The Blog Aquatic » Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Why We’re Having Giant Waves in the Arctic Ocean http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/04/why-were-having-giant-waves-in-the-arctic-ocean/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/08/04/why-were-having-giant-waves-in-the-arctic-ocean/#comments Mon, 04 Aug 2014 13:00:47 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8922

Photo: Jupiter Unlimited

Findings from a recent study suggest that continued reductions in seasonal ice cover in the Arctic Ocean will lead to bigger waves capable of breaking up remaining sea ice and accelerating ice loss. In the past, much of the Arctic Ocean was covered with sea ice all year round. With little open water, even the fiercest storms could not generate big waves.


In recent years, though, sea ice has retreated dramatically in the summertime, creating much more open water. That open water provides ample room for storms to generate significant waves in the Arctic Ocean. According to an article in the Washington Post, authors of the study found that a September 2012 storm in the Beaufort Sea, off the northern coast of Alaska, generated average wave heights of 16 feet during a peak period. At least one wave reached 29 feet in height. The researchers observed that these new, bigger and more powerful waves could “be the feedback mechanism which drives the Arctic system toward an ice-free summer.”

Results from the research appear in Geophysical Research Letters are available here.

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New Report Will Promote Integrated Arctic Management http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/30/new-report-will-promote-integrated-arctic-management/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/30/new-report-will-promote-integrated-arctic-management/#comments Wed, 30 Jul 2014 15:03:53 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8881

Photo: Jay DeFehr

With a new University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) report, we finally have a comprehensive view of oil, gas, and commercial transportation development in Arctic Alaska.

In a report to the President issued last year, a federal interagency working group called for a new, integrated approach to stewardship and development decisions in the U.S. Arctic. This new approach—called “Integrated Arctic Management”—is intended to integrate and balance “environmental, economic, and cultural needs and objectives” in the region.

Effective application of Integrated Arctic Management demands not only an understanding of Arctic ecosystems, but an understanding of the impacts of industrial development in the region. Until now, information on industrial development in the U.S. Arctic has been available only in piecemeal fashion, scattered throughout a range of documents and publications. This has made it difficult to understand how planned and proposed development activities will intersect with existing industrial operations to affect the region as a whole.

Fortunately, the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) recently released a report that addresses this information gap. The new report, entitled “A Synthesis of Existing, Planned, and Proposed Infrastructure and Operations Supporting Oil and Gas Activities and Commercial Transportation in Arctic Alaska,” takes a holistic view of industrial infrastructure and operations on Alaska’s North Slope. While the report is an independent publication of UAF, Ocean Conservancy provided support for the project and the underlying research and analysis.

The report compiles information about oil and gas activities and commercial transportation in the U.S. Arctic from a range of sources, including environmental analyses, planning documents, and industry materials. The report considers wells, roads, pipelines, and facilities that already exist in Arctic Alaska. It also looks at planned and proposed industrial infrastructure that may be built and operated in coming years, such as offshore energy development that could result from Shell’s oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea. To help readers visualize the scope and scale of development operations, the report includes a variety of maps depicting different portions of the Arctic and the region as a whole. By assembling this information in one place, the synthesis gives stakeholders and decision-makers a valuable reference for the region that has been previously unavailable.

There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding increased energy development in Arctic Alaska, but the report makes clear that if planned and proposed projects go forward, they could result in a significant expansion of industrial infrastructure and operations in the region, both onshore and offshore. This could include the construction of hundreds of new structures, thousands of new wells, and thousands of miles of new pipelines and roads. The new industrial development would greatly expand the industrial “footprint” in Arctic Alaska.

The report does not take a position on this potential expansion of industrial development in the U.S. Arctic. It does, however, give decision-makers and stakeholders ready access to information that can help them better understand how proposed industrial development activities may combine in ways that could have profound impacts on Arctic ecosystems and people. In doing so, it can facilitate integrated, long-term decision-making that will minimize and mitigate negative impacts associated with development. This will provide a strong foundation from which to explore alternative visions for Arctic conservation and development—something that Ocean Conservancy plans to pursue in the coming year.

