources" in the Arctic. ("Arctic in Retreat", September 8, 2008). As the sea-ice retreats, states are turning not to arms but to existing legal structures and a tradition of scientific and
diplomatic cooperation to address common problems as well as dis- agreements.

A helicopter from the Canadian icebreaker, the Louis Saint Laurent, on a friendly visit
to the USCGC Healy

Immediately after transporting our mapping crew to shore last week, The Healy turned right around and began breaking ice for a Canadian icebreaker, the Louis Saint Laurent. This month-long joint mission to map parts of the Arctic Ocean floor is scientific and diplomatic cooperation at its international best. Like the Russian mapping the NYT mentions in its editorial, the US and Canada are gathering data in preparation not for conflict but for submission in a staid and stable legal process designed to provide certainty for all states involved.  The Law of the Sea Convention establishes this orderly mechanism of rigorous scientific vetting for states seeking to extend their authority over larger portions of the continental shelf.  The United States is the only Arctic state not party to the Convention but is nonetheless mapping for its potential shelf extension in keeping with procedures agreed by the international community.

The territorial disputes referenced in the NYT editorial are also resolved not by conflict
but by diplomacy. In June 1990 Russia (then still the Soviet Union) and the United States signed a brilliantly conceived single maritime boundary treaty that precludes the need to renegotiate the boundary once the extended continental shelf limits are determined. Canada’s recent announcement that it plans to extend enforcement jurisdiction from 100 to 200 miles beyond its shores should raise concern.  But it must also be viewed within the context of the long-standing friendship and shared interests of the United States and Canada on such matters as environmental protection, trade (ca. $1.5 billion daily) and common security.   Their disagreement over the Northwest Passage has never flared out of control and continues to be the subject of diplomatic attention.

Other existing legal and diplomatic structures provide an imperfect but solid basis for Arctic states to resolve potential disagreements. The Arctic Council is a cooperative forum for states and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference to address a range of environmental and economic problems in the region. The Ilulissat (Greenland) Declaration, signed in May 2008, confirms the will of the five coastal Arctic states – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States – to strengthen existing cooperation based on mutual trust and transparency. Treaties in force in the Arctic cover issues ranging from polar bear protection to pollution by dumping from vessels to biological diversity. Activists and diplomats alike should be concerned and asking hard questions about whether these agreements will be sufficient, or sufficiently enforced,to protect the Arctic, but to pretend that it is a lawless region up for grabs ignores the facts.
Above: The USCG Cutter Healy and the Canadian icebreaker Louis St. Laurent
underway together in the Arctic Ocean earlier this week.

To be sure, the Arctic now faces enormous environmental and governmental challenges. Non-Arctic states are also legitimately concerned as to whether the Arctic countries will be good stewards of the Arctic’s immense resources. Having just spent three weeks surrounded by the unearthly beauty and light-filled vastness of the Arctic Ocean, I more than endorse the New York Times’ call for cooperation in face of the potential for expanded resource exploitation, environmental degradation and security risks as the ice melts. But to characterize the Arctic as a “scene of commercial and territorial conflict” overstates the case. Perversely, it also contributes rhetorically to escalating tensions rather than under-girding the very cooperation that the paper advocates.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

#18 September in Barrow - Return to Land

The LOS mapping crew disembarked USCG Healy on 5 September after three weeks at sea, escaping the worst of quite a storm that was brewing to our north off of the Russian coastline. Just as at the start of the trip, we were transferred by helicopter between ship and shore to the North Slope Borough Search and Rescue hangar in Barrow, the northernmost town in the US.

Barrow, AK is home to over 4,000 people and to the BASC - the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.   With funding from the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs, BASC encourages and provides logistical support for Arctic research.   Its research and education initiatives pertain to Alaska's North Slope, the Arctic Ocean off of the North Slope, and Chukotka, Russia.  BASC is the successor in a line of institutions that began with the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory founded by the Navy in 1947, although the US research presence in Barrow traces sporadically back to the late 19th century.

Above: accommodations the last night in Barrow: luxury quonset hut on the BASC campus

BASC shares it main building a few short miles out of town on one of Barrow's dirt roads, with the local community college, Sivunmun Ilisagvik Arctic College, and the Mayor's Workforce Development Programs.  Ilisagvik is a two year tribal college "dedicated to perpetuating and strengthening Inupiat (Eskimo) culture, language, values and traditions.

