Groundbreaking “Sea Ice Atlas” aids Arctic planning and is really cool to boot


Back in the dark ages of the 1960s, the science of ice forecasting – predicting how much ice will be choking Arctic seas in a given month – was based more on intuition than science. Forecasters relied largely on memory and anecdotal observations, with results about as fallible as you’d expect. Sometimes, the dearth of information caused trouble for forecasters, like the time they sent barges laden with Alaska pipeline materials into the Bering Sea and accidentally trapped them in the ice for days.

Thanks to satellite technology, today’s Arctic-going vessels have a better chance of avoiding such mishaps. But without a solid historical record to contextualize the data, there are still a lot of unknowns. A digital Sea Ice Atlas is out to change that, bringing 160 years' worth of observation together with modern GIS mapping to take forecasting into the 21st century.

With temperatures at record highs and Alaskan sea ice at record lows, activity above the Arctic circle has spiked. Oil, fishing, tourism, military and shipping officials have each expressed the need for a reliable resource to help them navigate not only the ever-shifting northern seas, but also the future of the Arctic itself. Dael Devenport, a National Park Service archeologist, plans to use the atlas to predict coastal erosion and preserve archeological sites at the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

Though the atlas was mostly created for people who work in the Arctic, the interactive maps and historical record are free for anyone with an internet connection, and are just plain cool to play around with – especially if you’re in the midst of a mid-winter heat wave and dreaming of snow and ice, as we are at the HCN headquarters in Paonia, Colo.

One of the interactive maps available from the Sea Ice Atlas.

From your desk, you can create a number of customized maps and charts, including an animated map that shows how the Alaskan ice pack has changed over time. You can set the map to an exact date and time period – say, every February from 1850 to 2012 – and watch the ice morph, growing and shrinking before your eyes. Or you can set it to watch the ice pack change every week over a given year. You can also create a graph showing when waters became ice-free at specific locations each year.

Nothing like this has existed before. The information in the Sea Ice Atlas was painstakingly compiled over two years from ten different sources, including old whaling logs, the Danish Meteorological Institute and the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office. Data from the past few decades was relatively easy to archive, thanks to satellite images, but deciphering hand-drawn charts and logs from the 1800s and consolidating them into a single format proved a bigger challenge.

John Walsh, a former ice forecaster who’s now the chief scientist at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, has been dreaming of a resource like this for decades. But only in the past few years did the project get funding from the Alaska Ocean Observing System, a network that supports oceanographic tools. With their help and Walsh’s direction, a preliminary version was released last month; the full online version came out this week, and a downloadable version will be ready by the end of February.  About 100 people took part in an online training session Tuesday.

1909 sea ice chart from the Danish Meteorological Institute

Part of the impetus to design the atlas was to provide information that could mitigate conflicts in polar regions, as economic opportunities and concerns over climate change come head to head. As the ice-free season grows longer, enterprise along the Alaskan coast is predicted to rise dramatically: Currently, there are only two nearshore Arctic wells producing oil and gas, but 670 active offshore leases totaling 3.7 million acres have been granted to energy companies. An Arctic fishery, currently prohibited in federal waters, may also be a realistic proposition in the near future; and international shipping through an increasingly ice-free Northwest Passage is growing by the year.

Yet the opportunities don’t come without risk. Environmental groups warn that the lack of emergency response infrastructure in the Arctic necessitates much stricter regulations than are currently in place. But with Arctic exploration snowballing and policy slow-as-usual to catch up, a resource like the Sea Ice Atlas could prove vital in helping Arctic vessels stay out of trouble.

In addition to being a useful tool for oil, fishing and shipping companies, the atlas is also of interest to the scientific community. Walsh says the historic data is already disproving theories that sea ice ebbs and flows on a 20-year cycle: “If you only have 30 years of data, it’s really hard to say there is a 20-year cycle,” he says. “But when you get to 160 years, you can start to see if any cycles hold up over time.”

So far, none have; the trend is largely toward shrinking. The atlas conclusively shows that last seven years are unprecedented in the recorded history of the Alaskan Arctic: Never before has there been so little ice. Yet the atlas reveals a different story in the Bering Sea. Researchers have known that the Bering Sea was bucking the melting trend, but didn’t realize that pack ice there is as robust today as it was in the mid-1800s.

It’s still unclear what other insights the atlas will ultimately provide as scientists dig deeper into its trove of information. Nonetheless, we’ve come a long way from just 40 years ago, when Walsh remembers printing out a satellite image of sea ice in Washington, D.C. and driving 150 miles north to Philadelphia to deliver it by hand to an icebreaker ship about to depart for the Canadian Arctic.

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.

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