Monday, September 8, 2008

#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.

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.