America’s Arctic challenge

In winter, extensive ice still covers the Arctic Ocean and Bering Strait. Image credit: AP/Wide World Photos (Ostebo)
Date:27 October 2012 Tags:, , ,

Contracting sea ice is making the far north more accessible. Nations are now scrambling to utilise the region’s resources, building ice breakers for safe passage, mapping the sea floor to try to extend their sovereignty, and exploring for oil and gas. The US Coast Guard is expanding its presence with a mission called Arctic Shield. Here’s what has been happening off the northern coast of Alaska this year. – Jerry Beilinson

“There’s a whole new ocean opening up in the Arctic.” – US Coast Guard Rear-Admiral Thomas P Ostebo

Nautical tourism
“Cruise ships are the fastest-growing activity in the Arctic, not oil drilling,” says James Watson, director of the US Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environ-mental Enforcement. The trip comes with risk: a stricken cruise ship could take days to rescue – and only 10 per cent of the Arctic’s sea floor has been mapped.

Whale hunting
Inupiat crews hunt whales in open boats launched from the villages of northern Alaska. Western Arctic bowhead whales migrate through the region in the spring and autumn. Shell Oil agreed to stop drilling when necessary to avoid interrupting the hunts.

Industrial passage
Shipping in US Arctic waters is surging, with 1 000 transits each summer through the Bering Strait, up from as few as 150 five years ago. The passage has a narrow choke point, but no traffic separation schemes or onshore radar are in place to help avoid collisions.

Oil and gas exploration
According to US government estimates, the Arctic may contain 90 billion barrels of recoverable oil. This year, Royal Dutch Shell prepared two drilling rigs and dozens of support vessels to drill the first exploratory oil wells on Alaska’s Outer Continental Shelf in two decades. A capping stack, like the one used to stop the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, was built to stand by in case of an emergency.