The Arctic Summer was nearing its end as we returned to Barrow.  The tundra was turning to shades of reds and heather, a fall foliage beautiful in its own spare way.

Monday, September 8, 2008

#17 Dredging


September 3, 2008

An ocean mapping cruise is mostly about forward motion, trying to map as much territory, around the clock, as time allows. But other projects on board require us to stop from time to time (see, e.g. my entry #12 about the on-ice deployment of a NOAA/National Ice Center buoy). We have spent the last few days of the trip dredging at various sites to get a sense of what kinds of rocks are in different parts of the ocean. Getting the rocks is really only the beginning. From here they will be taken back to various campuses for analysis under the careful eye of a few geologists. Their analyses will contribute to the larger picture of what the Arctic Ocean floor is made of and how the ocean basin was formed.

Kelley Brumley (in pink hard-hat), our fantastic on-board tectonic geology scholar, led the rock end of the dredging effort with the help of Healy's Marine Science Technicians (see entry #9), Dale Chayes of Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Alex Andronikov (blue hard-hat) a volcanics expert from the University of Michigan Department of Geology. The actual dredging requires much planning and logistical coordination:
- Identifying the right dredge sites based on sparse mapping of the region,
- Finding the actual site and hoping there is not too much ice over it,
- Breaking any ice that is there,
- Conducting a drift test which helps with the next step,
- Keeping the boat stationary over the site for the two to three hours it can take to run a dredge two to three thousand meters down and haul it back up,
- Properly preparing and securing the dredge, which weighs 700 pounds empty! (it is not uncommon to lose them if they snag on some unseen formation hundreds or thousands of meters below).
- Briefing all participants, and ensuring their safety (keeping non-essential personnel clear of the fantail for the hour or two that the dredge needs to pulls up its load under very high tension).
- Once the dredge is hauled back up, weigh the contents, which can be over a thousand pounds! Lots of mud involved ---
- Hope for more rocks than mud,
- Once the crane empties the dredge onto the fantail, start hosing down the pile and sorting the rocks. This involves lots of water in cold temperatures, bending, kneeling, lifting bucket after bucket of rocks, drying them and transporting them into the lab for cataloging…

The picture below shows the safety attire (and proves that I am earning my keep – that’s me under the yellow hard hat, happy as a geologist in mud).

#16 Polar Bear II

Bear Number Two, photos by Adriane Colburn

September 2, 2008

Number of Polar Bears seen on the Healy cruise in August 2007 = 21
Number of Polar Bears seen on the Healy cruise in August 2008 = 4

This comparison is nothing more than an anecdote, an observation, but still sits somewhat uncomfortably. [If you’d like more on polar bears, please see my earlier entry # 8 on the topic.] We also saw very few seals this year. Think food chain: where there are seals -- and ice -- there are bears. Fewer seals, fewer bears.

Three of the bears spotted this cruise were seen in the wee hours, one of those for only a fleeting moment; the fourth, spotted on September 2, was seen at a time when most of the crew was awake. The bear also remained in sight for quite a while.

It was fascinating to watch the bear sniffing for prey, poking its nose into the water, testing different routes between the ice islands and open water it encountered. I’ll be bringing back a short film of the bear produced by the NOAA videographer traveling with us, David Sillicorn. For now, here are two still shots of this gorgeous animal. The picture in my mind's eye is all of us standing on the bow in collective awe, really, watching the bear wend its way across the ice scape.

#15 Congestion in the Arctic?

Members of the Healy science crew watch the Louis St.-Laurent's helicopter, which travels with the Louis,
do a fly-by, far, far from land

September 1, 2008

Apologies for the delays in posting, due to technical difficulties on this end.

What are all these ships doing here? or "Three’s a real crowd"

My last entry was Xinhua’s coverage of the Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, a Chinese research vessel. We saw her both on radar and with the naked eye (she was about 15 miles away). Folks who have sailed the Arctic Ocean many times said how exceptionally rare it is to see another vessel up here. Larry Mayer, our chief scientist, said he has never seen another vessel, other than for a pre-planned rendezvous. Many others echoed the same experience; that it felt very, very strange to see another ship in the Arctic.

