boat in the arctic
USCG Cutter Healy and Canadian Ship Louis S. St. Laurent in Arctic Ocean. (Photo credit: JK Roberts, USGS)

Climate change is causing the Arctic sea ice to thin, making more Arctic waters accessible to shipping and transportation, research and exploration, and other economic development activities. Increased maritime activities in the region pose potential risks to the pristine Arctic environment, especially in areas used by fishing vessels, offshore oil and gas industry and cruise liners.

The National Science Foundation granted nearly $800,000 in funding to University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa researchers to develop a state-of-the-art mathematical model to predict interactions between sea ice and ships or industrial structures. Additionally, the research team will create a risk-assessment system for shipping and other operations in the Arctic.

“The interaction between the built and natural environment shapes social and economic realities in the Arctic in observable ways,” said Deniz Gedikli, lead investigator on the new grant and assistant professor of Ocean and Resources Engineering at the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST). “We anticipate that, in the end, the knowledge acquired through the project will benefit a wide range of stakeholders, such as residents, businesses, local, regional and government agencies, and academia who are invested in the both natural and social well-being of the region to enable resilient and sustainable Arctic communities.”

boat in the arctic

In the Arctic, the major barrier deterring the understanding of the physical environment is that all the components of the Arctic system interact with each other in a complex, evolving pattern. Further, marine structures operating in icy areas of the region also cause changes in the Arctic icescape. Therefore, the researchers include three important aspects in this project—the built environment, natural environment and social systems.

Gedikli and Oceana Francis, co-investigator and Civil and Environmental Engineering and Hawaiʻi Sea Grant College Program associate professor, will use a combination of data from field experiments, models, satellites and observations to explore complex interactions between ice and marine structures in the Arctic to provide safe shipping and operations in the region.

The developed model will be used to form a novel risk assessment concept which will help ship operators and people working on other man-made structures to make informed decisions during operations in the Arctic. To further assess their risk assessment model, Gedikli and Francis will also collaborate with two large fishing companies from Alaska, which agreed to test the proposed framework.

A long-distance connection

In addition to several graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who will work on this project, the team will hire undergraduate students during the summer months to help increase climate change awareness among young investigators across the globe and in Hawaiʻi.

This research is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

For more information, see SOEST’s website.

–By Marcie Grabowski