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Arctic Navigation

30 August 2011, 5:47 pm

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Arctic Navigation

  • Why are we concerned about Arctic navigation? As multi-year sea ice continues to disappear at a rapid rate, vessel traffic in the Arctic is on the rise. This is leading to new maritime concerns, especially in areas increasingly transited by the offshore oil and gas industry, cruise liners, military craft, tugs and barges, and fishing vessels.Keeping all of this new ocean traffic moving smoothly is a growing concern for safety's sake. It's also important to the U.S. economy, environment, and national security. That's why NOAA is striving to update Arctic nautical charts, add new tide and current monitoring stations, and conduct geodetic surveys in the region.

  • What do we know now? Commercial and recreational vessels depend on NOAA to provide navigational charts and the U.S. Coast Pilot. These tools supply mariners with the latest information on depths, aids to navigation, accurate shorelines, and other features required for safe navigation. Many of these tools, however, are unavailable or outdated for areas in the Arctic. Why? Until recently, most of this region was relatively inaccessible by ship due to the presence of thick, impenetrable sea ice. Added to this, most Arctic waters that are charted were surveyed with obsolete technology, dating back to the 1800s, before the region was part of the United States. Most of the shoreline along Alaska’s northern and western coasts has not been mapped since 1960. As a result, confidence in the region’s nautical charts is low.

  • How are we establishing the geospatial foundation? Creating charts and other tools that depict spatial relationships requires a geospatial foundation—or consistent reference system—that describes the location of everything. Many areas of Alaska lack the geospatial foundation that is needed to fully support marine transportation and maritime domain awareness. For example, one percent of the Alaskan shoreline is updated annually using aerial and satellite imagery, compared to five percent elsewhere in the United States. The Arctic region especially needs the gravity data necessary for a modern vertical reference system, so NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey is collecting airborne gravity data in Alaska. National Geodetic Survey also manages a network of GPS receivers that monitor three-dimension land movement over time. The Continuously Operating Reference Station network is critical for activities requiring precise positioning. NOAA is working with partners to fill in the gaps that exist in Arctic coverage, to improve the precision of survey positions and the measurement of land movement.

  • How is NOAA improving the nautical charts ships need? Modern U.S. navigational charts are a compilation of the best data available. Nevertheless, many of the soundings on the charts are from as early as the 1800s. As transportation pressures mount in Arctic seaways, NOAA is now working to update outdated Arctic nautical charts to meet modern needs. In June 2011, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey issued the Arctic Nautical Charting Plan after consultations with maritime interests and the public, as well as with other federal, state, and local governments. Based on stakeholder discussions and vessel traffic patterns, Coast Survey will improve the existing charts and create new charts covering the expanding northern maritime routes.

  • What about hydrographic surveying for navigation? Of the 568,000 square nautical miles (SNM) in the U.S. Arctic Exclusive Economic Zone, less than half is what NOAA considers “navigationally significant.” Surveying over a quarter of a million SNM would take decades, so NOAA has designated 38,000 SNM as survey priority areas in the Arctic. Estimates range up to 25 years for surveying those priority areas, if resources remain at their current level. NOAA began acquiring hydrographic data to support these emerging Arctic priorities in 2010 with a hydrographic survey of the Bering Strait and Port Clarence, Alaska. In 2011, NOAA will survey approximately 400 SNM in the approach to Kotzebue Sound to update navigational charts and address a request for bathymetry to support navigation and installation for an offshore lightering facility used for heating and fuel oil. The Office of Coast Survey updates hydrographic priorities annually.

  • Do we have good information on tides and currents for navigation? NOAA's Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services' (CO-OPS) National Water Level Observation Network (NWLON) provides the reference system of tidal and water level datums. CO-OPS operates 10 longterm NWLON tide stations in the Arctic region of Alaska and 16 others throughout the rest of the state. There are 27 identified gaps in watel level observation coverage in Alaska, and 19 of those are located within the Arctic region. The gaps encompass most of the Arctic. Longterm plans include establishing new NWLON stations in these harsh environments, ideally co-located with National Geodetic Survey’s CORS stations, to simultaneously provide measurements of local sea level change and land movement from the same position. In many Arctic locations, tide and current predictions have never been calculated. For many other locations, tide and current predictions have not been measured since the early 1950s when only a few days of data were collected. Today we know that accurate predictions require at least 30 days of continuous data collection.

  • Are we working with the other Arctic nations? On October 6, 2010, NOAA led a U.S. delegation that formally established a new Arctic Regional Hydrographic Commission (AHRC) with four other nations known — together with the U.S. — as “Arctic coastal states.” The commission, which also includes Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the Russian Federation, promotes cooperation in hydrographic surveying and nautical charting. The establishment of the Commission will allow better collaboration to ensure safety of life at sea, assist in protecting the increasingly fragile Arctic ecosystem, and support the maritime economy. The agreement to form the AHRC is an historic event. Since the International Hydrographic Organization was formed in 1921, 15 regional hydrographic commissions have been established worldwide. The Arctic Ocean remained without such a commission until now.

  • Where did we get the information we have now? In 1867, George Davidson, head of the Coast Survey on the West Coast, accompanied the Revenue Cutter Lincoln in its inspection of Russian Alaska prior to the purchase of "Seward’s Icebox." In November, Davidson submitted his report: "The general coast map, not yet finished, is compiled from the maps of Tebenkoff, from manuscript maps, kindly furnished me by Prince Maksoutoff, governor of the late Russian colonies, and from examinations of my own. I also propose a plan of carrying on the work in this new region, where the refined methods of more favorable coasts must be modified, and instruments improved to obtain observations rapidly with our usual precision." Since 1867, charts of the coast have been updated with sparse depth measurements acquired by Coast Survey and by commercial ships transiting the region.

  • Do we have the capability to meet Arctic challenges? As NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco pointed out in her June 2011 Arctic Symposium address, NOAA must tackle substantial hydrographic, cartographic, and geospatial tasks in Alaska. These tasks include: improving geospatial infrastructure; correcting meters-level positioning errors; increasing tide, current, and water-level coverage; updating shoreline and hydrographic data; and producing new nautical charts. NOAA has the capability to tackle these major navigation challenges. However, NOAA's ability to deliver the technical and scientific information for the coming Arctic maritime traffic may be limited by available resources.

Original article: Arctic Navigation