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Science in Alaska

Science Research in the Alaska Region

The Alaska region is currently the focus of a major increase in marine research. This is a product of many factors, but attention is largely driven by the economic importance of the marine resources and by the many unanswered questions regarding the role of these waters in global processes. The region is vast, and relatively poorly explored.

The University National Oceanographic Laboratory System vessel previously assigned to the region was the R/V Alpha Helix. More than 35 years old, this vessel is the oldest in the academic fleet. It is past due for retirement. A design effort for a replacement vessel is underway as part of the national academic fleet renewal plan. The scientific needs call for a ship with multiple capabilities—suitable for subarctic work, for arctic work in the summer, for oceanographic research, and for fisheries research and training. Multiple future demands for such a vessel are becoming evident.

The academic community envisions a need for ship support in conjunction with evolving ocean observing systems and the development of long-term monitoring. Marine biological and ecological studies will continue to be an area of high interest, and new geological and geophysical research efforts are being developed. New initiatives such as the Ocean Exploration Program and the Gulf Ecosystem Monitoring Program, and the North Pacific Research Board –funded studies will need ship support. One of the goals of the Ocean Exploration Program is to complete the mapping of the U.S. continental shelf; the majority of the shelf is in the Alaska region. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has pressing needs for ship support for stock and ecosystem research in response to the mandate for ecosystem-based management, and NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, in conjunction with academia and NMFS, will continue to work on the impact of ocean and climate conditions on the subarctic ecosystems of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. The agency work has been constrained by the current lack of ability to access ice-covered water of the Bering Sea. Arctic research will remain a high priority, and the SEARCH (Study of Environmental Arctic Change) program is an example of the scale of effort needed. Whether or not this ambitious program to look at change in the entire Arctic is launched, the scientific questions driving the program will need to be addressed.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory and collaborators both within and outside of Alaska have discussed the importance and need for initiating marine geological research in the Aleutian Arc over the next 5–10 years, particularly as they expand their volcano and earthquake monitoring efforts into the western part of the arc. The 2200-km long section of the arc beyond the Alaska Peninsula contains at least 20 active and dormant volcanoes, but current studies are limited to the islands which are only a small fraction of the geological province.

This report presents some ship-based priority programs. Many future users of the new vessel have provided the information, and the intent is to create a brief but somewhat comprehensive report.

Scientific Programmatic Needs for Ship Support in the Alaska Region

The United States academic fleet is assigned to institutions located in the various coastal regions. These research vessels are coordinated through the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), an operational model that has been very successful over the years. Today, the fleet is approaching a crisis, in that several of the vessels are aging, and yet there have been limited opportunities or plans for replacing them. Notwithstanding the increasing importance of drifting and moored instrumentation, remote sensing and coastal observatories, the U.S. academic fleet remains a critical part of the essential infrastructure in support of oceanographic research. We must maintain research vessel capability if the U.S. is to retain leadership in ocean affairs. While the balance of the types of vessels required may be changing, the maintenance of a fleet remains a critical need.

The National Ocean Research Leadership Council has recognized this, and approved an academic fleet replacement plan that was prepared by the Federal Oceanographic Facilities Committee. This plan calls for a number of replacement vessels over the next decade, with the first to be a ship for the Alaska region, to replace the aging R/V Alpha Helix with a more capable vessel better suited to the needs and conditions extant in these waters. The Alpha Helix is now the oldest ship in the fleet, and is already past normal retirement age.

The argument for placing a vessel in this region rests on the high probability that there will be a varied suite of continuing demands for ship time. Given this, an expeditionary approach to academic ship support would be inadequate. The needs for research are extensive, and emerging programs designed to address these needs will have substantial demands for vessel support. The ocean research carried out in these waters has attracted investigators from institutions in many other parts of the United States, drawn by the multitude of scientific challenges. This will continue to be the case, and a few examples are presented below.

