Its An Ocean Thing! A place to learn and comment on everything oceanic Wed, 24 Aug 2016 15:55:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Cruising in the Arctic: What does it mean for safety and security? Wed, 24 Aug 2016 15:55:00 +0000 Over the weekend the Crystal Serenity visited Nome, Alaska on its way through the Northwest Passage (NWP)

This is a big deal.

Crystal Serenity


The Crystal Serenity has about 1,700 people on board, about 1,100 tourists and 600 crew. The cost? A small sum of $20k for the low end accommodations. It is the largest cruise ship to try to sail the NWP and is doing so under a microscope. Depending on the sector in which you work, there are a lot of opinions running around about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I’m not here to answer that question, but what I can provide is a little information and a few links you can use to draw your own conclusions.

The Arctic region (the whole thing, not just the US) is home to about 4 million people. So hold up on the “pristine nature reserve in a snow globe” thinking right there. There has been oil exploration and extraction in the US since about the 1970s, and longer in other parts of the Arctic region – so no, oil and gas activity is not new. For at least that long, tug and barge and other cargo ships and tankers have visited northern ports for resupply of high north communities. There is a very short season for these communities to bring in supplies, like fuel and home heating oil along with containerized goods and bulk products. That season is getting longer, but generally lasts from about July to October. Which means ships have been up there for a while.

The economic options in Alaska are also limited – there is a lot of hunting and fishing (commercially and for subsistence) and oil and natural resources (among other things). Alaska doesn’t have the same tax structure as other states, and so much of their revenue is dependent on a strong market for their exports. When fuel prices go down, as they have, it hurts the economy and communities look to other potential economic opportunities. Alaska would not be the first state to turn toward expanding tourism to help offset these losses. Some entire countries operate with tourism as one of their biggest economic drivers. The potential for increasing tourism to be a big boost for some of the most remote Alaska communities is certainly real.

Which brings us to today: the Crystal Serenity is underway on part of a 32 day trip from Alaska to New York. Yes, there are risks. This is a pretty good rundown of whats going on up there. Basically, the cruise ship has two ice pilots (yep, what it sounds like, guys who know how to navigate in ice), an escort vessel (one that can help break ice if needed), ice sensing radar, and a host of other weather and forecast tools to help make sure the ship is safe. They are also burning distillate fuels (BIG part of the Arctic debate is the kind of fuel that should be allowed) and they have committed to no dumping of gray water or trash while up there (trash is illegal, gray/black water i.e. waste water, is not). These are all steps that are partially regulated through the International Maritime Organization under the new Polar Code which comes into effect in January of 2017. I say partially, because there are still things like the fuel and the waste water that are not currently regulated and a number of groups think this should change.

That’s all great, but what if we have Titanic II on our hands? That is also an issue. Infrastructure on the north slope is spotty and search and rescue capabilities are hard to come by (see this report for more on infrastructure). But, the Coast Guard is hosting a joint exercise right now to practice for this exact thing. Exercise Arctic Chinook is a multi-day maritime search and rescue exercise being held in the vicinity of the Bering Strait. The exercise simulates an adventure-class ship traveling through the Bering Strait with approximately 250 passengers and crew that experiences an incident that degrades to become a catastrophic event… So not exactly the same scale, but there is awareness of the possible issues and a proactive approach is being taken.

In conclusion – while the risks are apparent, the idea that this whole thing is fly-by-night and new to the region is not completely accurate. Hope this helps to provide a bit more context and  a few resources for those who would like to look into it more.


Link 1)

Link 2)

Link 3) Participants include the US Coast Guard, the Alaska Command, the Alaska National Guard, State of Alaska agencies, Alaska Native organizations, and Canadian Forces. [].




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Furthering the Argument for New Icebreaking Capacity Fri, 17 Jun 2016 14:32:55 +0000 It was brought to my attention this morning that three Coast Guardsmen will be recognized today for their “quick-thinking and ingenuity that helped save the mission of the nation’s only heavy icebreaker during a recent deployment to Antarctica”.

These were no small feats that were accomplished: at sea, in 6-8 foot thick ice, these crew members fixed the main support beam for the shaft, which is the component of the cutter that spins the propeller to move the cutter through the water and break ice.

