Polar Sea 360°

Episode 09

Striking Oil

The Cold, Hard Facts about Climate Change Map it

By Matt Martinsen, Station Chief at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Global Monitoring Division (GMD) Observatory in Barrow Alaska.

Barrow, Alaska

I moved to Barrow, Alaska in December 2009, with my wife Sarah, from my hometown Boulder, Colorado. I struggled throughout college to choose between a major in engineering, where I was most skilled, and a major in cultural anthropology, where my interests were strongest. I eventually graduated with degrees in Math and Anthropology, and now I am the observatory Station Chief in Barrow.

My division of NOAA chose to work in Barrow because it’s the northernmost community in the U.S. You’ve got a predominant wind straight off the Arctic Ocean and our tower is the first thing that this wind hits, funneling into our different instruments inside. Here we sample the atmosphere and want clean Arctic air to create a baseline data set, which is about accumulating long-term continuous data sets.

“According to the data most of the major greenhouse gases are increasing consistently”

At Barrow we take around 300 measurements of different gases and atmospheric constituents per day. Our core research is organized into five different groups. The first is the Carbon Cycle and Greenhouse Gas Group, which continuously measures major greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide). The second is the Ozone and Water Vapor Group, which monitors the ozone layer and surface ozone, unlike its high altitude cousin is actually a form of pollution. The third is the Halocarbons Group, which continuously measures the gases that deplete the ozone layer. Emissions regulations have helped to significantly lessen the amount of ozone-depleting gases in our atmosphere. Those trends can be seen in our data. The fourth group, Solar and Infrared Radiation, provides a background for how our solar radiation budget is changing over time. Lastly, our Aerosol Group measures aerosols and particulates, like dust, pollutants, and smoke suspended in air.


“CO2 is a greenhouse gas that acts like a blanket around the earth. It traps heat and significantly influences the climate”

Our gas measurements are made using “gas chromatography.” Put simply, we have different detectors that report different voltages as the concentration of the gas they are looking at changes. From that we can create a long-term data record. We use calibration gases, a standard gas mixture that’s used as a reference to make sure our measurements are accurate. This way we can detect small changes in the composition of the atmosphere. NOAA also takes air samples from around the world, which are compared to our numbers.

One of the most important measurements we take is Carbon Dioxide (CO2), which we have been measuring here since 1972. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that acts like a blanket around the earth. It traps heat. Visible sunlight passes through the atmosphere and hits the surface of the earth, producing heat. Greenhouse gases keep this heat from radiating back into space, causing a warming effect. CO2 is important because there is so much of it and it significantly influences the climate. Over time we expect long-term climate patterns to change, resulting in a warming earth.

The general trend shows rising levels of CO2. A couple of years ago Arctic concentrations hit 400 parts per million (ppm), meaning that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was extremely high. The fact is, the more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the more warming there will be.

CO2chart_Final_ENG In 2012 the Barrow, Alaska baseline observatory site became the first site in the world to measure CO2 at 400 ppm, an extremely alarming concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This milestone is a warning of how much carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere since the pre-industrial age.

source: NOAA


Barrow was the first of our observatory sites to hit 400 ppm because of seasonal fluctuation. One new thing that has recently caught our scientists’ attention is that over time we are also seeing an increase in the amplitude of our seasonal fluctuation. Basically the difference between our highest and lowest CO2 concentrations is gradually increasing. NOAA scientists attribute this to changing vegetation.

Our air is influenced by the boreal forests of Canada and Siberia; the plants and trees absorb carbon dioxide in the summer but in the winter much of the CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. This results in higher concentrations of CO2 in the Arctic than at lower latitude sites. You don’t see this same seasonal fluctuation in the Southern Hemisphere simply due to its lower amount of landmass. Without the landmass, you don’t have boreal forests like you do in the Northern Hemisphere. Similarly, you also don’t see the fluctuation as much over the tropics due to the lack of distinctive seasons.

“The Arctic hosts giant carbon stores in the tundra, which have built up from ancient stores of vegetation”

Methane (CH4) is another important greenhouse gas we measure, ranking second to CO2 on the scale of climate-forcing greenhouse gases. The Arctic hosts giant carbon stores in the tundra, which have built up from ancient stores of vegetation. We are currently in a dangerous cycle: as the Arctic climate warms, the permafrost in the tundra thaws and more methane is released into the atmosphere, which in turn causes more warming. This is what is called a positive feedback loop.

Another concerning positive feedback loop in the Arctic is the loss of sea ice. The surface of sea ice acts as a reflector of sunlight. It fends off solar energy (or heat) from the earth’s surface. This effect is called albedo. With the loss of sea ice the Arctic loses this reflective feature, which means that instead of reflecting a large portion of solar energy, the earth absorbs it and gains heat. The decrease in sea ice has strong effects on the people and wildlife in Northern Alaska and is a constant topic of concern in Barrow.

