Feds expand online mapping to Arctic

As Shell inches closer to launching exploratory drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, the federal government today announced it has expanded an online mapping tool for responding to offshore oil spills so it includes Arctic waters.

The system, known as the Environmental Response Management Application — or ERMA, if you’re on a first-name basis — previously has focused on the Gulf of Mexico and seven other regions and was used to help track ocean conditions, oil infrastructure, environmental monitoring and more during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill two years ago.

The new Arctic version includes data that isn’t tracked in the Gulf of Mexico, including the extent and location of sea ice in the region. It also includes information about cultural and subsistence resources in Arctic waters, as well as the location of ports, pipelines, oil wells and vulnerable environmental resources.

The real-time data and static, unchanging information is integrated in a single interactive map that allows users to quickly visualize the situation on the water.

A variety of organizations are feeding data into the system, including the Alaska Ocean Observing System, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the state’s Arctic boroughs.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration developed the program. Jane Lubchenco, the NOAA administrator, said the tool “could provide essential information in responding to potential oil spills and pollution releases in the Arctic.”

James Watson, a former Coast Guard admiral who now heads the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said Arctic ERMA would give people access to valuable real-time information “that provides full situational awareness,” whether the data is used during an oil spill response or because of increased shipping activity in the region.

The tool could become more useful as more ships begin sailing through Arctic waters once impassable because of sea ice and as oil companies begin exploring for crude in the region.

Shell Oil Co., is set to begin drilling exploratory wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas later this summer, if it secures all necessary federal approvals for the work. Conoco Phillips and Statoil also have plans to drill in the region.