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Making Waves: Episode 30 (July 8, 2009)

…We have two stories for you this week
… Within the next two decades, the Arctic Ocean is expected to be free of ice in the summer. That means lots of ship traffic, and lots of ship traffic means the potential for lots of accidents and oil spills. We'll talk about what one NOS office is doing to prepare.
…And a new study shows that the economic value of services provided by NOS's National Geodetic Survey is in the range of billions of dollars. That's 'billions' with a 'b.' We'll take a closer look.

It's Wednesday, July 8th, 2009, and those stories are coming up on this episode of Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.

(Arctic Ocean Future)
Our first story today is about the Arctic Circle. Within the next two decades, scientists estimate that the Arctic Ocean will be free of multi-year ice in the summer. This total summer ice-out is going to mean lots of new commercial traffic from oil tankers to container ships to tourist cruises. And it's also expected to lead to a flurry of oil and gas exploration because the Arctic sea floor is going to be much easier to get to – and the
U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there's a lot of oil and natural gas below that sea floor -- billions of barrels.

But while most people may be thinking about the economic opportunities that will open up as the ice thaws, the NOS Office of Response and Restoration are thinking about something else. They aree thinking about what all this new traffic in this remote region means in terms of the risk of accidents, collisions, and oil spills.

Consider the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989. This one spill resulted in the loss of around 11 million gallons of oil, and that area was far south of the Arctic Circle, in an place with calm seas, ice-free conditions, and where sea- and shore-based oil response equipment was close by. Even so, clean up took three years. Even today, 20 years later, the environment and communities in the area are still recovering.

Now consider what conditions are going to be like in the Arctic Circle. Unpredictable ice conditions, moving ice floes, unsettled weather, and erratic wave patterns are going to make it a treacherous journey. And since the Arctic is much more remote and undeveloped, vessels crossing this region are going to have little or no emergency response infrastructure or support if they get into trouble.

And given that there's no nearby support services for salvage and emergency response, even a minor breakdown could lead to a large spill. And there will be no nearby search and rescue teams, of course, so ships that collide with floating ice or other vessels will likely have to wait a long time for help to arrive.

On shore, things aren't expected to be much better. Shoreline erosion and the melting of permafrost are dramatically affecting the stability and safety of communities in the Arctic region. Oil pipelines and other infrastructure located in permafrost will become less stable as the area warms, and this, too, will increase the risk of spills.

So to address all of these factors , the Office of Response and Restoration is working with the University of New Hampshire's Coastal Response Research Center, along with partners from Norway, the University of Alaska, the Prince William Sound Oil Spill Recovery Institute, and the University of Rhode Island … and the goal is to better understand and better prepare for this not-too-distant Arctic future.

And this work is part of a larger joint program with industry to improve response capabilities and contingency plans for responding to Arctic spills.

It's a work in progress and it's going to take years, but the Office of Response and Restoration has identified key areas to focus on as part of an Arctic Preparedness and Response Strategy.

One of the big ticket items will be to put in place a better response capability in the region. Right now, response assets would have come from Anchorage and the lower 48 states, and that would equate to days or even weeks to get to the scene of a spill. And since it's such a huge area and is so remotely populated, the office is also looking at alternative response measures like using dispersants to break up and sink the oil before it does more damage or burning the oil in place to prevent it from spreading and damaging a bigger area.

Another task high on the list is to understand more about the environment in the Arctic Ocean, and how this will impact spills.

The problem is that while we know some things about oil behavior in cold water, we need to know more about how oil behaves in sea ice as it freezes and thaws … so Response and Restoration is beginning the process of conducting research with many different partners to figure out what types of technologies will work best to tackle spills in the region.

And unlike in the lower 48 and Alaska, where spill responders have detailed models, maps, and guidelines to tackle spills and help restore the environment, we just don't have this information for the Arctic…so NOAA is also focusing on gathering more data about what biological resources – what plants and animals – are most at risk, and where these resources are located. And, finally, researchers are working to develop better models to predict what will happen to pollutants and oil in such an extreme, cold environment, and this will be critical information for emergency responders in the area to know when spills happen.

You'll find a companion online story with lots of helpful links about NOAA's efforts to prepare for the future arctic in the Features section of the NOS website at And you can learn more about the activities of the Office or Response and Restoration at

(NGS SocioEconomic Study)
For 200 years, NOAA's National Geodetic Survey has been in the business of delivering exact position information. To do this, the NGS maintains what is known as the National Spatial Reference System.

This reference system is used for mapping, navigation, and charting. Think of it as a highly accurate web of coordinate points on land and in space defining latitude, longitude, height, scale, gravity, orientation, and even the location of shorelines throughout the U.S.

If you've ever used a hand-held GPS device or a navigation system in your car to help find your way, you've benefited from the National Spatial Reference System. But you've also benefited in ways you may not realize. The NSRS's collection of over 1.5 million positioning points and 1,300 Continuously Operating Reference Stations is critical for transportation, navigation, and communication systems; land record systems; mapping and charting efforts; and defense operations. Just how critical is it?

A new study by Leveson Consulting shows just how important this System is to the U.S. economy. Researchers looked at the total economic value of all revenue generated from private surveying and mapping as well as from related services in the government and non-profit sectors. They also measured the potential cost savings from improved accuracy of position and elevation data. And when they added it all up, they calculated a potential benefit to the economy of $2.4 billion dollars a year.

The study also finds that an additional $522 million in annual economic benefits could be generated by the implementation of a new vertical reference system allowing users to determine more precise elevations using GPS. Now let's talk just a bit about what this project is all about because it's really interesting.

While the Global Positioning System revolutionized the measurement of latitude and longitude—providing pinpoint coordinates anywhere on earth—there has not been a comparative leap in technology for height measurement. The new vertical reference system is designed to bridge this gap for the U.S. The project to create this system is called the Gravity for the Redefinition of the American Vertical Datum, or "GRAV-D," initiative.

GPS height measurements today are not very accurate because the system uses an oversimplified model of sea level to calculate height. Once completed, the new NGS model will permit fast and accurate height measurements within an accuracy range of two centimeters in the U.S – that's less than an inch. And this new model will be incorporated into future GPS receivers.

Project managers expect that the project, while costly upfront, will be cheaper in the long term since it will virtually eliminate the need for people to gauge heights by hand using land-based survey technology.

Improved elevation errors will have broad benefits, including improved floodplain mapping. These improvements could guide the placement of building structures and highways, help establish public safety requirements, and help determine locations of levees and evacuation routes. Approximately $240 million in costs could be saved annually just through improved floodplain management.

Well that's just a taste of what's in the new study – there's a lot more to it, and you can read the entire document online, and get a quick one-page overview of the study, at


And of course you can also read the stories we discussed today online and get links to more information on the NOS Web site at

And that's also where you head if you have any questions about this week's podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean. And if you want, you can also send us an email at

Let's bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.