Rough waters for Arctic research

A recent article from Reuters paints a bleak picture for research in the Arctic. International conflict over resources has strained scientific cooperation, while oil companies’ financial means give them the ability to contract icebreaker ships for long periods of geophysical surveying, shutting out scientists.

The good news is that there are also some bright spots. Ironically, the global recession has actually had at least one beneficial impact on Arctic oceanography: for the first time since the 1980s, the U.S. will construct a ship dedicated entirely to research. The National Science Foundation is using $200 million of the money it received in stimulus funding to build the Alaska Region Research Vessel (ARRV). The ship will be able to break through 2.5 feet of ice and will be docked in Seward, Alaska.

Currently, researchers in the Arctic are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They either have to use ships that are designed for research, but lack icebreaker capabilities, or they must rely on the U.S. Navy’s Arctic icebreakers, which are best suited for defense – not science. The ARRV, however, will finally allow scientists to carry out research on a ship optimized for their needs.

According to the ARRV website, proposed research projects include “furthering our understanding of sea ice recession, changing ocean currents and Arctic habitats and ocean acidification,” along with extensive seafloor mapping.” Only 10 percent of the Arctic is mapped to international standards. Lawrence Brigham, an Arctic sea expert, remarked that the hydrographic data base is not sufficient to support safe operations.”

The vessel is still a long way off though, with delivery scheduled for 2013 and research expected to begin in 2014.

But just because American oceanographers and climatologists will have a ship at their disposal doesn’t mean that research will be entirely easy to conduct. As the Reuters article points out, the race for resources in the Arctic, especially oil and gas, is causing countries to be more defensive about their borders, and less keen on scientific expeditions entering into national waters. For instance, 12 of the 14 requests made by U.S. researchers to take soil samples from Russian waters have been turned down.

2008 RUSALCA Expedition
2008 RUSALCA Expedition Map

Contrastingly, there are some heartening signs of cooperation, one of them being the ongoing Russian-American Long-term Census of the Arctic (RUSALCA) expedition, a joint project between Russia and the U.S. to map the waters around the Bering Strait and farther north into the Arctic. Since 2004, scientists on deck have been charting the Bering and Chuchki Seas, which fall into both Russian and American territory. It is a promising sign that the Kremlin has allowed American scientists into their waters at all. You can follow the work done aboard the Professor Khromov here.

The Professor Khromov, © RUSALCA. Taken by A. Ostrovskiy
The Professor Khromov, © RUSALCA. Taken by A. Ostrovskiy

Russia and America aren’t the only two countries cooperating, of course. Canada and Denmark, which have been haggling over Hans Island for years, have worked together on a bathymetric survey to map the area between northern Canada, near Ward Hunt Island, and Greenland. The Canadian Hydrographic Service, the Danish National Survey and Cadastre and the Danish Maritime Safety Administration are all involved in the survey, which is written about in some detail here.

Now if all six Arctic nations could pool their resources together, maybe the Arctic would finally be mapped to international standards.

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