National Weather Service Supporting Decision Making in the Arctic

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Tuesday, 4 February 2014: 11:45 AM
Georgia Ballroom 2 (The Georgia World Congress Center )
Eugene Petrescu, NOAA/NWS, Anchorage, AK

The first exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska since in the early 1990s commenced in September 2012 in the northeastern Chukchi Sea on a drill lease known as the Burger Prospect. In support of these drilling activities, National Weather Service Alaska provided sea ice forecast and weather information to assist the Department of Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in making regulatory decisions for operational and environmental safety associated with exploratory activities. The harsh climate of the Arctic, long distances from the main supply chain, and lack of rescue and clean up support create unique challenges to operators in this region. A late season oil spill, especially in sea ice conditions, would be extremely challenging to clean up. Despite the sea ice extent in the Arctic Basin reaching a record minimum in 2012 with total coverage less than 50% of the late 20th century long term mean, unusual local sea ice conditions impacted activities in the northern Chukchi Sea throughout the open water season. In mid-September the ice phenomena Katie's Floeberg, shut down operations within hours of the initial drilling startup, requiring an evacuation of the drilling platform from the area, even though the main pack ice edge had melting back to more than 700 miles north of the region. Later in the season, given the significant region of open water south of the main ice edge and unusually mild conditions in September into mid-October, most general indicators pointed towards a mid-November freeze-up, much later than normal freeze-up in this region. However, on October 30th, after several days of cold windy conditions, grease ice began to form in the northeast Chukchi, well south of the main ice edge. Within less than 24 hours, this area of grease ice rapidly expanded and thickened into nilas and pancake ice covering an area approximately 150,000 km2. This “Flash Freeze” was the first experienced in this part of the Arctic Basin in at least the last 20 years. Drilling operations had long since ceased by this time. If activity had been ongoing, significant impacts to operations could have occurred. A review of decision support provided to BOEM will be presented; including impact details from Katie's Floeburg, the evolution of the Flash Freeze, and future socioeconomic hazards in the rapidly changing Arctic.