In my humble opinion, this is unacceptable.

This article goes on to explain that there were actually 4 general emergencies during their most recent deployment to Antarctica, including three fires and an oil lube leak in addition to a failed generator.

The US is currently “one icebreaker deep” which means that at any given time, only one icebreaker is operational while the other is in dry dock. It appears that “operational” may require a new definition after this season.

We can and should do better.

Full article here:

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Russia’s Sideways Icebreaker Wed, 15 Apr 2015 14:35:28 +0000  

Given the current state of Arctic issues, and the fact that the U.S. is set to take over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council later this month, it is a sad day in the news when I read that Russia has just ice tested an icebreaker that can break ice forward, backward, and yes, sideways.

Not sad for them, of course, or for the new technology now available to the industry. Sad because at this moment, the U.S. is  one deep in icebreaking capacity. That’s right – the U.S. has, at any given time, ONE icebreaker operating. Sure we have a whopping two of them, but while one is working at one pole, the other is laid up and being repaired and prepared to take over: The Polar Star is working in the Antarctic while the Healy is hanging out in Seattle preparing to “tag out” to support summer operations in the Arctic.

Don’t take my word for it, this link brings you to the 2013 summary of world icebreaking capacity completed by the U.S. Coast Guard.

In testimony before Congress, its been established that we need about 10 years and about a $1 billion to build a new icebreaker – the catch – the icebreakers we have don’t have 10 years left of service… and thus far, the congressional response from the House of Representatives – the house responsible for appropriations – has decided to hold no more hearings on icebreakers and has been quoted as saying “you are not going to get it“. Instead, Congress suggests that agencies come up with the money from within existing budgets – budgets that are strapped from sequestration and increasing cuts to programs that use icebreaking – you know science (NSF, NOAA) instead of doing their jobs and appropriating the necessary funding to address a serious gap in national security and maritime domain awareness.

Meanwhile, Russia can now break ice sideways.



Full article here:

Icebreaking Capacity:

Congress declines to fund icebreaker:


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Global warming in real time Fri, 19 Sep 2014 16:28:07 +0000  

August 2014 is the warmest August on record for the globe since records began in 1880 according to the newly released National Climate Data Center August Global Analysis. What is more important – it’s not just a one-off spike. The anomalies are increasing with a positive temperature trend. The world is warming and this chart is the perfect demonstration.


august warming trends

Full report here:

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Oil spill loopholes? Thu, 31 Jul 2014 14:40:38 +0000 As discussions of Arctic drilling continue to swirl a new hiccup emerges. Officials in Canada are reviewing the requirements that Arctic drilling operations have the capacity to drill same season relief wells in the event of a blow-out. This requirement is being reviewed for companies looking to drill in the deep waters of the Beaufort Sea – depths similar to the Macondo well in the infamous Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The request originates from the Imperial Oil Joint Venture, a partnership among Imperial Oil, Exxon Mobil, BP and Chevron. They argue that the 1976 rule should be reviewed to allow for more flexibility in addressing the issue. The number one argument – relief wells could take more than a season to drill in harsh Arctic Climates. A similar request was filed by BP in 2010 to allow the use of blow-out preventers instead of requiring relief wells – one month later the Deep Water Horizon incident took place.

This conversation is of particular weight because the US oil interests are pushing the need to align US drilling requirements with those of Canada.  Drilling proponents continue to urge non-prescriptive rules or mandates for how to deal with an oil spill emergency.

The timing for this discussion is uncanny given that WWF Canada just released a report stating that oil from a well blow-out in Canada could travel 1000km, impacting the ocean and shoreline as far away as Russia.

The report looks at four types of spills:

  • Shipping (from a bulk ore carrier (IFO), tank barge (diesel) and oil tanker (crude);
  • Subsea pipeline;
  • Shallow water blowout from an oil well close to shore on the Beaufort shelf; and
  • A deep water blowout from an oil  well on the Beaufort shelf break

The analysis for a deep water well blow out used a location in the Beaufort approximately 1008m deep with a flow rate of 60,000 barrels (worst case) and 6,000 barrels (probable case) per day based on US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) guidance documents. The deep water scenarios resulted in a higher probability of surface oiling traveling distances from 600-1000km west. Best case scenario response earlier in the year could limit the affected shoreline to 136km – no response would impact 1,860km.