The Alaska Region

The Alaska region includes the waters of Southeast Alaska, the open Gulf of Alaska, Prince William Sound, the Bering Sea, the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea. Together, these comprise more than 75% of the waters and coastline of the United States; they also present extreme challenges of unpredictable weather and great distances. There are compelling and urgent scientific needs for research in Alaska waters, for example: the waters of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea provide more than half of the total annual national fish catch, the arctic region is subject to offshore oil and gas exploitation and development, and the nearshore Arctic Ocean is likely to become increasingly important in commercial shipping. Prince William Sound, the route of oil tanker transit from Valdez, was subjected to a disastrous oil spill in 1989. These are only a few of the many critical issues.

On a more basic level, it is clear that a complex suite of significant, interrelated atmospheric and oceanic changes have been occurring in Alaska waters in the past few decades, and that some of the severe symptoms and consequences are impacting the ecosystems, including commercial species. Thus, societal needs will drive the scientific program to a large extent. However, a compelling case also can be made for a need to understand these changes as part of the driving force of larger, more global ocean/atmosphere changes.

The Alaska Region Research Vessel will be unique within the UNOLS fleet, in its multi-faceted capability for ocean research (all areas) and fisheries research. Since operations in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas will encounter extensive sea ice, the ship also must have sufficient ice strengthening to permit year-round operations south of St. Matthew Island, and seasonal operations to the north. Activities will include, but are not limited to, oceanographic and fisheries research, coastal marine studies, pollution studies, and marine mammal and bird research. Student training in oceanography and fisheries (including stock assessment) will play an important part in the mission.

Scientific Programs and Support Requirements

Beaufort and Chukchi Seas

Arctic change is currently an area of intense scientific interest. A major periodic reversal of atmospheric and oceanic circulation—the Arctic Oscillation—has been identified, and, together with a very long-term thinning of the arctic ice cover and a change in penetration of Atlantic water from the east, suggests ongoing changes on various time and spatial scales. It is essential that the necessary observations be made to track and document ocean conditions, including the extent and thickness of sea ice, the transfer of materials between the shelf and deeper waters of the Arctic Ocean, northward transport of water through the Bering Strait, nutrient transport through the Bering Strait, and effects of changes in ice and other factors on arctic marine biota. With regard to the Bering Strait, there is evidence for a slowing of northward water transport, which could trigger a number of widespread effects. Autonomous under-ice vehicles can make some of these observations, but a ship remains indispensable for much of the data collection, and also for placing moorings and servicing ocean observatories.

On the biological side, there are also challenging problems. Why do beluga whales from the Chukchi Sea migrate up into the Arctic Ocean, far north, following identical tracks from year to year? How do bowhead whales react to changing ice conditions? What is the effect of thinning ice on ice-related biota, especially the timing and extent of primary production? How would the arctic coastal ecosystem respond to increased pollution? To intensified development?

Bering Sea

The Bering Sea has been described as the most productive marine ecosystem in the United States, and one of the most productive in the world. It contains an impressive diversity and abundance of organisms at all trophic levels. A dramatic climatic “regime shift” occurred in the late 1970s, producing a major reduction in the winter seasonal extent and persistence of sea ice, and an increase in the heat content of waters over the vast shelf, especially during summers. Accompanying these changes have been changes in the seasonal distribution and impact of spring phytoplankton blooms, consequent variations in zooplankton populations, major declines in some mammal and bird species, a major increase in large jellyfish, and an exotic bloom of a calcium-bearing plankton form which occupied the entire shelf, starting with the El Niño effects of 1997.

All of this is superimposed on a long-term decline of the Steller sea lion, and reductions in sea otters, harbor seals and northern fur seals as well; it is occurring against a fluctuating climate, with increased frequency of El Niños. There is no way to model the system at present, and, indeed, we would not know as much as we do had there not been an ecosystem study underway during the critical years in the 1990s—a study which was ship-based and continuous over five years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through the Coastal Ocean Program supported the Southeast Bering Sea Carrying Capacity Program (SEBSCC). At the same time, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been sponsoring the Inner Fronts project on the Bering Sea shelf. The work was preceded by ecosystem studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, funded by NOAA and by the National Science Foundation. Without this ship-based multi-disciplinary research, and other NSF-supported work as well, we would be far behind. But now the research must continue, and vessel support is essential.

