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Shell asks Dr. Robert Day

A Question and Answer Session with Scientist Dr. Robert Day on the Joint Studies Program for the Chukchi Sea.

Shell asks Dr. Robert Day about the Chukchi Sea Environmental Studies Program, a multi-year, multi-discipline marine science research program in the northeastern Chukchi Sea funded in part by Shell, ConocoPhilips and Statoil. 

1. Tell us a little about the joint studies program? Who was involved, and how did the partnership work?

It originally started in the late winter/spring of 2008 after the lease sale held in February.  I was asked to pull together a scientific team for interdisciplinary oceanographic/ecological studies to go out that summer.  Amazingly, we had a team pulled together and put folks in the field by July.  The original partnership was Shell and ConocoPhilips Alaska, Inc.; then, Statoil bought leases and purchased a 25% share of CPAI's leases in the Klondike area and joined the partnership in 2010.

Our original scientific team included physical oceanography, nutrients, primary productivity, zooplankton, benthic ecology, seabirds, marine mammals, marine acoustics, and baseline chemistry.  Since then, we have added fisheries (2009–onward) and ocean acidification (2010–onward) and completed the baseline chemistry work (2009).  We have had a few personnel changes over the years, but nearly all scientific components have the same Principal Investigators (lead scientists) as we did at the beginning.

2. What was so significant about the study being “joint” as opposed to each oil company doing its own research?

The most important gain came from the fact that these study areas are so different, yet so close together that different scientific teams working for different oil companies might have thought the other team was doing poor-quality science.  However, the fact that we were all one team has driven the point home that we collected all of the data and still found these surprisingly different environments! 

It also has made it a lot more fun and interesting scientifically for us in trying to figure out the ecology of this area and why these areas are so different, yet they are only a stone's throw apart.

Second, the joint nature of the program saved the sponsors a lot of money—the remoteness of the area means that the research ships travel something like 20 to 30 days each way just to get to/from the study area, and the sponsors have to pay those costs on top of the time to have the ships collecting data within the study area.  Hence, costs would double or triple if each sponsor hired its own boat and scientific team.  Thus, a lot of efficiency is gained by teaming up for one set of integrated studies.

3. In your opinion what were the most significant findings of these studies?

For me, the biggest finding was just how complex this area is ecologically. 

The Chukchi shelf is broad, flat, and mostly featureless, and it is quite high arctic ecologically (it is covered by sea ice 7–8 months/year), so one would expect this to be a quite simple, uniform ecosystem throughout the whole area—but the opposite is actually true.  This area truly is complex and has a great diversity of animals:  nearly 100 species of zooplankton in the water-column, several hundred species of animals that live on and in the bottom of the ocean, around 50 species of fishes, over 30 species of seabirds, and more than 10 species of marine mammals.

Another thing that it reinforced to me is that the physical oceanography drives the ecology of the whole region.  The physical oceanography brings in warm currents, food, nutrients, and animals and affects the ecology of the whole area.  It helps determine why sea ice persists in some areas but not in others, affecting where marine mammals such as walruses like to hang out. 

It brings in fishes from the Bering Sea, but the bottom is so cold in places that they can't even penetrate into some areas—so that the main predators on animals that live in the bottom are large predatory invertebrates and marine mammals, instead of fish.  To a great extent, these interesting features of this ecosystem are the result of the physical oceanography of the area.

A third important point is that this area is so high-arctic that interannual variability is dramatic, so the system resets itself in a new place every year; that dramatic interannual variability makes predictions about some things difficult.  For example, 2008 was a cold year with heavy ice that persisted in some areas into September, whereas 2009 was an extremely warm year with no ice anywhere on the Chukchi shelf by the time we got out there to start sampling early in the summer. 

The zooplankton communities reset themselves to a new starting characteristic every year, and some other groups such as seabirds follow suit.

4. How can all of the information collected be useful as companies like Shell begin to explore the Arctic?

This information provides a good baseline to describe the environment of the area.  More importantly, we are not just able to describe what is there, but we also are getting an understanding of how the system operates.  One thing that has always been lacking in the Chukchi has been an understanding of how the whole place functions; well, we are getting an understanding of how the northeastern part operates, at least.  This information will be important in applying for permits, in working on NEPA documents, and in planning mitigation to minimize impacts of operations.

5. What was the coolest part of the study?

The underwater video was definitely was the neatest, both seeing all of the animals in the water column on the way down and up and seeing all of the animals that live on the bottom.  Some places, such as Burger, are about 1/4 of a degree Celsius above the freezing point of sea water (it is about –1.55 °C) on the bottom), yet there is an abundance of animals living there.  These are some tough critters!  Just seeing all of the wildlife also is neat—seabirds whales, walruses, seals, brittle stars, etc.  They all are amazing.

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