NOAA’s Fairweather Embarks On Arctic Reconnaissance Trip

More ships than ever are operating in the Bering Strait and off the north coast of Alaska, but many of the nautical charts for the region haven’t been updated in more than a century. Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is trying to fix that. The research vessel Fairweather sets off Wednesday for a surveying trip in the Arctic.

On the back deck of the 231-foot Fairweather, Operations Officer Caryn Zacharias is showing off a 10-foot long piece of equipment that looks like a torpedo with wings.

“We can fly this fish – we also fly the smaller fish – the 5000.”

The “fish” is a side-scan sonar. Like all sonar, it works by bouncing sound off of a target and then measuring the echoes that come back. In this case, the target is the seafloor and the echoes paint a picture of its topography.

The side-scan is one of several instruments the crew of the Fairweather will be using as they trace a path from Kotzebue to the Canadian border over the next month. It’s the first mapping expedition of the north coast using modern equipment.

“I think we’re probably a little behind the curve right now but we’re trying to understand what we need to do to get that data for the mariner, ” says Fairweather Commander James Crocker.

The main problem is that existing charts aren’t detailed enough.

“You know, you have a lot of barge traffic that goes up there to support the communities,” Crocker says. “They sort of know where they can go, how to operate – but as you start looking at more potential for ecotourism, you start getting container ships or bulk carrier or oil or whatever it is, that local knowledge isn’t going to be there to guide them through the waters.”

Many of the charts are also inaccurate, since they rely on data gathered using less precise instruments.

“On the chart it may say you can get within a mile or so – but that’s based on data from 1890 or who knows exactly when,” Crocker says.

Although this summer the Fairweather won’t be collecting the detailed data NOAA needs to actually update the charts, Crocker says the trip will provide a baseline for future mapping expeditions – or could show that the information is already available.

“For this specific project we’re just doing reconnaissance that will help us compare our data to some outside data [Navy, Coast Guard etc] to see whether we can utilize that and bring in other information onto the chart that may be there and to determine if it meets standards that we need for nautical charting purposes.”

The Fairweather will concentrate on areas close to the shoreline, especially the heavily trafficked zones near Point Hope and Barrow. Crocker hopes to make it all the way to the Canadian border, but that might not be possible because of persistent ice cover in the Beaufort Sea. If that’s the case, he says there’s plenty of work to be done elsewhere – including right here in Unalaska.

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