Hemispheric processes that might explain recent biotic declines influence the Bering Sea ecosystem. We know that the changes are related to large-scale atmospheric processes, but the complexity of the responses requires considerably more work. Understanding this system is important to our fisheries, to subsistence communities, and to coastal communities. The Bering Sea is an important link between the Arctic and North Pacific oceans, and we need to understand the interactions among the three waters.

Another example of a compelling need is the lack of long-term, large-scale observations of salmon migration. There has been reduced growth and production of salmon in the Bering Sea, which appears to be related to food availability, but the specific mechanisms in play are not known. The North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission designed a five-year international program (BeringAleutian Salmon International Survey) to address this problem, involving vessels at key times and areas, to provide a seasonal picture of the migration and ecology of salmon inhabiting the Bering Sea. This type of work must be conducted from research vessels.

There is rising evidence of increased loading of pollutants transported to and sequestered in arctic oceanic systems. Additionally, alterations of the ocean floor from fishing are an issue. All of these considerations lead to an urgent need to understand and quantify the relative importance of natural and human-induced variations in explaining upper trophic level changes in the Bering Sea.

The Bering Sea Basin is underlain by enormous accumulations of methane hydrate, important as a potential energy source and as a reservoir of greenhouse gas relevant to global change studies. These hydrate masses also almost certainly supply methane-rich fluids to cold seeps at the seafloor, which in turn support chemosynthetically-based ecosystems.

The southern boundary of the Bering Sea is the Aleutian Arc, a remote but geologically very active region. The central part of the arc, for example, has magnitude 9 earthquakes at a recurrence interval of about 50 years. Earthquakes and landslides in the arc have potential to create Pacific Basin–wide tsunamis. Furthermore, on average, one or two volcanoes erupt somewhere in the arc each year. Thus the arc is important for both scientific and hazard assessment objectives. The submerged portion of the arc is poorly explored, but contains evidence for the structural behavior and deformation of the arc as well, as the volcanic history as recorded in seafloor sediments and debris fields, and is predicted to contain active submarine volcanoes and hydrothermal vents.

Gulf of Alaska

Relative to the other coasts of the U.S., the Gulf of Alaska (and other Alaska waters) has received very little scientific attention; but the Gulf of Alaska is unique in various aspects of its oceanography, which makes it a natural laboratory for basic and applied research. The cyclonic winds in the Gulf of Alaska cause downwelling along the coast from Southeast Alaska to the Aleutians, yet the area is extremely productive at all trophic levels. The central Gulf of Alaska is a high-nutrient/low-chlorophyll environment and the issue of micronutrient (iron) limitation may play an important role in maintaining low chlorophyll concentrations. Most of the freshwater runoff is distributed along the coast instead of entering as major rivers, leading to a line source of buoyancy at the coast. A series of cross-shelf subsurface ridges and troughs due to remnant fiords yields a corrugated shelf that is unprecedented on the U.S. continental shelf. Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet and the inland waters of Southeast Alaska are large estuarine systems; major sections are relatively pristine and provide analogues to pre-anthropogenic effects in marine systems.

Oceanographic conditions have a major influence on the natural resources in the Gulf of Alaska. In common with the Bering Sea, the gulf supports large fisheries, and marine mammal and bird populations; it is a major marine transportation highway. Several research programs have been addressing issues relating to fish stocks and the marine ecosystem. The North Pacific GLOBEC (Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics) project is shedding new light on the relationship between oceanographic conditions and salmon populations, following up on a major Alaska-based National Marine Fisheries Service program—Ocean Carrying Capacity. The issue of the decline of the western stock of Steller sea lions has resulted in significantly increased research addressing the probable causes, and this is likely to continue for some time, since the problem is complex and no easy solutions are emerging. The Alaska SeaLife Center at Seward, Alaska is playing an important role in this. While the Center has not yet had a large demand for ship time, this is likely to change in the near future.

