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Mapping the Arctic Sea Floor

Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
October 11, 2007

Coast Guard Cutter HEALY ,WAGB - 20, [Coast Guard Photo]

Arctic Sunset [State Dept. Photo]

The State Department partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Coast Survey, the University of New Hampshire’s Joint Hydrographic Center, and the National Science Foundation on a mapping excursion of the ocean floor on the northern Chukchi Borderland, a large underwater shelf in the Arctic Ocean.

The venture, which concluded on September 15, 2007, was the third expedition in a series of cruises that began in 2003 aboard the Healy, the largest U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker. The research was funded through a NOAA grant awarded to the University of New Hampshire.

Little data is known about the northern Chukchi Borderland ocean floor, which historically is a heavily ice-covered region of the Arctic Ocean. The expedition mapped the 2,500 meter (approximately 8,250 feet) depth contour and the foot of the continental slope, the transition area from the continental margin to the deep sea floor.

Polar bear walking on ice. Twenty-two polar bears were seen on the 4 week Healy cruise. [State Dept. Photo]The scientists explored this relatively uncharted seafloor to better understand its form and structure. The data collected during the cruise provided valuable information to map sea floor processes and fisheries’ habitat and define our continental shelf. The data also provided input into climate and circulation models that will help scientists predict future conditions in the Arctic.

Arctic Ice [State Dept. Photo]

The primary mapping data, which was collected from Healy’s multibeam sonar and subbottom profiler, revealed some exciting new bottom features. Additionally, scientists were able to view glacial scours created during a past ice age and large craters thought to be formed by gas seeps emanating from the ocean floor.

The dynamic landscape hosts ice of various ages and forms whose colors ranged from a greasy black, to blinding white, to a turquoise blue. While not encountering another vessel during their entire journey, the crew and scientists did encounter some of the animals that have adapted to the Arctic’s unique environment, including 22 polar bears and more than 40 seals.

The loss of ice was clearly evident to the expedition. The Healy did not encounter a significant solid ice pack at any point in its journey, as was routine in past expeditions, and the bright blue multi-year ice and former pressure ridges were visibly disintegrating. In fact, the Healy was unable to take advantage of an “ice liberty,” where the ship would stop so those onboard could climb the Arctic ice, but the ship never encountered a large enough piece. On previous trips, the Healy would hit an ice pack too difficult to break through, forcing a different route or requiring the Healy to float with the pack until it could break free. This year it was comparativel less impeded and collected more than three times the data and ventured much farther north than originally planned.

Brian Van Pay, a Maritime Geographer from OES, participated in the data collection and provided policy guidance on the Convention on Law of the Sea. The Bush Administration is currently seeking Senate consent to U.S. accession to the Law of the Sea Convention as a priority recommendation under the President's Ocean Action Plan. Accession would allow full implementation of the rights afforded to convention parties to protect coastal and ocean resources.  Brian Van Pay launches an expendable bathythermograph [XBT] off the stern of the Healy. The XBT probe measures temperatures as it falls through the water. The temperature data is then used to calibrate the multibeam echo sounder, the primary tool that is used to map the sea floor.  [State Dept. Photo]View of the Arctic Ocean from the bow of the Healy at sunset. [State Dept. Photo]Participants aboard the Healy. 22 scientists were on board the Healy including representatives from the University of New Hampshire, University of Texas, University of Alaska, the National Ice Center, Scripps Institution, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the State Department [State Dept. Photo]

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