Scientists from 63 countries met in Paris on March 1 to launch the International Polar Year, an extensive scientific research program for the Arctic and Antarctic. The United States marked the start of the program with a ceremony in Washington D.C. on Feb. 26. The program will last until March 2009, to ensure full research coverage of both the Arctic and the Antarctic
over a two-year cycle.
And at the March 1 meeting of the Resource Development Council, Mead Treadwell, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, talked about the International Polar Year and the importance to the United States and Alaska of Arctic research. Treadwell emphasized how much we need to learn about the polar regions.
“The Arctic Ocean (for example) is perhaps the least understood place on Earth,” Treadwell said, adding that nations have been making major progress in upgrading seafloor depth maps of the ocean.
And recent research has established new geologic discoveries, including organic material found by drilling near the North Pole. The U.S Geological Survey is preparing a new estimate that suggests that 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas resources lie within the Arctic Circle, Treadwell said.
Scientific research relating to the Arctic helps the Alaska economy by creating thousands of research jobs and by enabling a better understanding of how to use and protect those aspects of the state that everyone values, he said.
Climate changeClimate change is especially important in Alaska because of the impact of rising temperatures on sea ice, the permafrost and the infrastructure. For example, reductions in the extent of Arctic sea ice provide evidence of how climate change appears to be impacting the polar regions — between 1982 and 2005 the summer minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic plunged by an area equivalent to 22 states east of the Mississippi, Treadwell said.
And reductions in the area of sea ice will impact wildlife, Treadwell said.
“The habitat that is used by a large number of animals at the top of the food chain … right now appears to depend on the ice as a platform in an area that has rich benthic resources,” Treadwell said. “As that ice moves further offshore, it’s going to be harder and harder for these animals to support the same kind of lifestyle.”
Climate change in the polar regions also affects the rest of the world.
“We seek an understanding of massive and varied climate change occurring in the polar regions, because those changes portend change to the rest of the climate,” Treadwell said. “The rest of the world depends on the north and the south for life-giving climate regulating processes, such as global ocean circulation.”
Treadwell also emphasized the economic and technical importance of effective forest management.
“The boreal forest of the north is the largest on-land carbon sink in the world,” Treadwell said.
And, with the oil industry creating large volumes of carbon dioxide, the Arctic region needs to understand the role of carbon sequestration, he said.
New sea routesBut reductions in sea ice coverage are creating new opportunities for Arctic sea routes. The eight Arctic nations are discussing Arctic shipping and future shipping policies — both the United States and the State of Alaska need to decide on policies for the use of ports for Arctic trading routes, Treadwell said.
A sea route between Europe and Asia around the northern Russian coast would be about 40 percent shorter than the traditional route through the Suez Canal. And there’s now a possibility of shipping goods to and from Canada through Hudson’s Bay, Treadwell said.
A northern route between Europe and Asia could slash transportation costs by 40 percent, he said.
Treadwell also said that the U.S. Navy has been moving submarines between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic Ocean, rather than through the Panama Canal. That route is less visible than the canal route and saves the high cost of using the canal.
Treadwell also said that with the reduction of sea ice and the consequent increase in Arctic shipping, the United States needs to review its policy of funding icebreaker capacity through the National Science Foundation — in addition to scientific research icebreakers find a wide range of applications, including border protection; fisheries enforcement; search and rescue; and environmental cleanup.
“There are a lot of strategic reasons why this nation needs to have icebreaker capability in the north,” Treadwell said. “… We’re trying to get the navy involved and others to understand that it’s a different world when you’ve got reduced ice in the Arctic. … The United States must maintain its global maritime capability.”
However, Treadwell discounted any implication that his comments might relate to the current controversy between the United States and Canada regarding jurisdiction over the Northwest Passage. The essential point is that, in an open Arctic Ocean, the United States needs to be prepared for all eventualities, he said.
Research needsWhen compared with other oceans, the Arctic Ocean has relatively few buoys for monitoring the sea temperatures, salinity and currents, Treadwell said. Buoys provide important inputs to weather forecasting and long-term climate monitoring. However, existing facilities do include a cable-moored buoy near the North Pole, operated by an international research team that includes personnel from the University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory.
Unmanned aerial vehicles and underwater vehicles might also provide a means of observing ocean conditions.
And, on land, researchers have used several hundred boreholes to monitor permafrost conditions.
One issue of particular significance to Alaska is the movement of the magnetic North Pole. The pole has moved north by several hundred miles in recent years and continuation of that trend would likely result in less aurora activity in the state.
From a community perspective, the erosion of the traditional languages of the indigenous Arctic peoples is causing major concern. The Alaska Native Language Center in the University of Alaska Fairbanks is monitoring the shrinking number of people speaking traditional languages, Treadwell said.
“The (Arctic Research) Commission has named language and the preservation of identity and culture a new priority for federal research,” Treadwell said. “… We don’t want to lose the ethnosphere.”
On the other hand, increasing research and other activity in the Arctic is leading to a phenomenon that Treadwell characterized as “an age of a connected Arctic,” as evidenced by a burgeoning density of satellite phone calls in the region.
And in the fall all eight Arctic nations endorsed an initiative called the Arctic Observing Network, a proposal to hook together existing and planned observation programs and efforts in the Arctic. Observations would cover a wide range of disciplines, including climatology, hydrology and ecology.
Defining the U.S. boundariesFrom a U.S national perspective, $8 million of 2007 federal funding has been proposed for research into defining new boundaries for the U.S. continental shelf beyond the 200-mile exclusive economic zone limit, Treadwell said. Under the international Law of the Sea, countries can claim some jurisdiction, including resource development rights, over areas of continental shelf contiguous with shelf within territorial waters, although the U.S. Congress has yet to ratify that international law.
“The purpose here would be to give us sovereign rights over areas currently far beyond our shores.” Treadwell said. “… We’re hopeful that the United States, no matter what the Senate does, will move ahead with the mapping and preparation for the claim.”
With huge areas of continental shelf lying off the shores of Alaska and some other states, it might be possible to add territory equivalent to two Californias to the United States, Treadwell said. Russia has already claimed 45 percent of the Arctic Ocean under the Law of the Sea, he said.
Resource development supportAlaska needs better topographic maps to support resource development, Treadwell said. Other resource related issues include research into construction practices for Arctic infrastructure and research into oil spill prevention and response. Canada and Norway have recently been taking a lead in oil spill response research, but the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Cordova, the U.S. Minerals Management Service and the U.S. Coast Guard have all been involved in this type of research, Treadwell said.
“Because we have offshore drilling in Alaska it’s very important that we continue to improve the technologies for oil recovery in ice,” Treadwell said.
And, as part of the International Polar Year, the Arctic Energy Summit conference in Anchorage in October 2007 will provide a forum for the presentation of international technical research papers on the Arctic as an emerging energy province (see sidebar).
As for the International Polar Year as a whole, Treadwell said that the commission hopes for three outcomes:
• Inspiration for a generation of new scientists to take an interest in the polar regions;
• Research programs and research infrastructure that would be available to that next generation of scientists;
• The dissemination of knowledge from scientific research.
This will be an opportunity to stimulate interest in the polar regions, Treadwell said.