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ODU's Harvey Assessing Ecosystems Off Alaska Ahead of Proposed Oil Drilling

Harvey on a research vessel off Alaska

Rodger Harvey, chair of the Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Old Dominion University, is a key member of a research team that will prepare an ecosystem assessment ahead of proposed offshore oil drilling off Alaska's northwest coast at the edge of the Arctic Ocean.

Oil companies hope to soon begin exploratory drilling on the Hanna Shoal region. But as a preliminary step, they and the federal government want to collect information about physical and biological processes that contribute to the high concentration of marine life in the area and about the chemical environment. This information will help the companies develop safety procedures that, in turn, will allow them to obtain the permits they need to drill for oil on tracts they have contracted to lease from the federal government for $2.6 billion.

Harvey was part of the project team that recently completed a baseline assessment for the federal government in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska where oil rigs are now planned. But the stakes are expected to be higher on the Hanna Shoal. "As they continue to search for oil and gas, the oil companies are moving north, into the Arctic waters of Hanna Shoal," he explained. "Before they can move ahead, we need to understand the ecosystem in case there are problems later, and the Gulf of Mexico story tells us we need to know the system before it happens."

This approval process for actual drilling could take awhile because of the large community of sea, land and air creatures that live in or migrate through the shoal region. Tiny plankton and giant whales are on either end of a complex food chain in these relatively shallow waters.

Opponents of the drilling have contended in litigation that the very cold waters covered in ice for six months a year will complicate cleanups from spills. "It's so cold that even a small spill would stay around a long while," Harvey said.

So when U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced earlier this year that exploratory operations by oil companies would be allowed on the Hanna Shoal, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) followed with its own announcement of a five-year, $5 million study of the shoal's ecosystem.

The University of Texas at Austin is the lead member of the consortium that will conduct the research. Other schools involved, in addition to ODU, are Florida Institute of Technology, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Maryland, the University of Rhode Island and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. ODU will receive about $400,000 for the work it contributes.

"Over the course of many years, we have devoted substantial resources to promote better understanding of the Arctic environment," said BOEMRE Director Michael R. Bromwich. "This five-year study will greatly contribute to the body of knowledge regarding the biological diversity of the Hanna Shoal area and will provide additional valuable information about the ecosystem that supports marine life."

The study will document physical and oceanographic features, ice conditions and information concerning local species. BOEMRE will integrate data gained from this study with other relevant Chukchi Sea studies to provide a more complete understanding of environmental considerations such as food web and contaminant bioaccumulations.

Part of that understanding involves climate. "We need to understand the ecosystem very well to know how it will respond to climate changes," Harvey said.

Research interests for Harvey span a wide range of topics but focus on organic geochemistry and biogeochemistry in marine waters. Much of his recent research has examined the origin, transformation and fate of both natural and manmade organic compounds in aquatic environments and their links with climate in polar waters. For more than two decades, his research group has looked at lipids and proteins as tracers of biological processes in aquatic environments.

As the organic geochemist on the team, Harvey's main goal will be to determine the distribution and concentration of organic pollutants, including hydrocarbons from oil as well as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in sediments and in bottom-dwelling creatures such as the northern Neptune Whelks. PAHs are pollutants that come from the burning of both fossil fuels and plants such as trees and underbrush. Although the Chukchi Sea is considered one of the most pristine marine areas on Earth, the federal government wants to document the amount of hydrocarbons and PAHs present prior to oil drilling. The drilling operations, including ship traffic needed to support them, could be expected to add PAHs to the waters.

Measuring organic contaminants and their accumulation in the animals which live in Hanna Shoal will allow Harvey and the team to set the standard for future changes in the system.

Next summer, Harvey will be a member of the research team that will spend three weeks on an icebreaker in the Chukchi Sea. The researchers will collect bottom sediments from the shoal and water samples from various levels of the water column, as well as marine creatures. Follow-up laboratory work will be done by Harvey at ODU.

This article was posted on: November 1, 2011

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