Anchorage, US: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) faces a huge challenge in upgrading navigational data in the Arctic Ocean as summer sea ice continues to diminish and the region opens to more vessels, according to Kathryn Sullivan, Deputy Administrator and acting chief scientist for the NOAA. She is also known as a former astronaut and the first woman to walk in space.
“Much of the coastline and offshore waters here are comparatively poorly mapped, mapped in a sort of once-upon-a-time time frame, very early British Admiralty charts done with lead lines, are not uncommonly the primary source of data for what’s on the bottom and how deep,” she said.
Sullivan was addressing sessions of the NOAA’s Hydrographic Services Review Panel, which advises NOAA on how to improve the nation’s marine transportation.
The NOAA hydrographic survey ship Fairweather performed a full ocean bottom survey last summer at Kotzebue Sound, about 550 miles northwest of Anchorage and 150 miles east of the Bering Strait.
Ships carrying cargo on a shorter northern route between Europe and Asia would pass through the strait.
The new Kotzebue Sound chart, according to the agency, shows a full range of depth measurements. It replaces a chart that used data from the 1800s that was spaced three to five miles apart. That left room for undetected dangers in between measurements, the agency says.
According to NOAA, about one-third of the country’s Arctic waters are important to navigation, based on water depth and the draft of ships expected to transit the region. The agency’s Office of Coast Survey identifies 38,000 squares miles as a priority for new surveys, a task that will take 25 years.
Alaska, with more coastline than the rest of the country combined, is geographically huge and topically huge, Sullivan said.
“Seafloor bathymetry, tides, currents, actual shorelines, ecosystem characteristics — which are more fragile, which are less fragile, less vulnerable coastlines, human populations — all of that — the data are sparse,” she said.
Putting data together in a system that will allow information to be synthesised and made useful to entities from tribes to the federal government will be another step, she added.