Scientists map seafloor for future offshore drilling

Scientists map seafloor for future offshore drilling
More than 30 Inuvik residents attend the presentation by the Geological Survey of Canada at Aurora College, where Michelle Côté shares findings of last year’s Beaufort Sea research.Photo: Nathalie Heiberg-Harrison.

Canadian researchers, in partnership with scientists from the USA and Korea, are busy laying the groundwork for exploratory offshore drilling in the Beaufort Sea.

More than 100 scientists, technicians and crew members took part in a Canada-Korea-USA Arctic research expedition in September, whose preliminary findings were presented to a crowd of more than 30 at Aurora College in Inuvik last Wednesday.

Their main goal: to ensure offshore drilling happens in a safe and responsible way.

“Our main focus, really, is to provide the baseline geoscience information for this very likely deepwater drilling exercise that’s going to go ahead,” said Michelle Côté, a research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada. “That’s the larger picture.”

Côté said the expedition’s goal is to provide researchers, regulators, local communities and governments with the best information possible, adding that industry will likely drill its first-ever deepwater wells in seven to 10 years.

Last fall’s research was conducted on two icebreakers, Korea’s Araon and Canada’s Sir Wilfrid Laurier, by researchers with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) of California, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI).

The Geological Survey of Canada, which is part of Natural Resources Canada, is the Canadian science lead. Its goal was to undertake fundamental geoscience studies, assess active geologic processes and assess marine geohazards.

“Geohazards need to be investigated and analyzed before drilling can happen,” Côté said.

MBARI’s main focus area was seafloor habitat, while DFO focused on oceanography and KOPRI focused on oceanography and paleoceanography, the study of the history of the oceans.

“It’s quite a dynamic and interesting environment,” Côté said of the outer Beaufort Sea shelf and slope.

The group’s five main tasks while in the Beaufort Sea were to conduct coring operations, free-fall cone penetration measurements, heat flow measurements and to explore the seafloor with a remotely operated underwater vehicle and autonomous underwater vehicle.

Despite a sea ice cover that was at an unexpected 20-year high, the team walked away with troves of data and samples to be analyzed.

“There’s a lot of very interesting new science,” Côté said, including the discovery of glacial striations, which indicate that glaciers were once present in the area.

“It’s just in an area that nobody expected to find glacial deposits,” she said of the surprising finding.

The expedition team collected pictures and videos of the seafloor, as well as geophysical imaging to map subsurface geology, permafrost and gas hydrate occurrence.

They now have more information relating to the stability and bearing capacity of the seafloor, which can be used by engineers when building large structures like offshore drills.

They also documented sediment deformation and marine slides on the shelf edge and in the upper slope, and collected new information on the distribution of marine permafrost.

Côté said details for the next joint Arctic research expedition will likely be in place by May, as they hope to head out again in September.

It’s difficult to set long-term research goals when funding fluctuates so much, she added, but eventually they would like to cover a wider area of the Beaufort Sea.

“It’s basically little postage stamps of the areas that we’ve investigated in this very vast ocean,” she said.

In addition, Côté said they would like to do repeat surveys to see how the sea floor and shelf changes over time.

Additional funding for the program was provided by the Program of Energy Research and Development, a federal program run by Natural Resources Canada.

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