At the Barrow Observatory we don’t have any direct measurements of sea ice extent, but we have melt dates based on our measurement of albedo. Basically, we have sensors measuring the solar reflection off of the snow. This is how we objectively determine a date for snow melt. In Barrow, we have a seen a trend of earlier and earlier snow melt dates.


source: NOAA

“We need less opinion-based debates about climate change and more conversations surrounding scientific fact and trends that are well established”

Over time we have received unfortunate but anticipated results. According to the data, most of the major greenhouse gases are increasing consistently. The implications for the future of the Arctic are immense. Of course the town of Barrow stands to gain from oil and gas investment and development, but it wouldn’t be possible without the depletion of sea ice. The subsistence lifestyle up here is strongly connected to the environment and is very much at risk because of these changes in sea ice, wildlife, and weather.

I have been working for the NOAA for four years and I really enjoy what I’m doing; it’s important to me to feel like I’m working towards a better world. My hope is that we are helping build long-term understanding of climate change. Climate change science is a form of science that is widely discussed and pretty politically charged but, more often than not, arguments are unsubstantiated and things can get really complicated because people have different motivations towards the science. We need less opinion-based debates and more conversations surrounding scientific fact and trends that are well established.

This post is also available in: French, German

Predicting Arctic Oil Spills Map it

Dan Slavik, Program Officer for World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the Canadian Beaufort, talks with Polar Sea 360 Writer, Kyla Garvey about his concerns with oil and gas development in the Beaufort Sea and what the WWF is doing to respond to oil spill threats.

Beaufort Sea

What is the WWF doing to prepare for oil spill threats in the Arctic?

A: The WWF has created the Oil Spills in the Beaufort Sea trajectory map to illustrate possible oil spill scenarios. We want to know how oil will travel if it spills from various sources and how it will affect key habitats, wildlife, and marine protected areas in the region. To make these scenarios as realistic as possible, we used historical information from spills across the world as well as proposed future developments in the area.

We were motivated to create this map by the sudden increase in interest in the region by oil companies. We’re already seeing an increase in development in the Arctic and WWF’s goal, in advance of unrestrained development, is to make sure that the key ecosystems and species have mechanisms in place that protect them should there be any types of accidents.

A lease provides a company with exclusive rights to an area; but in order to explore for oil and gas resources the company needs to acquire an exploration licence. To develop the area they need a significant discovery licence and a production licence. These licences are administered by The Northern Oil and Gas Branch of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, which manages regional oil and gas development.

source: WWF


Q: How will an oil spill in the Arctic be different than elsewhere in the world?

A: The main concern with oil spills in the Arctic is the possibility of oil interacting with the ice. For starters, response teams simply wouldn’t be able to get at the oil frozen in ice and some of the chemical and mechanical solutions, used to eliminate spilled oil, will be limited because of the frigid temperatures.
The worse case scenario in the Beaufort would be any type of underwater blowout from an oil site that continues through the ice freeze-up season. Not only will it continuously spill for up to eight months until the responders are able to properly plug the well, but the oil would also become trapped within the ice; giving it the ability to spread further and faster.

Q: Is there an existing oil and gas industry in the Beaufort?

“What concerns us most is the proposal to drill the deepest offshore oil well ever attempted in Arctic waters”

A: The Beaufort Sea has very large deposits of oil and gas. Back in the 1970s and 80s there was extensive exploration and some drilling of oil and gas but it was never really commercialized. Now, because of climate change and the global demand for oil and gas, the conditions are shifting and there is a renewed interest for oil and gas in the Arctic.

What concerns us most is the major proposal to drill a deep-water offshore oil well, approximately 125 kilometres northwest of Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories in depths up to 1 km. This would be the deepest oil well ever attempted in Arctic waters and it’s being proposed by a partnership between Imperial Oil, British Petroleum and Exxon Mobil. Currently, the companies are trying to get around policy safety regulations that require a same-season relief well. This policy which states that a company must be able to drill a relief well in the same season to minimize risks. A relief well is a safety mechanism that channels the overflow of oil or gas in case the main well experiences a blowout, preventing serious leaks.

Q: What other ways will industry development affect surrounding communities and environments?

A: The exploration of oil and increased industrial development in these remote regions present a range of social and health issues for communities and wildlife. Underwater noise, like sonar and other sorts of seismic work done to identify where oil and gas sit, has large impacts on marine mammals such as whales and seals. Shipping through Arctic waters affects the fragmentation of sea ice, which has a huge potential to affect the whole sea ice ecosystem. Also, any ships transiting the region create an opportunity for the transport of invasive species.


