A Less Frozen Frontier

2019-08-27T14:51:41+00:00 December 4, 2017|

What It Was

A coalition of geoscience organizations and Representative Don Young (AK-At-large) hosted a briefing in the Geosciences and the U.S. Economy Series titled, “Geosciences in the Artic: Permafrost, Energy, and Trade Routes in the Last Frontier.”

Why It Matters

The United States is an Arctic nation with many transportation, tourism, development, technology, science, and energy opportunities in the region. The harsh conditions of the environment require extensive planning and preparation to ensure stability, safety, security, and prosperity.

Key Points

While the amount of ice in the Arctic fluctuates during the year, studies show that overall, the region has experienced a consistent decrease in ice coverage every decade since 1979. This diminished ice enables maritime transportation in previously unnavigable waters and creates an opportunity for land development. Geoscience experts are uniquely suited to provide data and develop solutions to challenges faced in the Arctic frontier.

Much of Alaska has permafrost (land with large masses of ice below the surface). When this ground thaws, the ice melts, soil and sediment settle, and depressions form. Structures built on this terrain risk damage or collapse; to prevent this, a deep understanding of the ground is needed. To avoid building on top of ice masses, geoscientists can perform surveys by coring holes or using advanced technology, such as capacity coupled resistivity.

Scientific observations, prediction models, and planning could prevent infrastructure from failing or avoid unnecessary expenditures to over-design a structure to withstand the unique Arctic conditions.

Outdated marine navigation maps create another concern as Arctic vessel traffic increases. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working together with partners to increase charting and hydrographic surveys in the region. The panel representing industry, academia, and government all agreed that improved geo-location resolution, science, research, and communication infrastructure are paramount for planning rescue response, improving weather forecasting, predicting sea ice, and developing infrastructure.

As a productive oil and gas region, the Arctic is thought to store about 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered resources. Safe drilling and transportation of these fuels hinge upon improved maps, disaster spill preparation, infrastructure, hydrographic maps, and communication among Arctic nations.


“Hydrology, atmospheric, and cryo-sciences are all really relevant [to infrastructure] because we don’t know enough about the Arctic yet.” – William Schnabel, Ph.D., P.E., Director, University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Northern Engineering

“We need more observations and data in order to do the science [to improve sea ice predictions and weather modeling in the Arctic].” – Ashley Chappell, Program Coordinator, Integrated Ocean and Coastal Mapping, NOAA Office of Coast Survey

“The need for good science to inform decision makers is truly important.” – Tom Crafford, Program Coordinator, Mineral Resources Program, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

Find Out More

American Geosciences Institute

NOAA’s Arctic Program

NOAA’s Integrated Ocean and Coastal Mapping

NOAA Nautical Charts

Engineering Solutions For Cold Regions and Beyond

NASA Sea Ice Monitoring

Related coverage from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership

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2015 Public Policy Forum: Predicting And Preparing For A Changing Arctic

Race For The Arctic?