Arctic ice caused drilling delays

Alaska Dispatch reports that Shell ships are finally starting to leave Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands for drilling sites in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.  While most of us are aware that ice in the Bering Sea was way above normal levels this winter, Shell is blaming ice hanging on further up in the Arctic basin for the delays:

“The Shell spokesman said ice in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas is thicker than it has it has been in more than a decade.” (Wall Street Journal 1st Aug)

Data from NISDC’s MASIE site shows ice in the Bering Sea diminished rapidly in the first two weeks of July, however the curves for the Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea (below) were flatter (reflecting atypical winds and currents this year as much as anything).

Now the point of this story is that I picked this up from a site called gCaptain.com (h/t Mike Lallatin via WUWT) which had a post Arctic Ice is “Thickest in a Decade”, Shell Forced to Shift Drilling Timetables. The author queried Shell’s assertion about the ice, linking to ice extent images from NSIDC and  Cryosphere Today.

OK we’re familiar with that; here’s a false colour satellite image:

MODIS Arctic Terra 367 image. Colour Key: Vegetation=Green; Ice or snow=Red; Liquid water on the ground=Black or dark red; Liquid water clouds=White; Ice clouds=Peach

According to these images there is plenty of open water there, but that doesn’t mean ‘completely clear’ and is not the same as safe for equipment and drilling.  Shell as a company has to risk men and money on Arctic operations.

We are used to the trumpeting of ice reductions from sensor based data, and reduction of Arctic ice is a huge opportunity for companies, however the unpredictability of the ice does not make it easy. Regardless of what the future holds for ice recovery, you can bet a lot of companies are keeping a keen eye on developments up there.  The resumption of drilling (abandoned because low oil prices made it uneconomic) after two decades has prompted concern over the impacts of potential spills and in response NOAA and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) have launched (Press Release) a new initiative – Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) – from which the following image is taken:

Although it takes a bit of looking back and forth to get a sense of the scale, it is clear that the areas on the ice map of 8/10ths ice barely show up on the satellite image never mind the Cryosphere image.  We get too hung up on sensor data and graphs.

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