Marine Scientists to Assess Environment Before Offshore Drilling Begins in U.S. Arctic Waters

Feb. 17, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — Through a $2.9 million, three-year grant from the Minerals Management Service (MMS), a team led by University of Texas at Austin marine scientists will assess the biological and chemical conditions on the seabed of the Chukchi Sea before the area opens for offshore oil drilling.

The contract from the MMS (U.S. Department of the Interior) brings together several highly experienced Arctic scientists from four institutions and Russia.

The shallow Chukchi Sea is between Russia and Alaska, just north of the Bering Strait.

The research follows the record MMS sale in February 2008 of $2.6 billion in leases in the Chukchi Sea to a variety of oil companies, including Shell and ConocoPhillips. It was the first lease sale in the Chukchi since 1991 and the most successful in Alaska's history.

The research team, led by chief scientist Dr. Ken Dunton of the University of Texas at Austin's Marine Science Institute (UTMSI), will establish the environmental baseline for the Chukchi Sea's seabed, or benthos.

Information from the work will be used to help identify areas of ecological importance, to minimize interference of drilling with areas of rich natural resources and native subsistence harvesting activities. The data collected by the scientific team will also be used to assess whether changes in benthic flora, fauna and chemistry are related to oil and gas activities or climate change and natural variability.

"The Chukchi Sea is one of the most productive areas in the circumpolar Arctic, linking the North Pacific with the Arctic Ocean," says Dunton, professor of marine sciences at UTMSI.

He says much of the organic matter produced by phytoplankton in the water column sinks to the bottom, and this supports huge populations of organisms on the seabed, including crustaceans, mollusks and echinoderms, such as sea stars and sea urchins. These in turn support walrus, a diverse array of birds, humpback whales and much more.

"The huge flux of food from the overlying waters to the sea floor also creates a diverse food web that provides larger marine predators with a rich smorgasbord of potential food items," says Dunton, who specializes in marine food web ecology. "Since the benthos is the area that would be most impacted by oil and gas production, MMS obviously prefers to focus on that part of the ecosystem."

During two cruises in summer 2009 and 2010, the scientists will collect samples and document the abundance and diversity of benthic organisms. They will be particularly focused on parts of the food web that would be most vulnerable to disruption or contamination by drilling activities. Other members of the scientific team will measure concentrations of metals and hydrocarbons and other chemicals in the benthos.

All data collected will help the scientists better detect any changes in the ecosystem as a result of future oil and gas activity.

The team will work closely with Alaska's native communities, such as the Inupiat.

"This is a sensitive environmental region from many aspects, considering the importance of bowhead whale migration, ice retreats, threats to polar bears, and regional oil, gas and mining operations," says Dr. Steve Lanoux, the grant's project manager and assistant director of operations at UTMSI. "The native Alaskan populations are very concerned about their environment and economy, and we will be including them in our planning and collecting to take advantage of their local knowledge."

The team will collaborate with oil and gas companies and governmental and non-governmental agencies to coordinate research and sample collection activities in the area.

The scientists' first trip will run from mid-July to mid-August, and their research ship will be the 210-foot-long RV Moana Wave.

The final year of the three-year grant will be spent analyzing data, but Dunton is hopeful that some aspects of the work may continue given the ecological significance of the Chukchi and its position between northern and southern oceans.

"This is just the beginning," he says. "There's a huge amount of interest in this area. This is a big project, and the opportunities for collaboration with other scientists and programs in the area are huge."

The contract from MMS for the chemical and benthic work is part of the Chukchi Sea Offshore Monitoring in Drilling Area, or COMIDA program.

Dunton and Lanoux head a team of top Arctic marine scientists, including Dr. David Maidment (Center for Research in Water Resources, The University of Texas at Austin); Susan Schonberg (UTMSI); Drs. Jaqueline Grebmeier, Lee Cooper and H. Rodger Harvey (University of Maryland Chesapeake Bay Laboratory); Dr. John Trefry (Florida Institute of Technology); Dr. Brenda Konar and Nora Foster (University of Alaska-Fairbanks); and Dr. Boris Sirenko (Russian Academy of Sciences, Marine Studies).

For more information, contact: Lee Clippard, College of Natural Sciences, 512-232-0675; Dr. Ken Dunton, Marine Science Institute, 361-749-6744.