Given the report from the National Academies of Science earlier this year, a full suite of proven oil spill response technologies are still needed to for Arctic response. An unsettling thought given that BOEM announced last week a 45 day comment period on opening 64.8 million acres in the Alaska Beaufort for oil and gas exploration in 2017.


More information on public comment for BOEM is here

More information on the National Energy Board review is here

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A Climate Change About Face? Tue, 29 Jul 2014 20:10:36 +0000 This past week has lead to three new announcements/publications that really should be evaluated in line with one another because the weight of what is being presented requires the larger context.

Last week the Obama Administration announced that it would open Atlantic offshore waters to oil and gas exploration. This has been a hotly contested issue for many years for a number of reasons. Non-exhaustively:

  1. Air guns used to look for oil and gas are very, very loud.
  2. The Atlantic is host to a booming fishing industry that would likely be disrupted.
  3. It is also host to a number of marine mammals, the most well know is likely the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale which is protected.
  4. No one knows how much oil and gas is out there and the studies that show reserves are very old and thus possibly inaccurate (40 years old).
  5. Whether the risk to the environment is justifiable for extraction of an unknown reserve of fuel that will exacerbate CO2 in the atmosphere when we should be looking for alternatives to reduce the impacts of climate change (not increase it).

Mostly, the issue lies with the known taking (harassing/killing) of marine mammals and turtles due to sound exposure for a fuel that is responsible for climate change. For those wondering how loud an air gun is “The cannons emit sound waves louder than a jet engine every ten seconds for weeks at a time.”

This is the statement from BOEM, “The bureau’s decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine, and coastal environments,” acting BOEM Director Walter Cruickshank

Which leads us to publication #2, an article, “US considers arctic Alaska Leases for 2017” that links to the full statement including this:

There is significant oil and gas potential in the Beaufort Sea, but this part of the Arctic Ocean is also a unique and sensitive environment that is critically important to the subsistence needs of Alaska Native communities on the North Slope,” said BOEM Acting Director Walter Cruickshank. “Any consideration of future leasing must be done in a way that identifies not only the areas that have resource potential, but also those areas that must be protected for wildlife and traditional uses.

Which sounds a lot like statement #1. Now – here is the tricky part of the argument. Currently, there is not a whole lot going on in the Arctic. Yes, it is an environment that needs to be protected (along with the rights of the Native communities) but, there are no current commercial fishing interests in the US High Arctic, there are no major shipping lanes, and there is no infrastructure to support major development because there is no development.  All of these things exist in the Atlantic. Along with coastlines of beaches, homes, and people – which are now subject to oil and gas development and disruption and the next deep water horizon (not to mention hurting whales).

The take away: if the administration will open the Atlantic… they wont bat an eye for the Arctic.

Which leads to publication #3: “The Cost of Delaying Action to Stem Climate Change” released this morning by the White House. The White House home page for the report describes the effort thus:

“With our country already experiencing the effects of climate change, the President has taken action to cut carbon pollution by moving to cleaner sources of energy and improving the energy efficiency of our cars, trucks and buildings. But further steps are urgently needed to ensure that we leave our children a planet that’s not polluted or damaged.

The White House today released a new report from the Council of Economic Advisers that examines the economic consequences of delaying action to stem climate change. The report finds that delaying policy actions by a decade increases total mitigation costs by approximately 40 percent, and failing to take any action would risk substantial economic damage. These findings emphasize the need for policy action today.”

I, and I am sure others, find it difficult to reconcile the actions of this week in light of the contradictory language and stances on issues so intimately connected. If we are looking for cleaner, alternative energy – why are we exploring the Atlantic and the Arctic? Which causes me to ask whether we are in a process of an “about face” on climate – and more importantly whether empty words and lots of bad action will be the new norm (or, more accurately, a continuation of the old norm). Lip service wont save the whales and it certainly wont stop the warming.








