NewsFebruary 28, 2013

NOAA to Map Alaska's Increasingly Ice-Free Arctic Waters

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Michael D. Lemonick

By Michael D. Lemonick

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has launched a program to update some of its nautical charts, thanks largely to climate change.

The revisions affect Alaska’s coast, which has America’s only Arctic seafront. As a result of global warming, ice that has historically blocked Arctic waters, even in summer, has been plummeting in recent years, with 2012 ice melting back to the smallest extent since satellite records began. And as sea ice recedes, said NOAA Coast Survey director Rear Admiral Gerd Glang in a press release, “vessel traffic is on the rise.”

Credit: The Guardian

That’s an understatement. The world as a whole is warming due to heat trapped by greenhouse gas emissions, but the Arctic is warming faster than average thanks to something called “Arctic Amplification”: as bright, reflective sea ice melts, it exposes darker ocean waters, which absorb the Sun’s heat. That heat warms the air, which makes new, thick ice harder to form, setting the stage for even greater warming the following season. By 2030, or perhaps even earlier, the Arctic Ocean could be largely ice-free during part of each summer.

Already by 2010, both the Northwest Passage across the Arctic coast of Canada and the Northern Sea Route, across Russia, had been ice-free simultaneously for an unprecedented third year in a row, encouraging a flurry of interest by commercial ship companies. Last summer a Chinese ship navigated the even more reliably frozen route right across the North Pole.

It’s no surprise, since a shortcut through the Arctic Ocean shaves many thousands of miles off the normal shipping routes between Europe and Asia, through the Panama or Suez canals. And while an easier-to-navigate Arctic Ocean and surrounding waters are raising national security concerns for nations that border that chilly sea, NOAA’s job, in part, is to make the area safe for commercial vessels.

Because many of these routes have traditionally been ice-choked, especially along the shore, the agency has never done the sorts of exhaustive surveys that would show precisely where the bottom lies in many places. The 14 new charts planned by NOAA would fill in those gaps as quickly as possible.

“We don’t have decades to get it done,” said Capt. Doug Baird, chief of the Coast Survey’s marine chart division, in the press release describing the agency’s new Arctic Nautical Charting Plan. “Ice diminishment is here now.” 

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