Ocean Currents » the arctic http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Fri, 21 Apr 2017 20:52:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 New Report Evaluates Risks of Vessel Traffic in the Bering Sea http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2017/01/12/new-report-evaluates-risks-of-vessel-traffic-in-the-bering-sea/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2017/01/12/new-report-evaluates-risks-of-vessel-traffic-in-the-bering-sea/#comments Thu, 12 Jan 2017 17:11:24 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=13613

Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries

As Arctic sea ice continues to melt, the Bering Sea—including the narrow Bering Strait—is experiencing more and more ship traffic. As ship traffic increases, so too do the risks, including oil spills, vessel strikes on marine mammals, air pollution, discharge of wastes into the water, and production of underwater noise.

A new report, commissioned by Ocean Conservancy and conducted by Nuka Research and Planning Group LLC, evaluates the risks from vessel traffic in the Bering Strait.

The Bering Sea is used by millions of seabirds, and an array of marine mammals including whales, seals, walruses and polar bears. Alaska Native peoples who live near the Bering Sea depend on its fish and wildlife as a key source of food and to support cultural practices that date back millennia. And the Bering Sea is home to rich commercial fisheries: in 2014, five of the top 10 most valuable commercial fisheries in the United States were based in or near the Bering Sea.

There’s no doubt that these waters are astoundingly abundant, and there is a lot at stake. So what did the risk assessment find about the risks posed by vessel traffic in the Bering Sea?

  • Right now, in the Northern Bering Sea and Bering Strait region, most oil exposure and risk is associated with vessels that service the region, primarily delivering fuel and goods to communities or exporting resources from mines. In contrast, in the Southern Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, most oil exposure comes from vessels that are just passing through the region, transiting Great Circle Route.
  • “Lightering” (transferring fuel from one ship to another offshore via hoses) is a significant source of risk in the Northern Bering Sea.
  • In the future, as more ships transit the Bering Strait, there will be more oil spill exposure.
  • Much of the increase in ship traffic is expected to come from bulk carriers and tankers serving resource extraction projects elsewhere in the Arctic. These vessels are a particular concern because they generally use heavy fuel oil—a “persistent” fuel that, if spilled, would be virtually impossible to clean up and would likely have impacts for years. Cruise ship and tourism traffic is also likely to increase in the future.

Fortunately, the risk assessment makes clear that we can take pragmatic steps to reduce the risks from increasing vessel traffic in the Bering Sea. In doing so, we should make use of extensive traditional knowledge from Alaska Natives about the Bering Sea ecosystem to inform the development of mitigation measures and response planning. Some options could include:

  • Using routing measures such as traffic lanes and Areas to be Avoided to reduce exposure to hazards;
  • Improving vessel communications and monitoring systems to help avoid conflicts between vessels and subsistence hunters and to reduce impacts to marine mammal aggregations;
  • Tightening requirements for vessel waste management to avoid or reduce impacts of harmful pollution;
  • Engaging in rigorous planning for disabled vessels so that incidents don’t become accidents;
  • Evaluating lightering practices to determine whether there are ways to improve safety and reduce the risk of spills; an
  • Developing community spill response that incorporates not only local response capacity but also local input into response planning.

The Bering Sea hosts abundant marine life that supports the people of the region, as well as rich commercial fisheries. And now, the Bering Sea and Bering Strait are growing more important as an international shipping route. Ocean Conservancy is working with others who care about the health and resilience of the Bering Sea to advance practical, common-sense ways to reduce the risks associated with vessel traffic. Putting in place key measures to increase safety and reduce risk makes sense now, and will pay dividends in the future, as shipping transits through the Bering Strait and Bering Sea increase.

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A New Year, a New Set of Rules for Polar Waters http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2017/01/06/a-new-year-a-new-set-of-rules-for-polar-waters/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2017/01/06/a-new-year-a-new-set-of-rules-for-polar-waters/#comments Fri, 06 Jan 2017 13:03:31 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=13581

It’s 2017, and a suite of new standards and practices are now in place for vessels operating in Arctic and Antarctic waters. The new set of rules—called the Polar Code—is designed to increase ship safety and environmental protection in high-latitude waters. Adopted by a specialized agency of the United Nations called the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the Polar Code sets standards for ship safety and for prevention of pollution from international shipping. The Polar Code took effect on January 1 of this year (with a one-year phase in period).

The Polar Code is so important because as sea ice continues to decline, the Arctic Ocean is becoming more accessible to vessel traffic. But as more ships operate in those remote and challenging waters, there are substantial safety and environmental risks—including possible impacts to food security of Arctic indigenous peoples.