So you can imagine the dismay on board at seeing two more vessels (on radar) in two more days. The first was the Louis Saint Laurent, the Canadian icebreaker that will join the Healy for the next leg of its journey. That was less of a surprise, although this was not a planned meeting. The Healy will break ice for the Louis, a smaller Canadian icebreaker, which will tow seismic mapping equipment. The picture shows their ship’s helicopter coming to check us out --- a little show of Canadian muscle, perhaps? Another fog-bow showed up about the same time they did.

The third foreign vessel spotted this week was the Mirai, a Japanese research ship that is "ice-strengthened", but not an icebreaker. The only sign we had of it, some 30 miles away, was its trail on our radar mapping system (all ships must broadcast their unique AIS code – automated identification signal).

This hard evidence of increased interest in the Arctic from non-Arctic states reflects the fact that, as it melts, the Arctic Ocean is opening up to more traffic of all kinds. The Arctic Council will soon issue the final version of its interim 2006 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment to provide some sense of the number of vessels plying the Arctic. The final report is expected in the fall of 2008. Until the interim report, nobody has really had a firm grasp on the number of non-military vessels in the Arctic Ocean.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

#14 China in the Arctic

11:40, August 03, 2008
Icebreaker Xuelong sails into Arctic

The icebreaker Xuelong, the carrier for China's third scientific Arctic expedition, sailed into the Arctic early on Saturday, and the scientists aboard will get down to their Arctic research soon.

The Xuelong, or "Snow Dragon," crossed into the Arctic region at 01:58 local time (1358 GMT Friday) with some 110 scientists on board. The Arctic region covers an area of 21 million square kilometers the North Pole.

Members of China's third scientific Arctic expedition celebrate their entrance into the Arctic region August 2, 2008. (Xinhua)

The team will conduct comprehensive observations and research on the the Chukchi Sea, the submarine plateau of the Chukchi Sea and the Canada Basin, and is scheduled to return to the Port of Shanghai, China, on Sep. 25.

Zhang Haisheng, chief scientist of the team, said that as the Arctic has a notable influence on the climate in China, the current expedition will focus its research on the Arctic climate change's impact on climate change in China, as well as the unique biological and genes resources, and Arctic geology and geophysics.

The icebreaker set off on July 11 from Shanghai and reached the Arctic Circle after a three-week journey through the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea and the Bering strait.

Source: Xinhua
Copyright by People's Daily Online, All Rights Reserved

#13 Ice III

Satellite image concentration of sea ice on Canadian Archipelago (right side, purple = thicker ice)
Ice – III
Melting and Moving Ice
2008-08-30The few media reports that filter their way through our limited internet access this far north show that experts are expecting new lows in arctic ice yet again this summer. Traveling with an ice scientist on board the Healy allows us to understand better what we are seeing first-hand as we pass through what is clearly a melting and shifting ice scape. Dr. Pablo Clemente-Colon, originally from Puerto Rico, is the lead scientist at the National Ice Center, which is part of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A few statistics from Pablo help set the scene for what we are seeing: a mix of differently aged ice and a disappearance of the thickest, oldest multi-year arctic ice. As more multi-year ice melts each summer, it is harder for it to recover in winter. The thicker, older ice is replaced with younger, thinner ice, which also melts more quickly in the summer. Both kinds of melting open up more water and create more melt pools on what ice remains: both kinds of water are darker than snow and ice. With increasingly less (white) ice to reflect solar energy and increasingly more (dark) water to absorb it, the feedback loop is exacerbated and melting is accelerated, in what is known as the albedo effect.
Slide courtesy of Dr. Pablo Clemente-Colón

Summer is always a melting season for arctic ice, but over the 28 years since 1979, when satellite measurements first began, the drop in summer ice coverage of the Arctic has been considerable. Pablo provided the first two figures below; the NSIDC* provided the last one, showing the following declines in summer ice coverage in the Arctic:

September 1979: 14.16 million km2
September 2007: 3.98 million km2
August 2008*: 3.43 million km2

*From the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which is a separate entity from the NIC.
With some two weeks still to go in the Arctic summer the last figure above is likely to drop even more. And this is despite the fact that the past winter (2008-08) was colder than the year before and allowed the ice to recover some over the winter months.

