NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

Breaking Ice: A Personal Journey amid Preparations for Arctic Oil Spills

Leave a comment

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. The following story follows one way NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is preparing for a potential oil spill emergency in the Arctic. To learn more about how you can be prepared for other types of emergencies, visit http://www.ready.gov.

This is the second in a series of posts about Arctic Shield 2013 by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Zach Winters-Staszak. Read his first post, “Arctic-bound.”

Fog and snow obscure the tundra below as the plane descends. The seat belt sign goes off and a man reaches for his bag in the overhead bin, the quote on the back of his shirt spelling out just how far I now am from Seattle: “Vegetarian. An ancient tribal slang for the village idiot who can’t hunt, fish or ride.” I’ve returned to Barrow, Alaska, top of the world for now, but I have higher latitudes in my future.

Bowhead whale bones and a sign announcing Barrow as the northernmost city in America welcomed me to the Arctic.

Bowhead whale bones and a sign announcing Barrow as the northernmost city in America welcomed me to the Arctic. (NOAA)

On previous trips to Barrow, the village was blanketed by snow, chilled by negative air temperatures, and surrounded by coastal sea ice. As I step out from the baggage claim, the air is balmy and the landscape is thawed, leaving only mud and gravel for me to drag the now-useless wheels of my luggage and heavy equipment case across. When I arrive at the hotel lobby, I hear familiar voices from conference calls over the last few months as we prepared for this logistically complex undertaking, and I quickly begin to put faces to names and voices.

Top of the World

In a previous blog post, I gave a brief overview of my involvement in the oil spill training exercise Arctic Shield 2013. I was joining scientists, analysts, the United States Coast Guard (USCG), and the crew aboard the USCG Cutter Healy to demonstrate the capabilities of oil spill response technologies in the remote and challenging environment of the Arctic Ocean.

At the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska, you can see local artists carve traditional icons into the jawbone of a bowhead whale.

At the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, Alaska, you can see local artists carve traditional icons into the jawbone of a bowhead whale. (NOAA)

But before I dive into those details, I first wanted to share my behind-the-scenes story of life aboard this Coast Guard icebreaker—because this was no ordinary “office” for our work. We would travel north up and over the broken sheets of Arctic sea ice before turning south through the Bering Sea, east to the Gulf of Alaska and finally dock in Seward, Alaska.

Even though I’ve been here before, Barrow still retains an uncompromising allure. Bowhead whale bones, baleen, umiaqs (seal-skin hulled canoes used for spring whaling), and caribou pelts can be seen at every turn, affirming the traditional ways synonymous with Arctic communities—as well as what’s at stake if a major oil spill occurred here.

Each time I come to Barrow, I make it a point to visit the Iñupiat Heritage Center. Local subsistence hunters and community elders can be found there, continuing to create the traditional tools and artwork they have for centuries. As I listen to stories of generations of hardship and perseverance on the ice, I’m quickly reminded of what’s at stake and why it’s imperative to be ready to protect the natural resources they rely on.

Cultural tourism has become a major draw to Barrow but is perhaps overshadowed by the destination itself. From a geographical and strategic standpoint, Barrow is a major checkpoint for international travel by sea.

U.S. and circumpolar shipping routes through the Arctic, as viewed in NOAA's online mapping tool, Arctic ERMA.

U.S. and circumpolar shipping routes through the Arctic, as viewed in NOAA’s online mapping tool, Arctic ERMA. Click to enlarge. (NOAA)

During my time in the village, there was a German cruise boat traveling through from the Northwest Passage and Greenland that anchored just offshore and was busy unloading European tourists by Zodiac. This alone highlights the importance of field demonstrations like Arctic Shield. Transportation activities for tourism and commerce are increasing in the region, escalating the risk of oil spills and accidents. Ironically, the Healy is anchored just offshore as well, giving our team a spectacular view into our next couple weeks.

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, Healy, sits just offshore of Barrow, shortly before we set sail.

The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, Healy, sits just offshore of Barrow, shortly before we set sail. (NOAA)

Working Aboard an Icebreaker

When you’re on a ship, you have no choice but to eat whatever the galley serves up, three times a day. The Coast Guard puts Sriracha hot sauce on everything: eggs (makes sense), grilled cheese (OK), the hardly identifiable steamed broccoli (understandable), and chicken marsala (not so sure). As I get to know both the crew and the science team after one such meal, questions about the Healy itself come up. The galley chief quickly proclaims, “Have you seen the engine room? We call it PFM or Pure Freaking Magic. The Healy generates more power than the whole village of Barrow.” To put that in perspective, Barrow is the largest village on Alaska’s North Slope, with a population over 4,100 people.

Essentially, the ship itself is a floating village. The Healy has amenities to support over 100 people, makes ample (and screaming hot) fresh water on site, and houses multiple scientific laboratories with a combined area of 4,200 ft².  Designed to operate in temperatures down to -50°F, the Healy can break 4.5-foot-thick ice continuously and has the capacity of backing and ramming 8-foot-thick ice. Indeed, watching chunks of ice the size of minivans come rolling up from under the bow of the ship is impressive.

The sound of breaking ice from below deck is at first nerve-racking, but eventually it actually begins to lull you to sleep at night. Then, just as soon as the landscape of fragmented sea ice and frigid temperatures becomes familiar, it vanishes. The morning after completing the response technology demonstrations, I wake up and the ship has turned south. We have escaped the ice floe and are once again surrounded by open ocean. Walruses and whales swim by, understandably in a hurry considering a 420-foot red island is steaming in their direction at 14 knots.

As we pass through the Bering Strait, Russia comes into view. And as we travel through Unimak Pass, the Aleutian Islands, and on to Seward, I take in the unforgettable landscapes that I hope our preparations during Arctic Shield will help protect.

Stay tuned for my next post, when I’ll give an in-depth look at the critical response technologies we demonstrated on the Healy, some humbling insights for me to consider as an oil spill responder, and an update on whether my personal goal to see a polar bear remained elusive.

Zach Winters-StaszakZach Winters-Staszak is a GIS Specialist with OR&R’s Spatial Data Branch. His main focus is to visualize environmental data from various sources for oil spill planning, preparedness, and response. In his free time, Zach can often be found backpacking and fly fishing in the mountains.

Author: Office of Response and Restoration

The National Ocean Service's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) provides scientific solutions for marine pollution. A part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), OR&R is a center of expertise in preparing for, evaluating, and responding to threats to coastal environments. These threats could be oil and chemical spills, releases from hazardous waste sites, or marine debris.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s