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Help Us Say No to Risky Arctic Drilling http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/24/help-us-say-no-to-risky-arctic-drilling/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/07/24/help-us-say-no-to-risky-arctic-drilling/#comments Thu, 24 Jul 2014 13:21:51 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8806

Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Breaking: The U.S. government is beginning to make plans for future offshore oil and gas operations—and those plans could open Arctic waters to risky drilling.

This follows Shell Oil’s decision to abandon Arctic drilling this summer, after an accident-plagued 2012.

If a disaster like BP Deepwater Horizon happened in the Arctic, spill response would be even more challenging. The Arctic’s sea ice, freezing temperatures, gale force winds, and lack of visibility could make cleanup next to impossible.


The government’s public comment period ends on July 31, so we only have 10 days to respond. We need you to tell the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to say no to risky Arctic drilling now.

Take a stand against oil and gas operations in the Arctic Ocean. Act now, and tell BOEM not to open additional Arctic waters to oil and gas drilling!

The Arctic Ocean and all those who depend on it are already under stress. The rapidly changing climate, including extreme deterioration of the summer sea ice, is putting Arctic marine animals at risk. Many people who live in coastal communities in the Arctic depend on a clean and healthy ocean to support their subsistence way of life. Offshore drilling for oil and gas would expose this already fragile ecosystem to significant noise, pollution and traffic.

Stand against risky oil and gas operations in the Arctic Ocean. Tell BOEM not to open additional Arctic waters to oil and gas drilling!

 

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How We Can Respond to Increased Shipping in the Bering Strait http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/05/28/how-we-can-respond-to-increased-shipping-in-the-bering-strait/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/05/28/how-we-can-respond-to-increased-shipping-in-the-bering-strait/#comments Wed, 28 May 2014 12:50:56 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8407 Recent posts on The Blog Aquatic have focused on the Bering Strait: the 50-mile-wide gateway that separates Alaska from Russia, and that provides the only marine passage between the North Pacific and the Arctic oceans.

Two weeks ago, we highlighted the extraordinary abundance of wildlife that migrates through the Bering Strait each spring—from bowhead whales and ice-dependent seals to walruses and seabirds. We also emphasized the importance of the region’s highly productive marine ecosystem to the residents of coastal communities who rely on marine resources to support their subsistence way of life and cultural traditions.

Last week’s blog entry described how the retreat of seasonal sea ice in the Arctic has facilitated the steady growth of vessel traffic through the Bering Strait. We noted that these additional ship transits will cause more air, water and noise pollution; elevate the risk of ship strikes and the potential for introduction of invasive species; and increase the odds of major spills that could have catastrophic effects on the ecosystem. And we described how the Bering Strait’s harsh environmental conditions, remoteness, and lack of infrastructure combine to increase operational risks and create enormous challenges for those who would respond to accidents in the region.

How should we respond to these threats?

We can take one option off the table right away: closing the Bering Strait to vessel traffic is not a viable approach. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law, the Bering Strait is considered an international strait, which means that vessels of all nations have rights to “continuous and expeditious transit of the strait.”

Fortunately, there are more pragmatic ways to mitigate the risks associated with increasing vessel traffic in the Bering Strait. Some of these measures include:

