by Ensign Hadley Owen, NOAA, Junior Officer, NOAA Ship Fairweather (S-220)
1200 hours, August 12, 2012: 70°38.7’N 162°06.6’W, approximately 22 miles north of Icy Cape, Alaska’s North Slope
In 1963, the town of Point Hope (68° 21’N 166°46’W) – a small, ancient, and archeologically-significant Inupiaq community on Alaska’s North Slope that remains at present a largely native village – narrowly avoided the creation of an artificial harbor by underwater hydrogen bombs. Part of “Project Plowshare,” the planned creation of a deepwater harbor by thermonuclear power was intended to demonstrate the peaceful use of nuclear power for construction purposes. It was opposed by Native American communities, scientists in the state, and the Episcopalian church across the United States. The protest has been credited as one of the first government projects successfully challenged on the grounds of its potential environmental impact.
Point Hope is just one example of an Arctic Alaskan community for which an increased understanding of the regions oceans and near-coastal areas will prove relevant. From the bathymetry of the coastal region, to the chemical composition of its waters, and the characteristics of its benthic community, studies will document changes in the region due to increased exposure and vessel traffic. The NOAA Ship Fairweather’s current Arctic reconnaissance trip continues to offer that rare opportunity in environmental science – the establishment of “baseline” characteristics of a largely untouched region from which to monitor potentially imminent changes.
In 2008, the USCG Cutter Spar conducted a preliminary hydrographic survey around Point Hope (and other areas), which determined that strong currents in the area were contributing to large shifts in the coastal bathymetry (underwater topography). Sandy sediment and shallow depths, as well as the high level of coastal erosion, have resulted in a significantly changeable nature of the region’s seafloor. Point Hope was one area of interest for this summer’s investigation; on August 8, our ship-based reconnaissance survey of the spit of land’s projection into the ocean showed differences from the area’s charted depiction.
While NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey interest in updating our hydrographic understanding of this region of the Arctic has driven this voyage, we were happy to welcome in Kotzebue a trio of scientists whose work overlapped with and supplemented our own mission. Dr. Doug Dasher, an environmental scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has had an ongoing interest in Point Hope and related environmental radioactivity studies. He and Terri Lomax, from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, are on board as part of a large-scale survey of biological and chemical trends in the waters of the Arctic Chukchi Sea. Under the Alaska Monitoring and Assessment Program (AKMAP), they are using a stratified random sampling plan over a large area to get the “big picture” of a marine area’s health. Their work supports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in their national Aquatic Resource Survey of the nation’s waters.
Also onboard is an aquatic toxicologist from NOAA’s National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), Dr. Ian Hartwell. His path crossed with Dr. Dasher’s several years back in Kachemak Bay on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula (south of Anchorage), where they were both conducting similar research to their present study. Dr. Hartwell’s work is part of NCCOS’ Coastal Ocean Assessment, Status and Trends (COAST) Program, which conducts biological, physical, and chemical assessments of habitats affected – or potentially affected – by contaminants.
Together, they are paying particular interest to a 25 to 30 nautical mile corridor offshore in the Chukchi Sea. The corridor stretches between the Arctic Ocean’s deep-water oil leases, currently being researched and developed by international oil companies, and the largely subsistence native communities of Alaska’s North Slope. The forward-looking exploration of our Fairweather cruise meshes well with AKMAP’s and NCCOS’s goals of defining and describing the relatively untouched environment of the coastal North Slope. In light of increasing maritime traffic, AKMAP and NCCOS hope to monitor potential contamination and help to proactively address future environmental impact upon this still largely untouched Arctic region.