NOAA sends survey vessel on mission to improve Arctic charts

In response to the need for better charts of the Arctic Ocean, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has sent the 231-foot research ship Fairweather on a two-month mission to conduct hydrographic surveys in Kotzebue Sound.

The Arctic is experiencing a prolonged shipping season resulting from a significant loss of sea ice. Critical areas are "increasingly transited by the offshore oil and gas industry, cruise liners, military craft, tugs and barges, and fishing vessels," explained NOAA Corps Capt. David Neander, commanding officer of Fairweather, in a press release. Yet many of the areas seeing increased traffic have not been charted since the 1800s, when soundings were done with a lead line.

For mariners, navigating Alaska's shallow and sparsely charted coastline presents a serious threat. The region has been the site of numerous groundings in recent years, including the high-profile accidents of the cruise ships Empress of the North in 2007 and Spirit of Glacier Bay in 2008.

Fairweather departed for Kodiak, Alaska, on July 7. Using state-of-the-art acoustic technology, Fairweather and her four survey launches will measure ocean depths and collect 3-D imagery of the ocean floor over 402 square nautical miles of Kotzebue Sound. The research vessel is equipped with side-scan sonars and multi-beam echosounders, and has a complement of 47 full-time NOAA personnel, including eight NOAA Corps officers, four licensed engineers and 11 visiting scientists.

Kotzebue Sound was a priority for NOAA because of the importance of distributing fuel and cargo to local inhabitants, and the difficulty of making deliveries with inadequate charts. At present, deep draft vessels anchor 15 miles offshore of the city of Kotzebue, and cargo is brought to shore by shallow-draft barges. Accurate hydrographic data will provide mariners with a much needed assurance as they make that journey. Fairweather will also measure depths at Cape Blossom, 11 miles south of Kotzebue, to assess the area's suitability for building a fuel transfer station. The construction of the station is dependent on finding water deep enough to accommodate deep-draft vessels.

"This is for nautical safety," explained NOAA Communications Specialist Dawn Forsythe, "so the local community can change infrastructure (and) develop more efficient trade routes to suit their needs."

For companies involved in fuel and cargo distribution, greater confidence in charts means an increase in operational efficiency. Crowley Maritime, the region's primary fuel supplier, has a tank farm in Kotzebue and uses the city as a supply hub for 11 Arctic villages on the coast and upstream on Alaska's Selawik, Buckland, and Kobuk rivers.

Chris Peterson, Crowley's vice president of marine services, underscored the importance of having adequate charts. "We intentionally build vessels for the shallowest water available," he explained, "and better data means definite increases in safety."

Crowley's business in the region is seasonal and the window of opportunity is slim; some villages are only accessible for a few weeks each June. For local inhabitants, Crowley's ability to make its deliveries is paramount. When the tugboat Aku failed to make a delivery to the remote village of Kobuk in 2008, the villagers were forced to fly in the fuel needed to support their economy. In total, Crowley transports approximately 7.5 million gallons of petroleum products to villagers of the Kotzebue Sound region each year.

Despite the importance of Fairweather's mission, NOAA was forced to reduce the length of the survey due to budgetary constraints. NOAA, which once possessed 11 hydrographic ships, now only has three, and faces more budget cuts in the future.

"When people look for ways to cut budgets, they sometimes look at a static picture," said Capt. John Lowell, director of NOAA Office of Coast Survey at a National Harbor Safety Committee conference in May. "But (the federal government) acts like we have decades to get (Arctic charting) done, when ice diminishment and increased marine traffic are happening now."

NOAA considers 238,000 square nautical miles of the Arctic to be "navigationally significant," meaning that the area has a good likelihood of navigational traffic and also contains certain depths that pose a potential hazard. Because of scarce resources, the agency has been forced to designate only 38,000 square nautical miles as survey priorities in the Arctic. Current estimates maintain that charting those areas will take 25 years to complete.

By Professional Mariner Staff