University of Texas Marine Scientists Awarded $5.6 Million for Study of Critical Arctic Environment

Oct. 4, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas — A team of Arctic researchers led by the University of Texas Marine Science Institute's Ken Dunton will embark on a comprehensive study of the Hanna Shoal ecosystem in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast with a $5.6 million grant from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE).

The oil industry is intensely interested in the Chukchi Sea and has plans to drill throughout the area.

"This important grant will help us continue studies we began in 2009, which demonstrated that an area known as the Hanna Shoal is an important biological ecosystem in the northern Chukchi Sea," said Dunton, a professor of marine science.

Chukchi Sea Map

Map showing oil lease sale area 193 (bounded by the dark purple line) in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. The highly productive Hanna Shoal is visible in the top center. Map by Eric Hersh.

The main objectives of the study, which will be conducted from 2011 to 2016, are to identify and measure physical and biological processes that contribute to the high concentration of marine life in the Hanna Shoal area.

"We know the ecosystem is productive," Dunton said. "Now we are asking the questions of why is it so productive and how is it going to change with respect to climatic warming."

The study will document ocean circulation, ice conditions and organisms living both on the bottom of the sea and in the water column, such as zooplankton. Bowhead whales depend on zooplankton for food and are valuable culturally to the native Inupiat people of the Arctic coast as part of their subsistence diet, along with seals, fish and walrus.

"Industry is ready to begin exploratory drilling, but they want as much information as possible to avoid having any obvious or measureable impacts on the local ecosystem," Dunton said. "Knowing the location of biologically sensitive areas is very valuable to the permit holders. The information we gather will allow BOEMRE to make better decisions on how best to recover oil and gas from in the Chukchi Sea at minimum risk to the Arctic ecosystem."

BOEMRE will integrate data from this study with other relevant Chukchi Sea studies to provide a more complete understanding of environmental considerations such as food web and contaminant bioaccumulations. Analysts and decision makers will use the information in future National Environmental Policy Act analyses and decision making regarding potential energy development in the Chukchi Sea.

Dunton is an expert on arctic coastal and shelf ecosystems. His co-principal investigators at The University of Texas at Austin are Steve Lanoux, assistant director for operations at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute (UTMSI), and David Maidment, professor of civil engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering. Susan Schonberg, a research associate at UTMSI, is also heavily involved in developing the project. The team will include researchers from the Florida Institute of Technology, Old Dominion University, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Maryland, the University of Rhode Island and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

For more information, contact: Lee Clippard, College of Natural Sciences, 512-232-0675; Ken Dunton, professor of marine science, 361-749-6744.