Vizualization from multibeam echo sounder data shows Barrow and how the Chukchi extends from Alaska.
August 14, 2007
U.S., too, pursues Arctic ambitions
The race to stake a claim to Arctic sovereignty is picking up pace--and press attention. While the headlines have focused on Russian flag dropping by submarine and Canada's decision to plant a port in Nanisivik on the north end of Baffin Island, the U.S is also making some moves.
NOAA's Office of Coast Survey, in partnership with the University of New Hampshire's Joint Hydrographic Center and the National Science Foundation, will embark on a four-week cruise to map a portion of the Arctic sea floor starting Aug. 17.
This is, in fact, the third expedition in a series of cruises aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter HEALY designed to map the sea floor on the northern Chukchi Cap. Scientists will explore this poorly known region to better understand its morphology and the potential for including this area within the United States' extended continental shelf under the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The Administration is currently seeking Senate consent to U.S. accession to the Law of the Sea Convention as a priority recommendation under the President's Ocean Action Plan. Accession would allow full implementation of the rights afforded to convention parties to protect coastal and ocean resources.
Coastal states have sovereign rights over resources of the sea floor and subsurface of their continental shelves. Under the Law of the Sea, a country gets 200 nautical miles of continental shelf automatically, but may extend its shelf beyond 200 nautical miles if it meets certain geologic criteria.
Under the Law of the Sea Convention, nations submit scientific data on their continental shelves to a technical body called the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. If a country's claim meets Commission criteria, it strengthens the legal certainty underlying the country's assertion of entitlement to the extended shelf. (The United States is seeking to become a party to the Convention in part to benefit from the legal certainty that comes with this mechanism.)
In fact the much publicized recent Russian polar flag drop was not a legal assertion of sovereignty. The main task of the Russian expedition was to establish if the North Pole zone relates geologically to the Siberian platform and if it is thus part of Russia's continental shelf.
Meantime a Danish expedition is seeking evidence that the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range, is attached to the Danish territory of Greenland, that would open the way for Danish claim under UNCLOS that could stretch all the way the North Pole. Interestingly, the Danish expedition will travel aboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden, which will be assisted by a Russian nuclear icebreaker.
The latest NOAA expedition is not just about establishing UNCLOS rights. Data collected during this cruise will also provide valuable information for better understanding sea floor processes and fisheries habitat, as well as provide input into climate and circulation models that will help scientists predict future conditions in the Arctic.
Previous mapping cruises in this series were conducted in 2003 and 2004.
The HEALY is equipped with more than 4,200 square feet of scientific laboratory space and a multibeam echo sounder, the primary tool that is used to map the sea floor. The research has been funded through a NOAA grant award to the University of New Hampshire and will be headed by cruise chief scientist Larry Mayer at UNH with NOAA's Andy Armstrong serving as co-chief scientist. The northern Chukchi Cap is an ice-covered region of the Arctic Ocean where little data about the sea floor is available. The cruise will primarily be mapping the 2,500 meter (about 8,250 foot) depth contour and the foot of the continental slope - the area where the continental margin transitions into the deep sea floor.
Additional research, coordinated through the National Science Foundation, includes the deployment of several Metocean ice-beacons/buoys for the National Ice Center to collect information on long-term ice drift, as well as the recovery, refurbishment and redeployment of two high-frequency acoustic recording packages used to record background acoustic noise. Scientist on the ship will conduct sea ice analysis and routine collection of observations of sea ice characteristics.
The partnership between NOAA's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping and the Joint Hydrographic Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., is intended to create a national center for expertise in ocean mapping and hydrographic sciences.