The Polar Code includes both mandatory and recommendatory measures intended to mitigate the risk of Arctic shipping. For instance, vessels operating in polar waters must now apply for a Polar Ship certificate, which requires an assessment of the vessel’s suitability for intended operating conditions. The Polar Code also requires voyage planning that, among other things, helps to avoid aggregations of marine mammals and seasonal migration areas. It also bans discharge of oil or oily mixtures and noxious substances, and places relatively strict limitations on discharge of sewage and garbage.

While the Polar Code is unquestionably a major step forward, it does not address all the safety and environmental challenges related to Arctic vessel traffic. For example, use and carriage of heavy fuel oil—the dirtiest and most difficult-to-recover oil if spilled—is banned in Antarctic waters, but the Polar Code still allows vessels to use and carry it in the Arctic. Ocean Conservancy is working with partners to phase out the use of heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters.

The Polar Code does not address the discharge of harmful graywater, imposes no mandatory measures to reduce the threat of invasive species, and does not limit harmful air emissions from vessels traveling in Arctic waters. More broadly, the Polar Code only applies to certain types of vessels that operate in the Arctic, and does not fully address concerns about lack of infrastructure and maritime information in the region. There are also challenges with respect to enforcement of the Polar Code.

As you can see, there’s still plenty of work to do to increase safety and protect Arctic waters from the impacts of shipping. But, I’m optimistic that the Polar Code is a step in the right direction, and a good start to the new year. Ocean Conservancy will continue to work with the IMO and our partners to strengthen the Polar Code and ensure that new regulations protects the ecological heritage of this unique and fragile region at the top of the planet.



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Luxury Cruises and Other Realities of a Changing Arctic http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/09/29/luxury-cruises-and-other-realities-of-a-changing-arctic/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/09/29/luxury-cruises-and-other-realities-of-a-changing-arctic/#comments Thu, 29 Sep 2016 18:14:59 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=13031

© Diane Bondareff, Crystal Cruises

With far less attention than she garnered at the start of her journey, Crystal Serenity sailed into New York City on September 16, 2016, becoming the first cruise ship of her size to complete the journey through the Northwest Passage.

For us at Ocean Conservancy, the success of this expensive pleasure cruise is yet another symbol of a changing Arctic. The science is clear: global climate change is hitting this fragile region faster and more furiously than perhaps any other place on the planet.

The precipitous decline of seasonal sea ice is a clear example. In an announcement that came less than 24-hours before Crystal Serenity reached her final port, the National Snow and Ice Data Center announced that sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean dropped to the second lowest level on record during the summer of 2016.

Less sea ice in the Arctic means more opportunities for companies like Crystal Cruises—and indeed, the cruise line is already booking tickets for another trip through the Northwest Passage in 2017.

And it’s not just cruise lines that will take advantage of changing Arctic conditions. Vessel traffic through the Bering Strait is projected to increase anywhere from 100 – 500% by 2015 from what it was in 2013.

This increase in vessel traffic leads to more environmental  risks to the Arctic, ranging from oil spills that are virtually impossible to clean up, to noise pollution that can have devastating impacts on marine wildlife, to the introduction of disruptive invasive species. The opening of the Arctic may also have unforeseen impacts on local communities in places—like Nome, Alaska, where Austin Ahmasuk lives and shared his thoughts with us in this blog. Some of his concerns are shared by Native communities in Canada.

As a science-based conservation organization with a deep commitment to the Arctic, Ocean Conservancy will continue to champion protection of the Arctic.

We advocate strong measures to improve ship safety and minimize threats to Arctic wildlife:

  • We are supporting the U.S. Coast Guard’s efforts to finalize a Port Access Route study of the Bering Strait region. Designation of a vessel traffic lane and Areas to be Avoided will improve safety and help protect the amazing ecosystem of the Bering Strait region.
  • We are calling on the International Maritime Organization, the body that governs international shipping, to phase-out the use of heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters.
  • We are also working on efforts to reduce ship strikes on marine mammals, improve vessel communications systems, enhance spill response preparedness, and reduce discharge from large, ocean-going vessels traveling in Arctic waters.

There is a lot at stake. Not just for the Arctic but for all life on the planet.


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Salazar: Shell Screwed Up http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/03/14/salazar-shell-screwed-up/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2013/03/14/salazar-shell-screwed-up/#comments Thu, 14 Mar 2013 22:41:29 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=5156

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

“Shell screwed up in 2012.” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was bluntly accurate when speaking about Shell’s calamitous Arctic drilling program today.

The Interior Department’s new high-level, 60-day review – while not comprehensive – calls attention to serious shortcomings in Shell’s 2012 effort and recommends a more thorough, integrated approach to planning and oversight before deciding on whether to approve future Arctic drilling operations.

The review confirms what we already knew: that Shell simply was not ready to conduct safe and responsible operations in icy Arctic waters. It also demonstrates that federal agencies need to do a better job holding the oil industry accountable and setting higher standards for safety and environmental protection.

