Over the next month or so, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) ship, the Fairweather, will conduct an extensive survey of Arctic coastlines. The area covered spans most of Alaska, the agency says.
The mapping effort, which began this week, will map a corridor about 1,500 nautical miles (2,778 kilometers) long. This shipping lane stretches from Dutch Harbor, in Alaska, through the Bering Strait, and then eastwards, all the way to the northwestern corner of Canada.
The sea-lanes in the area were last surveyed back in 1778, by Captain James Cook. Since then, the situation may have changed extensively, and NOAA can no longer guarantee the safety of ships that guide their course based on centuries-old maps.
This area of the world is bound to become very important from an economic standpoint, primarily due to the influence that global warming has on the Arctic region. Receding ices are currently opening up new potential shipping lanes, which could make commerce in the area more profitable.
Alaskan coastlines are used by multiple types of vessels, including commercial shippers, tankers, passenger vessels, and fishing fleets, in addition to military forces. However, the newly opened lanes are not charted, so ship captains have no idea what to expect down below.
“Much of Alaska’s coastal area has never had full bottom surveys to measure water depths. A tanker, carrying millions of gallons of oil, should not be asked to rely on measurements gathered in the 19th century,” explains the commanding officer of the Fairweather, Cmdr. James Crocker.
“Unfortunately, that’s exactly what navigators have to do, in too many cases. NOAA is changing that,” adds Crocker, who is also the chief scientist on the new mapping expedition.
The acting director of the NOAA
Office of Coast Survey, Kathryn Ries, says that the organization is expecting a significant increase in maritime traffic through the Arctic over the coming years.
“The sheer size of the [mapping] task – the coast length of 921 nautical miles is really 2,191 miles of low tidal shoreline once you figure in the bays and inlets – requires that NOAA increase its charting efforts,” the official adds.
This study is part of a larger effort to understand the topography of the Arctic Ocean floor. This region has been covered in ices for most of the modern age, so scientists have no clue what to expect.