September 18, 2009 / 12:13 AM / in 8 years

Sovereignty, oil hunt complicate Arctic research

ABOARD THE PROFESSOR KHROMOV (Reuters) - Russian and U.S. oceanographers studying the impact of global warming on the Bering Strait in late August enjoyed seas on some days that were so calm their ship made the only ripples.

But the serenity of the seascape belied increasingly turbulent waters for scientific research as countries exert sovereignty over Arctic territory and Big Oil boosts exploration efforts.

It has complicated life for Kathleen Crane, as she and her colleagues coordinate dozens of researchers in the western Arctic, a crucial region for the study of climate change and its impact on water, ice and life forms.

“It makes it harder because it’s starting to ratchet up the perceived antagonisms between countries. They become competitors rather than working for the same goal,” Crane, of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said aboard the research ship Professor Khromov.

The expedition, called RUSALCA, or Russian-American Long-term Census of the Arctic, is one of several international Arctic studies as sea ice shrinks, opening the possibility of more navigable waterways in the far north.

Russia and the United States are among six countries pressing jurisdiction in the Arctic, where oil and gas resources are huge but access has always been restricted by the remoteness and cold.

Shrinking ice is sharpening previously minor disputes, such as a Russian-Danish standoff over who owns the seabed under the North Pole or how far Canada controls the Northwest Passage that the United States calls an international waterway.

A week before the RUSALCA mission began, Canada conducted a high-profile military exercise in its most northerly regions to underline its claims.

Such tensions have made security provisions at ports and aboard ships more onerous, Crane said.

In Washington, more government departments demand paperwork, and scientists and their gear require Transportation Security Administration clearance -- even at a tiny port like Nome, Alaska, where the mission began.

Nome, best known as the finish line for Alaska’s Iditarod dogsled race, is expected to become an important strategic base as development ramps up, Joy Baker, the town’s harbor master, said before RUSALCA scientists embarked on their expedition.

“The Arctic has become a very important place in the U.S. mind-set,” Crane said. “But on the other hand, there’s a lot more need for justification to work in that Arctic.”

PERMITS REQUIRED

The island of Big Diomede sits in the morning mist on the Russian side of the Bering Strait as seen from the Russian research vessel Professor Khromov August 28, 2009. REUTERS/Jeffrey Jones

In Russian waters, every activity and piece of gear requires a permit. In late August, an impromptu plan to take a Zodiac craft out for a spin around the Khromov in waters just off Siberia was quickly scrubbed by the ship’s Russian Navy representative, fearing that launching without prior authorization could jeopardize the mission.

Security fears eased after the Cold War, which helped NOAA and the Russian Academy of Sciences begin joint oceanographic cruises in 2004. But the old distrust never completely faded.

“It was pretty difficult. There was some suspicion among enforcement agencies on the Russian and American sides,” said Aleksey Ostrovskiy, a Russian coordinator for the expedition. “Permission is given to anyone who wants to work, as long as it doesn’t conflict with Russian national security interests. But sometimes it’s hard to prove.”

The race for Arctic resources has also created headaches for oceanographers, as the world’s largest oil companies scoop up ice-capable vessels for exploration.

There are relatively few ships that scientists can use for their research, which includes sampling water and sea life at numerous points in the Bering and ice-prone Chukchi seas.

Crane said Exxon Mobil Corp, BP Plc and Royal Dutch Shell, which have pockets deep enough to sign contracts for years in advance, are her biggest competitors for ships.

“The oil companies that are really expanding their geophysical surveying in the Arctic, and also environmental surveying, have been relying on Russian icebreakers and Russian research vessels,” she said.

The Khromov is a Russian research ship leased and operated by Heritage Expeditions, a New Zealand-based ecotourism company. Financial troubles forced Russia’s science authority to take such steps, Ostrovskiy said.

“Some ships were decommissioned, some ships were turned into tourist business because it was very difficult for the academy to keep them running though all of this, with licensing and inspections. It’s very expensive,” he said.

The United States has a few ships that oceanographers can use in the region occasionally. But the science community will soon have one all its own thanks to President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package.

RUSALCA’s since chief, Terry Whitledge, is working on a project to build the United States’ first ship dedicated to science since the 1980s.

The $200 million project is the first use of U.S. economic stimulus funding by the National Science Foundation.

A contract to build the 242-foot (74-meter) ship, designed to operate off Alaska, is scheduled to go to a U.S. shipyard in the next two months, said Whitledge, who directs the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

“We were the main supporters to keep the ball rolling, but it’s a national resource available to anyone in the U.S. who has an oceanography grant,” he said. (Editing by Alan Elsner)

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