OFFSHORE DRILLING:

Ice still choking Chukchi Sea as Shell oil exploration nears

As Royal Dutch Shell PLC seeks to explore for oil this summer in Alaska's northern waters, the Arctic sea ice is melting at a record pace, breaking the record low-ice levels set in 2007, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The one big exception, however, is the Chukchi Sea, where Shell is hoping to explore for oil this summer.

"That's the way the weather patterns were set up this year," said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. "That part of the Arctic has reasonably extensive ice. It's just the luck of the draw."

The Chukchi Sea is also the western doorway for Shell's Beaufort Sea leases, making travel in both regions more difficult and continuing to worry Shell officials.

"Sea ice is bordering our Chukchi prospects and is still quite persistent in the Beaufort," Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said in an email. He added that Shell is "still confident we can accomplish meaningful work in 2012, and that's our goal" (E&ENews PM, Aug. 6).

This summer, the sea ice is melting fastest in the eastern Beaufort Sea and along the Atlantic side of the Arctic, including Norway's Kara Sea and Russia's Laptev and East Siberian seas.

On Aug. 1, the North Pole waters contained 2.52 million square miles of Arctic ice -- the lowest levels of ice for that date in the satellite record. The previous record for the same date was set in 2007 at 2.56 million square miles.

For a brief period in early July, nearly all of the Greenland ice sheet experienced a surface melt, a phenomenon that is thought to occur every 150 years.

The ice in the Chukchi and western Beaufort seas is ranked as "low concentration," meaning it consists of patchy blocks of ice floating in the water. As the ice breaks up, the open Arctic waters absorb the sun's warmth and the ice floes melt more quickly, Serreze said.

Low concentrations of ice also continue to block sections of Russia's Northern Sea Route and Canada's Northwest Passage. That's bad news for long-haul shippers and tourist vessels hoping to sail through the Arctic waters this summer.

"This is part of the danger," Serreze explained. "As we lose the ice in the Arctic, the Arctic becomes more accessible to shipping, extraction of oil and natural gas resources. But you also then at the same time raise the danger of accident because these are still treacherous waters.

"If you really want to operate well in the Arctic, you want ice-strengthened ships or icebreakers," he said. "Your normal tanker or something like that is not built to withstand heavy ice conditions. We're talking about hazardous navigation at best. If a ship hits a chunk of ice that's 2 meters thick, you can do a hell of a lot of damage."

Arctic ice conditions are likely to change in the coming weeks as a huge storm now raging in the central Arctic blows through the region.

"That's really churning things up, breaking the ice up quite a bit," Serreze said. "These storms tend to spread the ice out. So from that extent, you have a larger ice area. On the other hand, they break up the ice, which makes it easier to melt out. We'll see what happens."

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