People send me stuff. Sometimes it is stuff I’m not expected to see. It seems NOAA is getting hot and bothered about the Arctic.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke recently approved a plan to prohibit the expansion of commercial fishing in U.S. Arctic waters to enable researchers time to gather the ecosystem data essential to managing a sustainable fishery.
The area involved — roughly 200,000 square miles of ocean north of the Bering Strait — has no commercial fisheries yet, but it could if the seasonal Arctic ice pack continues to melt.
Climate change is happening faster in the Arctic than any other place on Earth — and with wide-ranging global consequences. I saw this firsthand when I participated in a recent “listening and learning” expedition to the northern corners of Alaska’s Arctic region with Adm. Thad Allen, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard; Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; and other members of President Obama’s Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force. We witnessed an area abundant with natural resources, diverse wildlife, proud local and native peoples — and a most uncertain future.
According to the most recent Arctic Report Card, the Arctic Ocean continues to warm, and seasonal Arctic ice is retreating at an alarming rate.
Why is this so significant? A diminished sea ice cover has the potential to open up impassable parts of the Arctic to what could amount to unchecked “booms” in various national and international enterprises: commercial fishing, transportation, mining and energy exploration. A warming Arctic also disturbs worldwide weather patterns, endangers fish and wildlife, and, ultimately, threatens our national security.
Although the Arctic is arguably the world’s fastest changing ocean, it remains largely a scientific mystery. Before we enact plans to protect and zone the Arctic Ocean for specific uses, we must learn more about its marine ecosystems, ocean circulation patterns and changing chemistry.
An aggressive scientific research program must be conducted collaboratively among Arctic nations, government agencies, research institutions and others with a stake in the region. NOAA is heavily involved in a number of joint initiatives, including:
- The Russian-American Long-Term Census of the Arctic (RUSALCA) – NOAA, the National Science Foundation and the Russian Academy of Sciences recently launched a 40-day research expedition from Nome, Alaska, to observe physical and biological environmental changes in the Northern Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea.
- Extended Continental Shelf Mapping – A joint, 41-day U.S.-Canada expedition is under way to map the entire continental shelf using the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy and the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent. NOAA and the Joint Hydrographic Center will lead the effort to collect bathymetric data used to measure ocean depths and map the sea floor.
- Climate Monitoring – NOAA’s Barrow Observatory, in conjunction with the Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Monitoring facility nearby, provides a model for an international network of atmospheric climate observatories. NOAA satellites track the extent of ice and snow cover, and provide a nearly 30-year record of Arctic atmospheric conditions.
NOAA provides those living and working in the Arctic with critical information products such as weather warnings, ice cover analysis, hydrographic maps, and search and rescue satellite-aided tracking. As efforts to explore and understand the Arctic region expand, NOAA will be called upon by a growing number of stakeholders — from the U.S. military to tour operators to commercial shippers — to provide an even greater suite of services to help ensure these activities are conducted safely and efficiently.
Dr. Jane Lubchenco
Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator
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