About the Author: Brian Van Pay is a Maritime Geographer with the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. He is currently on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy on the Arctic Ocean.
On the morning of September 6, I boarded a helicopter in Barrow, Alaska, and took a five minute ride that landed on the Healy, a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker which was anchored a few miles offshore. I was joined by 17 scientists as additional helicopter flights followed. After checking into my room and getting a series of safety briefings, the Healy and its 90-member crew, departed with a fresh science crew (and fresh lettuce) for its 26-day mission.
From our departure in Barrow, Alaska, we headed almost due north. We hit the ice on our second day, and we found a landscape more varied than you might imagine. It was filled with ice of different ages and forms whose colors range from a blinding white to greasy black to bright turquoise. Want to see the view from the front of the ship? Take a look for yourself here.
The purpose of this mission is to collect data that will help define the extent of the U.S. continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. This cruise is especially exciting, because we will soon be working alongside Canada’s icebreaker, the Louis S. St. Laurent (or simply the Louis), which is similarly working to define Canada's continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean.
Under the Convention on the Law of the Sea, every coastal nation automatically receives 200 nautical miles of continental shelf. However, a nation is entitled to additional continental shelf if it meets the necessary criteria defined in the Convention. Typically we call that portion of shelf beyond 200 nautical miles the "extended continental shelf." In fact, this mission will take the Healy more than 600 miles north of Alaska to collect the data we need to determine the exact extent of the U.S. extended continental shelf in the Arctic.
My role on the ship is part scientist and part policymaker. I'll advise the science team and the ship's Captain and crew on the types of data we are seeking to fulfill the requirements necessary to define the U.S. continental shelf. I'll also "stand watch" to examine the data as it comes in and make any necessary adjustments. This is a perfect fit for someone like me -- a former scientist turned policy wonk.
After several planning meetings in Canada and the United States and numerous conference calls, it's great to see this mission finally underway. I have had some exciting experiences and interesting travel since joining the State Department seven years ago, but this assignment tops them all. Check back in as I post more entries on DipNote on why this mission is important, the type of data we are collecting, the cooperative effort with Canada, and life onboard an icebreaker in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.
Editor's Note: Read Brian's next entry from aboard the Healy.