Environmental research in an age of Arctic sovereignty

August 22, 2009

In an age of angst about security and Arctic sovereignty, it’s no mean feat piecing together an oceanographic expedition involving scientists from the United States, Russia and elsewhere and launching the whole affair from a northern U.S. port.

In the choppy waters of the Bering Sea just off Nome, Alaska, the Russian research ship Professor Khromov is waiting to come in to port, where strict security protocols will be adhered to under the watchful eye of U.S. authorities.

As many as 50 scientists are teaming up for two legs of study in the Bering Strait and northward in August and September, and those without special U.S. Transportation Security Administration clearance cards will be escorted aboard by people designated to do so. No exceptions.

The mission is called RUSALCA, or Russian-American Long Term Census of the Arctic. During the voyage, the multinational team will gather data on water, air and lifeforms in the only place where the Arctic and Pacific oceans meet. It’s a follow up to the initial RUSALCA expedition in 2004 and the data will be gathered and compared to help gauge the impact of climate change in the region where the former Cold War foes previously studied each other’s movements.

But before any of that happens, last-minute preparations are taking place in Nome, the town best known as the finish line for the Iditarod dogsled race. The town’s no-nonsense harbor master, Joy Baker, must be sure that all security issues and logistics are dealt with for the passengers and their thousands of pounds of high-tech gear.

Also, conditions on the Alaskan Coast — the region is being hit with wind, rain, rough water — have to improve for the Khromov’s safe loading.

That’s much less regulated.

(Picture – Nome, Alaska’s damp main drag on August 21, 2009. Nome is the starting point for a joint U.S.-Russian scientific expedition in the Bering Sea in August and September. REUTERS/Jeffrey Jones.)

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