  • Improve weather forecasts and nautical charting: Weather and sea-ice forecasts in the Bering Strait are not optimal; the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) admits that weather “prediction capabilities are currently poorer in the Arctic than in other parts of the United States.” Better forecasts would help mariners identify and manage risks. In addition, the Bering Strait, along with other marine waters in the U.S. Arctic, is not charted to modern standards. NOAA’s April 2014 Arctic Action Plan describes current charting data as “inadequate or nonexistent” and recognizes that better charting “would improve maritime safety and efficiency” in the region. Nautical charts are essential tools for maritime navigation.
  • Establish vessel traffic lanes. Designating mandatory lanes for ship traffic in the Bering Strait would increase safety and reduce the chance of collisions. It would also help ensure that vessels stay well offshore, providing additional response time in the event that a ship loses propulsion or experiences some other difficulty. Additional response time may prove critical in this remote area.
  • Designate areas to be avoided. As the name implies, designation of areas to be avoided establishes regions of the ocean that are off-limits to ship traffic. In the Bering Strait, strategic designation of Areas to be Avoided would help ensure that vessels steer clear of hazards and areas that may be especially sensitive to impacts from traffic.
  • Enhance communications and reporting systems: Establishing a more robust communication and reporting protocol for the Bering Strait region would facilitate information exchange among the Coast Guard, vessels, and local communities. Some of this information exchange could be accomplished automatically, using the automatic identification systems (AIS) carried by most vessels. Two-way communication could help alert mariners to the presence of marine mammals, subsistence activities, or hazardous ice conditions in the area. Enhanced vessel monitoring could assist with the early identification of vessels in distress and encourage mariners to comply with regulatory requirements.

These are just a few possibilities. Other options are available to enhance safety, limit water and air pollution, and improve response speed and capacity in the event of an accident in the region.

While none of these options is particularly complicated, implementation of regulatory measures in the Bering Strait is made more challenging because of the region’s status as an international strait. For example, that status places limits on the ability of the United States to regulate foreign-flagged vessels transiting the strait. More comprehensive regulation can be achieved through the International Maritime Organization (IMO), but the IMO’s processes can take considerable time to unfold.

These challenges make it all the more important to get a head start on addressing the threats of increasing vessel traffic through the Bering Strait. Now is the time to set in motion the measures that will increase safety, reduce environmental risks, and enhance the capacity to respond effectively when something goes wrong.

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Increased Shipping Could Cause Serious Impacts in the Bering Strait http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/05/20/increased-shipping-could-cause-serious-impacts-in-the-bering-strait/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/05/20/increased-shipping-could-cause-serious-impacts-in-the-bering-strait/#comments Tue, 20 May 2014 12:30:41 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8327 The Bering Strait—the only marine gateway between Pacific and Arctic oceans—is a key biological hotspot. As this recent blog post explained, the strait hosts an extraordinary abundance of wildlife. Every spring, huge numbers of marine mammals and birds migrate north through the strait on their way to Arctic waters.

In recent years, the Bering Strait has also turned into a hotspot for shipping. As sea ice in the Arctic retreats, vessel traffic is growing steadily. A recent analysis by the U.S. Coast Guard notes that “commercial ventures in the Arctic have increased maritime traffic in the Bering Strait. From 2008 to 2012, traffic through the Bering Strait increased by 118 percent.” Many types of vessels contribute to the growth in maritime traffic. Some of these ships provide supplies to coastal communities, some support oil and gas activities, and some travel between Europe and Asia across the Arctic Ocean on the Northern Sea Route along the Russian Arctic coast.

To be clear, the current level of vessel traffic in the Bering Strait is modest compared to other major shipping corridors, such as the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, or even the Great Circle Route through the Aleutian Islands. At the same time, however, the Bering Strait poses distinct challenges that increase objective risks. These include a remote operating environment, the presence of seasonal sea ice and the relative absence of basic maritime infrastructure and information. A 2012 report by the State of Alaska’s Northern Waters Task Force cited a shortage “of detailed navigational charts, reliable weather forecasting, vessel traffic separation protocols, search and rescue infrastructure, and overall maritime domain awareness.”

There’s no doubt that growth in vessel traffic through the Bering Strait will result in increased impacts. These include higher levels of noise pollution and air emissions, more discharge of pollutants into the water, and increased potential for the introduction of invasive species. These impacts pose threats to the Bering Strait’s fish, birds, marine mammals and human communities. In addition, as the ice-free season lengthens and vessel traffic grows, there is greater potential for ships to strike bowhead whales and other marine mammals as they migrate through the Bering Strait, injuring or killing individual animals.

