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Global warming will spur commerce in Arctic

The NOAA ship Fairweather will start charting Arctic waters this year. PHOTO COURTESY NOAA.

NOAA ship to chart waters in anticipation of increased growth in shipping and commerce in Arctic

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Loss of Arctic sea ice has advanced to the point that shipping companies are seriously looking for new routes  that could speed commerce through the polar region. But navigational charts for the area are outdated, so the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has sent a survey ship to map the area.

“Commercial shippers aren’t the only ones needing assurances of safety in new trade routes,” said Captain John Lowell, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. “The additional potential for passenger cruises, commercial fishing and other economic activities add to pressures for adequate response to navigational risks.”

Just as the growing numbers of cars on a road cause traffic chokepoints, more ships traversing northern passageways can choke maritime traffic, NOAA explained in a press release. These maritime traffic snarls occur when nautical charts are outdated, ships do not have sufficient information for navigation or changing maritime conditions — like sea level rise or movements of the seafloor — are not tracked.

“We have seen a substantial increase in activity in the region and ships are operating with woefully outdated charts,” said Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. “I have introduced legislation that authorizes a significant increase in funding for mapping the Arctic, and I am pleased to see NOAA beginning the process. While this is a good start, we still need more resources to adequately map this region.”

The NOAA ship Fairweather, whose homeport is Ketchikan, Alaska, will spend July and August examining seafloor features, measuring ocean depths and supplying data for updating NOAA’s nautical charts spanning 350 square nautical miles in the Bering Straits around Cape Prince of Wales. The data will also support scientific research on essential fish habitat and will establish new tidal datums in the region.

“In Alaska we are seeing the effects of climate change more rapidly than anywhere else in the U.S.,” said Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat. “As Arctic sea ice recedes, economic activity in the region is going to expand dramatically. Alaskans rely on NOAA to help us make sure that things like oil and gas development and marine transportation are done safely and responsibly,” Begich said.

The U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone includes 568,000 square nautical miles of U.S. Arctic waters. The majority of charted Arctic waters were surveyed with obsolete technology dating back to the 1800s. Most of the shoreline along Alaska’s northern and western coasts has not been mapped since 1960, if ever, and confidence in the region’s nautical charts is extremely low.

About a third of U.S. Arctic waters are considered navigationally significant. Of that area, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey has identified 38,000 square nautical miles as survey priorities. NOAA estimates that it will take well more than 25 years to map the prioritized areas of the Arctic seafloor.

“President Thomas Jefferson ordered a survey of the East Coast in 1807, when our country was losing more ships to unsafe navigation than to war,” explains Capt. David Neander, commanding officer of the Fairweather. “Today, we have better maps of the moon than of our own oceans. Our 46-person crew is amassing ocean data that directly affects our economy and our ecosystems.”

The vessel is equipped with the latest in hydrographic survey technology – multi-beam survey systems; high-speed, high-resolution side-scan sonar; position and orientation systems; hydrographic survey launches; and an on-board data-processing server.

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