What’s Under the Ice Cap?

By Libby Casey

Mapping the ocean and what lies beneath is especially challenging in the arctic, where ice jams the sea.  But as the north warms and ice-melt opens up water-ways, countries are competing to know more about the sea bed – especially about potential oil and gas deposits. 

Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young wants to dedicate money specifically to mapping the arctic.  He’s introduced a bill that would spend 20-million dollars over two years to develop hydro-graphic data…. And another 10-million dollars specifically to map the extended continental shelf.

Today in Washington a House subcommittee on Natural Resources took testimony on the bill, including from the executive director of the U-S Arctic Research Commission, John Farrell:

Mankind has better maps of the moon than it does of the sea floor. And it’s now time to fix that as more ships head north.

Captain John Lowell of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, directs the Office of Coast Survey.  He says most of the arctic waters that do have charts were surveyed with obsolete technology, some back in the 1800’s.  And Lowell says most of the shoreline along Alaska’s northern and western coasts hasn’t been mapped in 50 years.

He testified today that NOAA’s budget to map the sea floor all over the nation is $100-million.  But Congressman Young questioned him why the Arctic doesn’t have its own budget.

Young:  You’re not addressing the arctic individually.

Lowell:  It’s not called out specifically, no sir,

Young:  It should be, because this is where the action’s going to be.  Right now we have countries disputing the U-S and we have to … We’re on the backburner about where the borders are, where the navigational needs are .. I don’t think you, Captain, NOAA has been very neglectful in their mapping.  I’ve been through this a lot.  Oh, we’ll take time, you’re running out of time.  I want you to understand that.

Captain Lowell with NOAA says his agency is focused on mapping the Arctic seabed – as much as it can be.

NOAA has invested considerably about surveying off Alaska.  Much of it has been unknown for many years, we’re watching for where the cruise ships are going, we’re watching where perhaps the emergency port of refuges are, we’re looking at the great circle route, all these areas we’re directing both contract and NOAA assets to work on.  The arctic has not really been accessible until now, and obviously we can’t survey where we can’t get to.

Lowell says mapping the sea bed is useful for navigation safety and security, especially as more ships travel north; and also for delineating the American continental shelf, and understanding climate change and its growing impacts.


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