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Climate change now adds an urgency to collecting oceanic data

21st February 2013


Hydrographic survey is one of those disciplines that gives the impression of having been around forever. Wind the clock back to the days of William Bligh, Captain Cook and Fitzroy and the survey work carried out by the UK’s Royal Navy was headline-grabbing stuff, likewise early expeditions carried out around Antarctica and in waters to the north of Canada.
Ships got on with quartering the oceans and teams onshore handled and published the data; with new technologies being brought to bear as appropriate, such as GPS since the mid 1980s as coverage was progressively introduced by the US.
Today, hydrographic survey has assumed a fresh relevance and the primary driver is the impact of climate change on the oceans. Retreating icecaps coupled with the tropics expanding north and south are perceived as having a profound impact.
This has lent a new urgency in terms of acquiring more comprehensive oceanic data than has ever before been collected. In day-to-day practical navigation terms in the Arctic and Antarctica, for example, climate change has resulted in the coastal profiles of Greenland, Svalbard and the northern coast of Russia altering – sometimes dramatically. In the Indian Ocean and Pacific, islands are disappearing.
Two examples illustrate such changes. In September 2005, US explorer Dennis Schmidt located a ‘new’ island off the eastern seaboard of Greenland, 640km north of the Arctic Circle; since when more have been identified. It is estimated that the Greenlandic ice margin has retreated 10km over the past five years.
In August 2007, Arctic explorer Will Steger encountered a new island off the coast of the Norwegian island of Svalbard. Only two years earlier, when he was last that way, it was masked by glaciers and therefore not known.
There is a global oceanic climate change programme known as Argo, launched in 1999, with first data buoy deployments in 2000 and the 3000th and, for now, final device placed in November 2007.
Argo is an international effort and the programme makes a major contribution to the World Climate Research Programme’s Climate Variability and Predictability Experiment (CLIVAR) project, and to the Global Ocean Data Assimilation Experiment, otherwise known as GODAE. The Argo array is also part of the Global Climate Observing System/Global Ocean Observing System (GCOS/GOOS).
In the UK it is the Met Office that holds responsibility, with some 230 Argo floats deployed to date It works in partnership with the British Oceanographic Data Centre, the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and the UK Hydrographic Office. A measure of the programme’s importance is that it was a highlight of the Ministerial summit meeting of the Group on Earth Observations in Cape Town on November 30, 2007.
So what has Argo done in terms of adding to cumulative knowledge of the oceans? In its words: “The most obvious benefit has been a marked reduction in the uncertainty of ocean heat storage calculations. These are a key factor in determining the rate of global climate warming and sea level rise, and in projecting their future progression.
“The steady stream of data coupled with global scale satellite measurements from radar altimeters has also made possible huge advances in the representation of the oceans in coupled ocean atmosphere models, leading to seasonal climate forecasts and the routine analysis and forecasting of the state of the subsurface ocean. These are advances that could only have been dreamed of a decade ago and have practical applications such as prediction on the fate of oil-spills in the open ocean and as an aid to fisheries.”
Such work is of vital importance to future understanding of global climate dynamics and to the business community. Indeed, the business element was highlighted at the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology’s Small Sea Changes; Big Business Decisions seminar of 31st October 2007.
IMAREST’s selling pitch was simple: “Few people would argue that improvements in weather forecasting and climate projections – vital tools in short, medium and long term business and operations planning and strategy – would benefit businesses as varied as insurance and agriculture, retail and manufacturing, transport and tourism, utilities and the financial sector, to name just a few. What may not be as clearly understood is that achieving improvements relies on a better understanding of the critical role of the oceans in influencing both weather and climate.”
IMAREST will in due course publish a report on the outcomes of the proceedings.
Switching tack to the currently hot topic of Arctic resources, Russia’s summer 2007 planting of the symbolic ‘flag’ at the North Pole, sparked a flurry of international concern about Moscow’s intentions.
Notable was a decision by Canada to step up its presence in the region to protect the Northwest Passage, while the US embarked on a further survey of Northern waters. It also signalled a significant increase in demand for hydrographic suvey resources.
Behind the foregoing political decisions is the nascent battle for resources, especially oil and gas as the High Arctic is reckoned to be where 25percent of remaining global reserves are located. One estimate suggests oil reserves of more than 500billion barrels of oil – more than Saudi Arabia’s presumed remaining resource.
According to the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, by 2030–2040 global warming will melt enough of the northern polar ice cap to make the extraction and transportation of undersea minerals a reality. Most of the Arctic thaw is taking place in Russia’s territorial waters and the Russian Northern Sea Route (Northeast Passage) will probably be open to commercial shipping in 2025–2030.
There is a further dimension and that is communications. There is already talk of laying a
trans-polar fibre-optic cable direct between Prudhoe Bay and Norway or Iceland, for example.
There are five countries with direct Arctic interests and which are variously seeking wider territorial claims, or reasserting/defining their control over vast tracts of the Arctic. They are: Canada, Russia, the US, Denmark and Norway.
Each has a substantial stake already, but Russia was quickest off the mark in terms of acting to peg out as much of the Arctic Ocean not already regarded as being someone’s territorial waters already. It was late July 2007 when two Russian politicians – one the veteran explorer Artur Chilingarov – dived over the North Pole using the mini-sub MIR, which is equipped to cope with the 4200m water depth in that location.
Moscow has already attempted to claim the lion’s share of the Arctic Ocean. In 2001 it went before a UN commission, asserting that waters off its northern coast were in fact an extension of its maritime territory. That initial claim was based on the argument that an underwater feature, known as the Lomonosov Ridge, was an extension of its continental territory.
Moscow says the 1963km subsea feature is geologically part of the Russian continental shelf and that it extends from Russian Siberia’s Severnaya Zemlya islands between the Laptev and Kara Seas almost to the north coast of Greenland. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has been reported as assembling a team of top geographers, geologists, geophysicists and oceanographers and Arctic specialists. Their task will be to add the technical detail to Moscow’s claim.
Once reinforced, the Russian claim will then be lodged with the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf under the International Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Current international law sets the national economic zone limit of all the countries littoral to the Arctic Ocean – Canada, Denmark (which controls Greenland), Norway, and the United States, and Russia – at 322km.
Under present rules, UNCLOS states that no single nation has jurisdiction over the Arctic seafloor because its geology is different from that of the surrounding continental shelves. Moscow disagrees.
As indicated above, both Canada and the US are taking steps to assert their respective positions in the Arctic, both politically and in practical terms such as accurately mapping the seafloor of a region where solid data is largely absent.
In July 2007, Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper said that six to eight Canadian navy patrol vessels will be built to guard the Northwest Passage, which the US currently claims to be international waters. He said too that a deepwater military and commercial port would be constructed there. Further, the Canadian government is said to be seeking quotes for new generation icebreakers to replace the rapidly ageing current fleet.
Gross Capex is speculated to be in the order of US$3billion. It will doubtless have a hydrographic function.
And on 17th August 2007, the American Coasguard icebreaker Healy set out on a four-week cruise, mapping a portion of the Arctic seafloor. This was the third such expedition involving the Healy; its purpose, to map the sea floor on the northern Chukchi Cap. Prior cruises were conducted in 2003 and 2004.
From the foregoing, it should be clear that hydrographic survey is entering a new era, with potent mostly well-proven technologies at its disposal. But, while it occasionally creeps into global headlines, by and large, as before, this incredibly important work will be carried out unobtrusively and with the minimum of fuss.









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