The extent of Arctic sea ice decline shown over a period of 25 years. Sea ice is not only shrinking; it is thinning. White represents the oldest, thickest multi-year ice and dark blue represents first-year ice – ice that has survived one summer melt season. At the end of 2013 only 7% of the ice cover was multi-year ice.

source: NOAA

Q: What do you hope to achieve with this project?

A: We hope to provide local northern residents and key decision makers with a credible, scientific understanding of what an oil spill situation will look like so that they can make better informed decisions in their oil spill response planning. After we performed this research we actually travelled to all six communities within the Beaufort Sea region to facilitate discussion and share information with the communities. We wanted the people in these Inuvialuit communities, who are the ultimate decision makers, to have the best available information and choose whether the risk is worth the reward for them.

“The main concern with oil spills in the Arctic is the possibility of oil interacting with the ice”

Q: Do you foresee local communities saying no to oil industry development in their regions?

A: I can’t speak for communities now but even back in the 1970s and 80s they were extremely worried about what a spill would look like in the Arctic. A major spill would affect not only their environment, but their entire way of life because they are so dependent on the ocean and the animals for survival. Although they’ve always been very cautious about it, they’re in an economical situation where they need development and jobs, so we can’t ignore that part of the equation. Through their land claims these communities have a lot of power to direct development, but their ability to say no has not fully been tested. If they did say no it would be a very strong message both to government and to industry.

This post is also available in: French, German

Life on board the Libellule Map it

By Richard Tegnér, Swedish architect and Arctic hitchhiker. Amidst good food and beautiful sights Richard gets to know the crew of the Libellule. The catamaran sails through the Amundsen Gulf passing north of the Northwest Territories.

September 6 - Amundsen Gulf

I am on watch between 22:00 and 02:00. It started off with rain and bad wind. Suddenly I see a faint light through the drizzle in front of us. It looks like a small yellow cloud. Gradually the light grows and becomes more orange. What is it? A ship? An oil platform? I rush down and ask Philipp what he thinks it is. We look on the radar screen but nothing shows up.

The phenomenon is a bit scary but also beautiful. As the orange light grows larger and stronger, and the rain moves away, it becomes obvious – it is the sun! It is amazing how we were fooled like that. Later the deep blue night sky exposed the Big Dipper, Scorpius, and Orion’s belt constellations. To the east, the Northern Lights stretched curtains of shimmering light across the sky above us. At the sight of all this I am bursting with happiness. This is the first time I have seen the Northern Lights.


“At the sight of all this I am bursting with happiness. This is the first time I have seen the Northern Lights”

Our shifts on the Libellule are similar to DAX; we take three, three-hour shifts. If the weather is rough we try to make the shifts short. Before your shift you are awoken by the crew member who had the shift prior to yours by a gentle shake of your toes. You open your eyes to a smiling face, “Richard, time to wake up.” Usually I get up and pull on two sweaters, my yellow trousers, and my jacket. I put on a life jacket, grab my mittens, and climb to the galley where I make a thermos of tea. After a mouthful of tea with honey I am ready to take over the helm.

The boat is very comfortable. There are four cabins on board, each can fit two people and is equipped with a shower. I have the portside bow cabin, which is shaky and noisy in rough sea, but I do not mind it. The only thing that is not all pleasant is the low temperature on board. When you wake up there is condensation all over the walls and windows. We constantly have to dry the boat with “le chemis,” a highly absorbent cloth.

Cooking on board Libellule is important. Every lunch or supper is at least a two course meal and everything tastes so good. It is like paradise for me. After the meal everyone besides the cook helps with the dishes and you are always surrounded by laughter, which makes life on board so much easier. French, English, and German are spoken on the Libellule. My French and German are not that good so mostly I communicate in English.


“Five boats have been forced to abandon their voyages through the Northwest Passage”

As far as we know now five boats have been forced to abandon their voyages through the Northwest Passage. So far we are lucky but we are also well prepared due to the strategic planning by our skilled skippers, Yves and Sylvain. They are really solid blokes, always laughing and calm in all situations. The Swiss owner Philipp is also a very pleasant person and looks a bit like George Clooney. He is calm and steady in all situations despite the threat of getting stuck along the Alaskan coast. After Herschel Island there is very little protection but as soon we pass Cape Barrow we are safer – from the ice, at least. Philipp’s uncle Michael is also on board. He is the oldest and has lots of funny stories to tell; a friendly man with curious eyes who, like me, entered the Libellule in Cambridge Bay!

It is 15:30 and Cape Parry is now visible on the port side in the distance. A newly downloaded ice chart shows ice concentrations of mostly 2/10 but also 8/10 north of Cape Bathurst. Wind is northwest and thus pressing the ice towards us and the coastline.

This post is also available in: French, German

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