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US Coast Guard to have expanded presence in the Arctic Fri, 23 May 2014 13:50:07 +0000 One of the major issues facing the US as an Arctic nation is a lack of consistent and reliable infrastructure north of the Bering Sea (north of the Aleutian Islands, really). This year, for the first time as presented in their draft programmatic assessment, the US Coast Guard is planning systematic coverage through their Arctic Shield program of the far north with seasonal stations planned for Nome, Kotzebue, and Barrow,  Alaska. Previously in 2012, only Barrow, and in 2013, only Kotzebue had Coast Guard summer presence.

There are also plans to have the icebreaker Healy (operating under NSF research) as well as a national security cutter and buoy tender in the area to respond if needed. Additional communications capabilities are also in the works via an advanced radio facility planned for Barrow.

While there has been a lot of talk of Arctic Strategies in anticipation of increase vessel traffic, these plans are the first real demonstration of action. Coast Guard District 17 is responsible for approximately 44,000 miles of Alaskan coastline, much of it beyond reasonable reach of their Kodiak headquarters – it is refreshing and encouraging that at least someone is finally taking action to better prepare for and react to growing activity in the Arctic.

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GAO report criticizes Arctic strategy Tue, 20 May 2014 16:50:33 +0000 The United States is poised to take over chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015, but a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that agencies may not be ready to do it.

In essence, while the US Government has plenty of cooks in the kitchen managing various Arctic roles and programs, the Department of State lacks an organized way of tracking these programs or making sure that there is alignment with and communication of programs and projects being pursued in support of Arctic Council initiatives (there are something like 80 ongoing project through the Arctic council) and those agency initiatives pursing similar goals.

The political angle (there always is one) centers on whether the US should appoint a US Arctic Ambassador, or similar, to represent US Arctic interests. The Department of State has promised to appoint someone, an there has been legislation introduced in the House of Representatives to establish a US Ambassador at large. However, decisive motion is lacking.

As the US gears up for its role as chair, project alignment is one of several obstacles the administration will face, not the least of which are ascension to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and addressing growing issues of Arctic emergency response (oil spills and search and rescue).

Stay tuned.

The GAO report was requested by Senator Murkowski of Alaska, who has been very vocal on Arctic issues.

Full text here:

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NOAA reviews critical habitat for Southern Resident Killer Whale Fri, 25 Apr 2014 14:42:03 +0000 NOAA today announces the beginning of a 90 day review of 2006 established Southern Resident Killer Whale critical habitat.

“We find that the petition [submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity] to revise critical habitat, viewed in the context of information readily available in our files, presents substantial scientific information indicating the petitioned action may be warranted. We are hereby initiating a review of the currently designated critical habitat to determine whether revision is warranted. To ensure a comprehensive review, we are soliciting scientific and commercial information pertaining to this action.”

Scientific and commercial information pertinent to the petitioned action must be received by June 24, 2014.

You may submit comments, information, or data on this document, identified by the code NOAA–NMFS– 2014–0041, by any of the following methods: Electronic Submissions: Submit all electronic comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal. Go to!docketDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2014- 0041.

Click the ‘‘Comment Now!’’ icon, complete the required fields, and enter or attach your comments.

Full FR announcement here:

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March 2014 – 4th warmest on record Fri, 25 Apr 2014 14:04:06 +0000 March 2014 was the fourth warmest ever recorded in 135 years of global temperature monitoring. On average, the globe was 1.3 F warmer than normal. Siberia was a whopping 9 degrees F warmer and Denmark and Norway were up by 7 degrees F.

No so here, you say? You’d be correct – in the US, the temperature this March was 1 F cooler than normal and the 43rd coolest on record.

NOAA Land ocean temps 2014

Figure 1. Departure of temperature from average for March 2014. Image credit: National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) .

What’s up with that? Well there are some general speculations linked with global warming trends, but also some folks who say the cooler US winter weather is just that, weather.

Check out this blog for more on links between ocean circulation, climate, and weather:

More info on March 2014 temps:

This study talks about long term (4,000 year) cycles:

Article in Time discussing the same issue:


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