The Arctic Ocean: 1000 Possibilities and Perils

By Jeremia Schrock and Amber Sandlin

Sun Star Reporters

The melting sea ice

By the year 2038, the fabled Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean may finally be open.

For the past 30 years, the Arctic has been losing it’s summer sea ice. If the climate doesn’t change, Arctic sea ice will continue to vanish until there is nothing left to melt, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) website. NOAA projections have shown that by 2038, the Arctic may be almost entirely ice-free during the summer months.

For polar bears and other forms of Alaska wildlife that rely on that sea ice, this is a problem. For Alaska’s human population, it is an opportunity. That opportunity is the possibility of opening the North Slope to trans-Arctic shipping.

“Right now, few people think that Arctic shipping is going to be an issue,” said Hajo Eicken, a professor of sea ice geophysics at UAF, citing several potential problems to be faced by a hypothetical trans-Arctic shipping company. These problems include: less weather predictability, higher fuel cost, and the necessity for ships to be built with thicker hulls capable of withstanding an impact with an iceberg.

An Arctic Ocean free of summer sea ice is no guarantee for an Arctic free of icebergs, said Eicken. A problem that summertime Alaskan waters would face is icebergs formed from the calving events of the increasingly unstable ice shelves found in the Canadian Arctic. Some of these bergs would subsequently become caught in the Beaufort Gyre to then be flung past Alaska’s North Slope. The Beaufort Gyre is a wind-driven ice circulation pattern near the North Pole.

The impact on Arctic shipping

“If [Arctic marine shipping] is done carefully and responsibly, it [will] have very little impact on the environment,” said Todd O’Hara, a UAF scientist who specializes in the wildlife toxicology of Arctic marine mammals. While O’Hara is willing to admit he supports the opening of the Arctic to shipping, he feels that ascertaining the environmental costs of such an endeavor are crucial in determining its worth.

O’Hara cited the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as proof that, in the event of a disaster, coordinating an appropriate response is critical. He added that in the event of an Arctic disaster, Canada and the U.S. would probably work close together. Eicken felt the same.

One organization that is concerned with the annual loss of sea ice is the United States Arctic Research Commission (USARC).  USARC held its 94th meeting this past week at UAF to discuss issues facing the Arctic region. However, concern by the commission over thinning Arctic ice and its potential ramifications for the region date back to as early as 2002. According to one USARC article, the “Canadian Archipelago will be ice-free and open to navigation by non ice-strengthened ships in summer.”

The unpredictability of polar environments has led organizations like the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and the University of the Arctic Institute for Applied Circumpolar Policy (IACP) to begin discussing the problems of maintaining maritime law enforcement and marine safety in such regions.

Dangerous fun

One event cited by the USCG occurred off the coast of Antarctica in November 2007. A cruise liner, the MS Explorer, struck an iceberg while sailing through the Bransfield Strait near King George Island. While the passengers and crew were rescued after only five hours adrift, their rescue was made possible because of their proximity to several other merchant vessels, as well as the Argentinean and Chilean coast guard

Princess Cruises, one of Alaska’s biggest cruise lines, said that they currently have no intention of expanding their maritime tourism business to the Arctic Ocean in the event that it becomes ice free.

A distant protector

The biggest prohibition in Arctic marine safety is the lack of infrastructure. In the eventuality that “full seasonal operations in the Arctic” become necessary, the USCG will be the primary provider of maritime safety and security in the region. In fact, an internal presentation within the USCG said, “the Arctic is upon us.”

According to an interview in the North Slope newspaper, The Arctic Sounder, Capt. William Deal, the commanding officer of the USCG air station at Kodiak, said any rescue attempt as far north as the Arctic “would likely require use of a Coast Guard icebreaker or air-refuelable helicopters from the U.S. Air Force.” Deal was referencing an event that occurred in June where the USCG sent a C-130 out of Kodiak to assess whether or not a team of Russian researchers near the North Pole was under distress. They were not.

Currently, there is no USCG station or forward operating base located anywhere on the North Slope. However, the building of a USCG station at Point Barrow is currently in the works, according to Jeremy Zidek, a spokesperson for the State of Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHS&EM).

“It is certainly a concern that more shipping is going on there,” Zidek added.

A changing ecosystem

For UAF wildlife biologist Skip Walker, if the Arctic were open today there would be an immediate “increased human presence in the Arctic.”  Walker, who focuses on the disturbance and recovery of Arctic ecosystems, foresees an ice-free Arctic as providing Alaska with increased access to its natural resources, making their development more economically feasible. In all likelihood, these developments would act as a stimulant to Alaska’s economy.

“As far as ecosystems go, this is a huge question that goes beyond the consequences of the Arctic becoming a major shipping route,” he continued. “Obviously, melting sea ice would allow shipping lanes to open up. But the melting sea-ice also has big impacts on the adjacent land areas.”

Walker believes that over the next century, Alaska will see gradual changes to its Arctic ecosystems, adding that the loss of coastal summer sea-ice along mainland areas that are currently tundra “would very likely cause these areas to change to boreal forest,” much as they would have been during the Late Cretaceous period 65 million years ago.

Proposed Arctic Shipping Routes. Photo illustration by Heather Bryant.

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1 Response

  1. October 20, 2010

    […] The Arctic Ocean: 1000 Possibilities and Perils – Capt. William Deal, the commanding officer of the USCG air station at Kodiak, said any rescue attempt as far north as the Arctic “would likely require use of a Coast Guard icebreaker or air-refuelable helicopters from the U.S. Air Force.” Deal was referencing an event that occurred in June where the USCG sent a C-130 out of Kodiak to assess whether or not a team of Russian researchers near the North Pole was under distress. They were not. Currently, there is no USCG station or forward operating base located anywhere on the North Slope. However, the building of a USCG station at Point Barrow is currently in the works, according to Jeremy Zidek, a spokesperson for the State of Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHS&EM). […]

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