In the summer of 2010, the NOAA Ship Fairweather collected hydrographic data to produce modern nautical charts of the Bering Straits. These narrow water passages lie in the Arctic between Cape Dezhnev, the easternmost point of the Russian Federation and Eurasia, and Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, the westernmost point of the U.S and North America.
It was little more than a century ago that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to successfully traverse the Arctic. Today, the NOS Office of Coast Survey is forging into a new era of Arctic research.
On October 6, 2010, NOAA led a U.S. delegation that formally established a new Arctic Regional Hydrographic Commission 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, will promote cooperation in hydrographic surveying and nautical chart making.
The problem is that many Arctic nautical charts are out of date (some of the data shown on the charts were collected in the decades before Amundsen’s voyage!) or nonexistent, while increases in ice-free waters over longer periods have resulted in the doubling of Arctic commercial vessel traffic since 2005. At the same time, the world’s northernmost ocean is also its shallowest and least accessible. Inadequate charts pose a significant risk to marine safety, and could potentially lead to loss of life or environmental disaster.
NOAA scientists recently took soundings (measurements of the Arctic sea floor) from on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the nation’s newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker.
The establishment of the Arctic Regional Hydrographic Commission will allow better collaboration among the Arctic Coastal States to ensure safety of life at sea, assist in protecting the increasingly fragile Arctic ecosystem, and support the maritime economy,” says Captain John Lowell, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey and U.S. national hydrographer.
The establishment of the AHRC is an historic event. Since the establishment of the International Hydrographic Organization in 1921, 15 regional hydrographic commissions have been established worldwide. The Arctic Ocean remained without such a commission until now.
The Office of Coast Survey also recently drafted a nautical charting plan devoted exclusively to the Arctic. Commercial vessels depend on NOAA to provide charts and publications with the latest depth information, aids to navigation, accurate shorelines, and other features required for safe navigation in U.S. waters.
NOAA is sharing the draft plan with other government partners, including the U.S. Navy, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and the U.S. Coast Guard, and will solicit comments from both industry and the public. The draft provides detailed plans for additional nautical chart coverage in U.S. Arctic waters and describes the activities necessary to produce and maintain the charts. The final plan is slated for completion in May 2011.