NOAA swamped with requests for Arctic information

'A HUGE DISCONNECT': Weather forecasting among the services that fall short.

June 20, 2011 

WASHINGTON -- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is being inundated with requests for weather and ice forecasts as well as navigation information about the Arctic, but isn't able to provide all of the information that the Coast Guard, industries and Alaska Natives need, NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco said on Monday.

The NOAA chief, the commandant of the Coast Guard and the chief of naval operations spoke at a symposium about challenges ahead for the U.S. as summer Arctic sea ice declines, opening the Arctic to oil and gas extraction, fisheries, tourism and shipping.

Lubchenco, a marine ecologist, said her agency doesn't have nearly the same capacity for Arctic weather forecasting, oceanography and navigational charting that it has in other regions.

"It's a matter of insufficient observing, insufficient information to do the modeling and forecasting," she said. "So there's a huge disconnect between what is expected we will be able to deliver and what we are actually able to provide."

Lubchenco said NOAA needs more funding for this work, despite current pressure to cut the federal budget.

As the ice retreats, the need for information will increase, she said. She cited needs for weather and sea ice forecasts for the Navy and Coast Guard, Alaska Native communities, shipping companies and the fossil fuel industry, which wants permits for exploration in Arctic Alaska next year.

NOAA also needs better models to be able to show how the loss of sea ice and rising ocean temperatures will affect pollock, cod, salmon and crab, as well as other species such as ice seals and whales, she said.

The commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., said the Coast Guard doesn't have a base or the ships it would need to respond to a cruise ship in distress or to an oil spill.

Communities in northern Alaska have hotel rooms for only a few dozen people. During last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Coast Guard needed rooms for 3,000 people. In all, the government sent in 30,000.

"How do you place people up in the Arctic in those conditions is just the start," Papp said. "Then it's pre-staging equipment. It's having facilities you can operate out of. And right now we have nothing."

Papp said new icebreakers would be expensive to build and operate but the U.S. nonetheless needs them.

The country's two heavy icebreakers, Polar Star and Polar Sea, are both out of service. The Polar Star is being decommissioned and the 30-year-old Polar Sea is being refurbished. It's expected to return to service in 2013. Another icebreaker, the Coast Guard cutter Healy, is now on an Arctic research mission.

Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of national operations, said the Navy sees its role expanding as it includes the Arctic in its mission. He noted that 22 percent of oil and gas reserves are thought to be in the Arctic. In addition, new northern shipping routes are expected to open in about 25 years, he said. Lubchenco cautioned that the environmental changes in the Arctic are happening faster than elsewhere and faster than ever observed in history.

NOAA has a responsibility to conduct scientific research that helps make "good stewardship decisions," she said.

"We have relatively little understanding of the true vulnerabilities of most Arctic ecosystems to the kinds of changes that are under way now," she said. "And there's a very urgent need to acquire additional information to be making better decisions." She added that development decisions should be made cautiously, "because of the potential for either irreversible changes or changes that would take a long, long time to undo."

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