The preceding information about the extent of ice cover is gathered primarily by satellite. Ice thickness is another important indicator, measured by buoys that are positioned in the ice and drift with it throughout the various arctic seasons. Buoy data over the last twenty years shows a decrease in thickness of the ice (see figure above).

Based on these figures and other observations, ice experts seem to agree that the actual rate of ice decrease is faster than in previous years. There is simply not much 10+ year ice now left. The thickest ice we have seen appears to be more along the lines of 4 to 5 year ice; only when we stopped at the ice island to deploy the buoy did we come close to seeing thicknesses indicating an age of 8 to 10 years old multi-year ice. As Pablo says, the "precipitous decrease in older ice 1988-1990" is simply continuing. Once that older ice disappears, either by melting or by being moved out of the Arctic by wind and ocean currents, it is much harder to keep the overall ice pack intact.

The image below shows the difference between 1987 and 2007 in the amount of multi-year ice (in white). Steve Howard, the high school science teacher who is traveling with us, describes the movement of ice in the arctic as follows. Since I shared his misconception about how ice moves in the Arctic, I pick up his narrative there:

"One major misconception that I had was that the thickest part of the Arctic Ice Cap was centered on the North Pole. I see now that the ice coverage up here is very dynamic, with wind and water currents pushing the floes around the Arctic Ocean basin like flakes in a cereal bowl. Currently, the thickest ice is not centered on the Pole, but closer to the northern coast of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. [As Pablo indicates]… . the Arctic sea ice is retreating faster than previous climate change models had predicted, a consequence of an overall warming of the Arctic at twice the global rate in combination with other atmospheric and oceanic processes…. Anomalous weather patterns, perhaps associated with o ther global changes, have helped blow a lot of this ice out of the Arctic Basin and into the Atlantic Ocean, where it drifts southward and eventually melts." To read more of Steve’s chronicles of day-to-day activities and life on board the Healy, visit his blog.

#12 Ice II - Buoy reprise

Ice II - Buoy reprise
Friday, 2008-08-29
Well, we finally reached a spot on the old multi-year ice floe that allowed one of the weather buoys to be deployed. If you look at the pictures of the ice above, you will see in part why an ice liberty was decided against (an ice liberty being the chance for all crew to get out onto the ice). There were too many melt pools and structural uncertainties. What you can see in the view from the deck is that the ice was so thick we could not break our way any further into it to get to a more stable section. This is the thickest and oldest multi-year ice we have seen the entire trip, and the type of ice that is so rapidly disappearing from the Arctic (see my Ice – III blog entry #13 for more details).

Landing folks on the ice is quite an effort. The Coast Guard crew uses a crane to lift the open steel box (the "man cage") from deck to ice, carrying one or two people each trip. The first two on ice are the rescue swimmer (yellow suit) and armed polar bear watch. (Polar bears can come out of nowhere at about 30 mph). Both men check the ice for the best place for the others to work. Once the buoy and three other men were on the ice they were able to drill a hole and set up the buoy pretty quickly. The whole operation took about an hour (not including the travel time into the ice floe).

I promised a short bit about Walt Lincoln and Peter Legnos, the business partners who designed and built the buoys. They are engineers, seamen and adventurers, now both based in Connecticut. Walt’s quiet intelligence and vision reflect his MIT PhD and his time as a submariner and Navy captain. Peter started building and sailing boats when he was just a high school kid; decades later he still hasn’t stopped experimenting in the vessels and buoys he designs. They both saw the need for an arctic buoy that could operate in water or in ice.
Until recently, most of the US National Ice Center buoys were built for ice covered polar waters and designed to be deployed on multi-year ice. As the multi-year ice melts, those buoys are sinking and researchers need to find new ways to fill in data gathering blanks. This is where the seasonal buoys that Walt and Peter are developing come in. A NOAA Small Business Innovative Research Grant funds production of their buoys, which are being deployed as part of the larger International Arctic Buoy Program (IABP). The IABP is not a classic international organization, but acts as a forum for sharing of buoy information amongst the arctic states, and other interested states and entities (e.g. Japan, the World Meteorological Organization). All of the members coordinate to provide as much buoy coverage as possible for monitoring ice, weather and other data in the Arctic Ocean. The IABP is yet another example of a functioning mechanism between arctic states that does not need the formal structural requirements of international organizations yet manages to provide an effective forum for the states that know most about a particular arctic issue to address it first hand.

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.