To that end, Shell will be required to submit a “comprehensive, integrated plan” covering all aspects of drilling and related operations, and “commission and complete a full third-party audit” of its management systems.

The company’s drilling program was plagued by problems throughout the season. Its performance has been notable only for its failures, and has provided us with a laundry list of reasons for why industry is not ready for offshore oil exploration in the Arctic.

The Interior Department initiated its urgent review of Shell’s actions in the Arctic in light of the recent grounding of the Kulluk drilling rig off the coast of Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. The company’s other Arctic drillship—the Noble Discoverer—suffered significant problems with propulsion, safety and pollution prevention systems. As a result, Shell now plans to dry-tow both vessels to Asia for repair and renovation. This latest setback prompted the troubled oil company to announce that it would hit pause on its plans to drill in the Arctic during the 2013 season.

While Shell’s admission of defeat this year reduces the short-term threat of Arctic drilling, it only makes the findings of the Interior Department’s review that much more important in the long run. Shell may have halted its drilling operations for now, but it plans to bring its drill rigs back to the Arctic soon. Furthermore, ConocoPhillips recently declared that it is not backing off on its plan to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic in 2014.

Without meaningful action from the Interior Department and other government agencies, Arctic drilling could lead to a disaster for the region. As the 60-day review put it, a “significant accident or spill in the remote and inhospitable Alaskan Arctic could have catastrophic consequences on fragile ecosystems and the people who depend on the ocean for subsistence.”

The Interior Department’s review is a first step on the road to implementing stronger, safer and more protective oversight of Arctic waters. Now, government agencies need to follow through on the report’s recommendations and make meaningful changes to the way they plan for and manage Arctic oil and gas operations.

In the meantime, there should be a complete time-out on Arctic drilling until we have improved our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem, protected important ecological and subsistence areas and developed effective methods to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic water. Thankfully, Shell’s decision to pass on the 2013 drilling season gives us time to make progress.

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Smarter Arctic Choices Begin With More Arctic Science http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/09/21/smarter-arctic-choices-begin-with-more-arctic-science/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2012/09/21/smarter-arctic-choices-begin-with-more-arctic-science/#comments Fri, 21 Sep 2012 21:01:48 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=3064
Today, Alaska Senator Mark Begich introduced important new legislation that would establish a permanent program to conduct research, monitoring, and observing activities in the Arctic. If passed, Senator Begich’s bill could lead to significant advances in Arctic science that can then be used to support decisions about the management of a region that is crucial not only to the people who live there, but to the world.

Senator Begich’s bill – the Arctic Research, Monitoring, and Observing Act of 2012 – recognizes that the Arctic is undergoing profound changes. Temperatures in the Arctic are warming at twice the rate of the global average, seasonal sea ice is diminishing rapidly, and there is increased interest in oil exploration, commercial fishing, shipping, and tourism. As the legislation acknowledges, however, lack of integration and coordination among existing Arctic research and science programs has limited our ability to understand the important changes that are taking place in the Arctic. And our understanding of the Arctic marine ecosystem, which provides irreplaceable benefits, is further hampered by a lack of reliable baseline data, critical science gaps, and limited documentation and application/use of traditional knowledge. In addition to urgently needed baseline data and analysis of ecosystem functions in Arctic marine waters, the legislation would enable the gathering of information about subsistence resources and patterns of use in local economies, which are essential to the people and cultures coastal communities in the Arctic.

Senator Begich’s bill takes several steps to address these problems. First, it calls on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission to establish a national Arctic research program plan to help coordinate scientific research activities in the region. Second, it funds a merit-based grant program that will support new scientific research and field-work in the Arctic. Third, the bill provides funding to establish and support long-term ocean observing systems and monitoring programs in the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea, and North Pacific.

If these provisions become law and are implemented correctly, they could function as a long-term, integrated science and monitoring program for the Arctic, something that Ocean Conservancy has long advocated. A coordinated research program would help fill important gaps in our knowledge of Arctic ecosystems and identify areas that are especially important to the functioning of the marine ecosystem. Just as important, a long-term monitoring and observing program would help us understand how the region is responding to climate change and industrial development.

This kind of understanding gives policy-makers, decision-makers and stakeholders the knowledge they need to make informed choices about activities such as oil exploration, shipping, and commercial fishing. It can also inform decisions about conservation. For instance, as scientists gain more knowledge about the Arctic marine ecosystem and as they integrate and synthesize that knowledge they will be better able to identify critical areas that should be protected from development activities. And that will help ensure that the Arctic Ocean remains an intact and productive ecosystem well into the future.

Federal agencies are already making management decisions that will have significant impacts on the future of the Arctic Ocean. Americans want those decisions to be based on sound science and to ensure sustainable uses of our ocean resources for this and future generations. The Arctic research, monitoring, and observing activities addressed by Senator Begich’s bill would take an essential step toward that goal.

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