And then there’s the risk of a major accident resulting in a large spill, such as we have seen in Alaska’s heavily trafficked  Aleutian Islands. As the Coast Guard concluded in its 2013 Arctic Strategy, multiple factors combine to “make the Bering Strait region increasingly vulnerable to maritime casualties,” such as vessel groundings, spills, and collisions. If a marine disaster took place in the Bering Strait during a critical migration period, it could have catastrophic consequences for a large number of individual animals, and it could affect a number of species important to the region’s ecology.

These impacts could also spill over to harm the people who live in Bering Strait communities and depend on the region’s biological resources to support their way of life. The threat of a major oil spill is of particular concern in potentially icy waters, like those of the Bering Strait, because sea ice can significantly reduce the effectiveness of mechanical oil containment and removal technologies.

Given the rapid increase in vessel traffic, the remoteness and lack of infrastructure, the ecological importance of the area and the potential for truly significant impacts to wildlife and people, there is an urgent need to improve maritime safety and environmental protection in the Bering Strait region. Fortunately, a variety of tools are available to help achieve that objective. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post that will identify some of the most promising options.

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Oil and Ice Still Don’t Mix in the Arctic http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/30/oil-and-ice-still-dont-mix-in-the-arctic/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/30/oil-and-ice-still-dont-mix-in-the-arctic/#comments Wed, 30 Apr 2014 15:05:36 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8144

On April 23, the National Research Council (NRC) released a new report that reviews state of science and technology with respect to spill response and environmental assessment in the U.S. Arctic Ocean. Ocean Conservancy provided recommendations and comments to the NRC as it conducted its research last year.

Now that the NRC has published its final report, we are pleased to see that it confirms what we’ve known all along: there are major barriers to effective oil spill response in Arctic waters. These include lack of information, lack of infrastructure, and lack of preparedness to deal with adverse environmental conditions.

Knowledge gaps: baselines, data on physical and biological status, and understanding of the fate and behavior of oil under sea ice conditions are all inadequate.

The NRC report correctly notes that effective spill response and recovery requires a “fundamental understanding of the dynamic Arctic region.” Unfortunately, current knowledge of the Arctic marine environment is plagued by significant gaps. For example, the NRC found that existing data in the Arctic “do not provide reliable baselines to assess current environmental or ecosystem states” and cannot fully anticipate future impacts. It also determined that “[p]opulation sizes and trends for most U.S. Arctic marine mammals are poorly known,” and “shoreline and hydrographic data are mostly obsolete, with limited tide, current, and water level data and very little ability to get accurate positioning and elevation.” Other shortcomings? Spill trajectory models “have not been calibrated for the full range of environmental factors encountered in the Arctic” and “reliable oil spill trajectory models for oil fate and behavior under sea ice conditions have not been established.”

Infrastructure: equipment and services needed to support response teams are insufficient.

In addition to these knowledge gaps, the NRC report found that the Arctic’s lack of infrastructure “would be a significant liability in the event of a large oil spill.” Responders would be confronted with “a severe shortage” of basic services including “housing, fresh water, food and catering, sewage handling and garbage removal facilities, communications infrastructure, ability to handle heavy equipment, supplies, and hospitals and medical support.” Despite the U.S. Coast Guard’s best efforts, the NRC report concluded that “personnel, equipment, transportation, communication, navigation and safety resources needed for oil spill response are not adequate for overseeing oil spill response in the Arctic.” In short, spill response personnel would likely be unable to react quickly to an oil spill without “improved port and air access, stronger supply chains, and increased capacity to handle equipment, supplies, and personnel.”

Arctic environment: challenging environmental conditions in the Arctic create increased risk for responders.

Environmental conditions in the Arctic present another serious problem for oil spill response. The NRC report recognized that “Arctic conditions impose many challenges for oil spill response—low temperatures and extended periods of darkness in the winter; oil that is encapsulated under ice or trapped in ridges and leads; oil spreading due to sea ice drift and surface currents; reduced effectiveness of conventional containment and recovery systems in measurable ice concentrations; and issues of life and safety of responders.”