Geology and Geophysics

There is considerable demand for increased capability for geological and geophysical ship-based research in the Alaska region. Scientists have expressed frustration with their difficulty in conducting piston coring from the R/V Alpha Helix, and are urging that attention be paid to this area in the design of a new vessel for the region. One respondent said that there might be a major research effort over the next 10–15 years to obtain long (20+ m) piston cores from the Alaska region, requiring a vessel with appropriate capability.

Seafloor mapping capability is another need. Modern, multi-beam sonar maps are essential for marine geological research, and the lack of such maps and mapping capability in the Alaska region has hampered development of research programs. A survey of the shallow (<1 km) sedimentary deposits of the Bering Strait will make it possible to examine (in three dimensions) the cyclic history of flooding and exposure of the shallow seafloor between Alaska and Siberia. The data set would also provide a database for selecting drill and coring sites. Direct sampling of the sub-seafloor sediments would provide very useful information on both the oceanography of the Arctic Ocean and the “peopling” of North America.

The Gulf of Alaska/Aleutian area is subject to major seismic processes, but we only know about the history of recent, sub-aerial volcanism. A substantial part of the record is submerged. Mapping the flanks of volcanoes would substantially extend our knowledge of the eruptive histories of these volcanoes.

Mapping of the shelves to the north of Alaska is another priority. Recent results from the SCICEX (Scientific Ice Expeditions) swath mapping have shown that deep draft ice has modified the seafloor to depths as great as 1000 m. On the Chukchi borderland, terminal moraines were identified in 500 m of water. Complete mapping of the shelves north of Alaska would provide insight into these processes.

The Gulf of Alaska/Aleutian area is subject to frequent and intense seismic activity, and includes 80 active or dormant volcanoes, at least 29 of which have erupted since the advent of written records in 1760. A substantial part of the structural framework and the record of tectonic and volcanic activity is submerged. Knowledge about the submarine part of the system is sketchy at best. Research in this area has the potential to significantly reduce the risk from seismic and volcanic hazards. Planning and execution of new studies would be greatly facilitated by modern, multi-beam sonar maps.

Other hoped-for capabilities for geological research in the Aleutian Arc and subduction zone include in situ investigation of seafloor features, principally by remotely operated vehicles (e.g., faults, outcrops, landslide scarps, cold seeps, volcanic vents, hydrothermal vents); piston coring for studies of past ocean circulation and climate; and ability to conduct seismic reflection surveys at both high frequency (CHIRP) for shallow, high-resolution images, and low frequency (airguns with short streamer) for deeper penetration.

To the Future

Marine research momentum in the Alaska region is accelerating. The mandate for understanding the marine ecosystem and the role of the region in climate change is the driving force. State, federal and academic scientists have been engaging in research planning efforts specifically targeting the region, but Alaska waters also play a role in large national plans such as the SEARCH program, which seeks to understand and predict the entire arctic system. Also, the increased emphasis on an integrated observing system will inevitably result in the establishment of marine observatories and monitoring in Alaskan waters. Planning for such efforts is underway.

New sources of financial support will assist in these developments. The Exxon Valdez Trustee Council wisely set aside a portion of the oil-spill generated monies to establish a long-term funding revenue base. The annual revenues available to support research could be as high as $10 million. The plan is to apply them to the support of long-term monitoring and research through the Gulf Ecosystem Monitoring Program (GEM). At the same time, the North Pacific Research Board has been established to manage funds permanently appropriated for marine research in the North Pacific region, to include the Bering Sea and Arctic. Annual funds available will be on a similar order to the GEM Program, and the first limited round of projects was approved this spring. These new programs, along with the existing level of federally-supported marine research, will require expanded ship support.

There is also a need for ship time by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the agency proposes to use any excess time available on the vessel in support of their research. One issue has been the inability to access the Bering Sea shelf in early spring, while ice covered. This is an important time of year, and must be studied if we are to understand the dynamics of the ecosystem, but at present represents a void in our knowledge.

Given the size of the northeast Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea, and Chukchi and Beaufort seas bordering the Arctic Ocean, the nature of the ecosystems, the value of living marine resources, the potential for non-renewable resource extraction, geological hazards, international issues, and the extreme winter working conditions off Alaska, there is a documented strong need for access to modern, dependable and safe research vessels in the region.