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Marine scientists to assess environment before offshore drilling begins in US arctic waters
Date:2/17/2009

AUSTIN, TexasThrough a $2.9 million, three-year grant from the Minerals Management Service (MMS), a team led by University of Texas at Austin marine scientists will assess the biological and chemical conditions on the seabed of the Chukchi Sea before the area opens for offshore oil drilling.

The contract from the MMS (U.S. Department of the Interior) brings together several highly experienced Arctic scientists from four institutions and Russia.

The shallow Chukchi Sea is between Russia and Alaska, just north of the Bering Strait.

The research follows the record MMS sale in February 2008 of $2.6 billion in leases in the Chukchi Sea to a variety of oil companies, including Shell and ConocoPhillips. It was the first lease sale in the Chukchi since 1991 and the most successful in Alaska's history.

The research team, led by chief scientist Dr. Ken Dunton of the University of Texas at Austin's Marine Science Institute (UTMSI), will establish the environmental baseline for the Chukchi Sea's seabed, or benthos.

Information from the work will be used to help identify areas of ecological importance, to minimize interference of drilling with areas of rich natural resources and native subsistence harvesting activities. The data collected by the scientific team will also be used to assess whether changes in benthic flora, fauna and chemistry are related to oil and gas activities or climate change and natural variability.

"The Chukchi Sea is one of the most productive areas in the circumpolar Arctic, linking the North Pacific with the Arctic Ocean," says Dunton, professor of marine sciences at UTMSI.

He says much of the organic matter produced by phytoplankton in the water column sinks to the bottom, and this supports huge populations of organisms on the seabed, including crustaceans, mollusks and echinoderms, such as sea stars and sea urchins. These in turn support walrus, a diverse array of birds, humpback wh
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Contact: Dr. Ken Dunton
ken.dunton@mail.utexas.edu
361-749-6744
University of Texas at Austin
Source:Eurekalert

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