While the NRC report is dense and detailed, its overall message is simple: “[m]arine activities in U.S. Arctic waters are increasing without a commensurate increase in the logistics and infrastructure needed to conduct these activities safely.”

Fortunately, the NRC report contains a series of important recommendations designed to remedy some of the shortcomings that the report identified. Implementing those recommendations will take commitment, time and resources. But four years after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and 25 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, those are recommendations we should not ignore.

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Coast Guard Report Shows Shell Failed to Recognize Risk in the Arctic http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/04/coast-guard-report-shows-shell-failed-to-recognize-risk-in-the-arctic/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2014/04/04/coast-guard-report-shows-shell-failed-to-recognize-risk-in-the-arctic/#comments Fri, 04 Apr 2014 19:46:47 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=8002

Photo: Coast Guard

This past Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard released a report on its investigation into the grounding of Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk near Kodiak, Alaska on December 31, 2012. A tug lost control of the Kulluk in heavy weather on the way to Seattle after Shell’s failed attempt to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean in 2012.

The Coast Guard report provides a detailed account of the events before the Kulluk ran aground and identifies a number of causal factors, including lack of experience in Alaska waters, failure to recognize risks, use of inadequate equipment, insufficient planning and preparedness and major problems with the primary towing vessel.

Were there other factors at play? Shell was in a hurry to get its oil rig out of Alaska waters before the end of the year to avoid the possibility a paying taxes to the State of Alaska if the rig remained in Alaska on January 1. The Coast Guard report also found evidence to suggest that Shell’s contractors may have failed to comply with certain legal or regulatory standards and may have committed acts of negligence.

According to the Coast Guard report, Shell’s contractors knew that conditions would be challenging. In an email, the tug’s master wrote: “To be blunt I believe that this length of tow, at this time of year, in this location, with our current routing guarantees an ass kicking.”

Despite these concerns, the towing operation continued. Trouble started when the Kulluk’s towline gave way on December 27. As the situation grew more dangerous, the Coast Guard rescued the 18-member crew of the Kulluk. Although Shell and the Coast Guard made multiple attempts to regain control of the Kulluk, they were ultimately unsuccessful. Late in the day on December 31, the drilling rig ran aground on Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak, Alaska. Fortunately, salvage crews were able to pluck the Kulluk off the shore on January 6 and tow it to a safe harbor. Thankfully, there was no loss of life or major injuries, and the environmental damage was relatively minimal.

How did this happen? Why was one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies unable to carry out a routine towing operation safely? The Coast Guard’s investigation cites a number of causal factors, including:

Lack of experience in Alaska waters: Shell’s contractors lacked experience in the Gulf of Alaska waters, especially in the wintertime. This inexperience manifested as an inability to reduce stress on the towline in an effective manner.

Failure to recognize risk: Shell and its contractors “did not recognize the overall risks involved prior to commencement of the tow,” and did not conduct a formal risk assessment.

Inadequate equipment: Shell and its contractors selected and used towing equipment that was not sufficient for the rough conditions that they encountered.

Insufficient planning and preparedness: Shell’s towing plans “were not adequate for the winter towing operation across the Gulf of Alaska,” and were “not adequately reviewed,” and “lacked proper contingency planning.”

Problems with the primary towing vessel: Shell relied on the Aiviq—a purpose-built tug—as its primary towing vessel. But, according to the Coast Guard report, the Aiviq was plagued by design flaws and suffered from preexisting engine problems.

As I’ve written before, we need to make meaningful changes in the way that government agencies plan for and manage oil and gas operations in the Arctic. Fortunately, we’re starting to see some progress on that front.

Unfortunately, there’s bad news, too: the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is considering selling another round of oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea—a move in exactly the wrong direction, especially after a court recently found fault with the agency’s analysis of its last lease sale. Join me in telling the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to call a halt to this potential Chukchi Sea lease sale. Please sign our petition today

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