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Airborne research above Alaska's Beaufort Sea prompts new aviation warning area

  • Author: Asaf Shalev
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 26, 2015

Alaska's Arctic waters are enticing researchers north, and that research increasingly involves activities that can pose hazards to aircraft.

With that in mind, the Federal Aviation Administration this year designated a strip of airspace in which researchers can conduct experiments without threatening nearby aircraft.

Warning Area W-220 is a 40-mile-wide zone that stretches north from waters of Prudhoe Bay near Oliktok Point for 700 miles, ending just 400 miles shy of the North Pole. When one or more of the warning area's 16 zones is activated, pilots in the area are put on notice and provided coordinates to avoid.

Sandia National Laboratories, a U.S. Department of Energy lab based in New Mexico and run by Lockheed Martin, first applied for the warning area designation in 2013. In its proposal to the FAA, the research organization better known for its work on nuclear weapons said it wanted to conduct "climate related research on arctic clouds, and their influence on the rate of sea ice retreat."

Mark Ivey, a Sandia scientist and an electrical engineer by training, manages the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility in Oliktok Point and Barrow. He said that half of his employer's work is not weapons-related.

"We work on renewable energy, climate-related research and infrastructure analysis, for example," he said.

Ivey cited as an example unusual clouds off of Alaska's northern coast that can hold water in liquid form at temperatures as low as 22 degrees below zero.

"We want to see how much light gets to the ground through the clouds and where the energy goes," he said.

The devices necessary for such measurements are small and likely to be undetectable to nearby pilots, who would risk colliding with them. Atmospheric research could involve shooting sensor-equipped projectiles from aircraft down to the ice below, releasing devices to parachute through the clouds, or tethering weather balloons to take measurements.

Many of the aircraft flying through the newly designated warning area would be crossing the Beaufort Sea from one North Slope village to another, said Tom George, Alaska regional manager for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Many would be flying under what are known as visual flight rules, which means they'd be responsible for staying away from other airborne hazards on their own.

"Under visual flight rules, which applies to most of the air traffic in that area, it might look at first glance like no one is out there," he said.

(Even pilots conducting flights under instrument flight rules -- that is, with the benefit of air traffic control staff keeping them away from other air traffic -- might be at risk since some of the research devices might not be detectable by radar.)

George said he does not know the exact extent of air traffic in the area, but at a community meeting the FAA hosted before designating the warning area, more pilots than he anticipated turned out.

"While at first glance this may appear to be a remote area away from civil aviation activities, a surprising amount of flight operations take place over these waters in support of marine mammal surveys, resource exploration, aerial data collection as well as the occasional recreational trip to the North Pole," George wrote in a recent AOPA blog post.

Before the community meeting for pilots, the warning area was designed as a continuous belt of airspace that, when activated, would act as a wall cutting off air traffic over the Beaufort Sea. The two largest airports in the area -- one at Deadhorse and the other at Barrow -- would be on opposite sides of the warning area, leaving pilots fewer options in an emergency.

But after the pilots pointed out the issue, the FAA divided the proposed area into 16 strips: Eight ranging in altitude from sea level to 2,000 feet and eight more above at 2,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. Each of the 16 blocks can be activated individually, according to researchers' needs.

But since even those subdivisions are quite large and could force pilots to take indirect routes, the pilots asked for more specific information on what areas to avoid. The FAA accepted the request and said that Notices to Airmen, the official bulletin sent out by aviation authorities, would include contact information for Sandia air traffic controllers based at Oliktok Point.

"Right now, the DOE is going above and beyond," said George, referring to the courtesy emails sent by Sandia ahead of a recent warning area activation.

Sandia activated the warning area for the first time in mid-July -- but not for climate-related research. The lab lent the airspace to the Coast Guard and civilian partners for use in a search-and-rescue exercise involving unmanned aircraft.

Though the warning area is intended primarily for science missions, "we are glad to be good neighbors and help with exercises ... that benefits all of us in the long run," Ivey said.

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