Treasure Trove of Data Released on Chukchi Sea

The seven-year hitch

A massive environmental data trove from Alaska's Chukchi Sea gathered by three large oil companies is available at an Internet near you.

The Chukchi Sea Environmental Studies Program was begun by ConocoPhillips and Shell in 2008, including Statoil in 2012-13.

Through the years, the project collected terabytes of data from meteorological-ocean to chemical to biological information to photos, according to Christie Cowee and Cindy Eick, both of Resource Data Inc. in Anchorage.

The scope and detail of the project is the subject of two papers by Cowee and Eick, which they will present at the upcoming Arctic Technology Conference.

Initially begun for exploration permitting purposes, the project represents tens of millions of dollars of investment and can benefit research in numerous disciplines, said Eick, GIS project manager and senior analyst.

The meticulously cataloged collection is being released through an agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"It's been a pretty great project to be a small part of," Eick said.

"What's truly unique, from my point of view, anyway, is that getting through seven years and making the data public required the ongoing partnership of three big petroleum companies, a very large investment from all of them and a willingness and eagerness that's unusual in this industry to make the project completely transparent and available to the public through the data sharing agreement with NOAA," she added.

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A massive environmental data trove from Alaska's Chukchi Sea gathered by three large oil companies is available at an Internet near you.

The Chukchi Sea Environmental Studies Program was begun by ConocoPhillips and Shell in 2008, including Statoil in 2012-13.

Through the years, the project collected terabytes of data from meteorological-ocean to chemical to biological information to photos, according to Christie Cowee and Cindy Eick, both of Resource Data Inc. in Anchorage.

The scope and detail of the project is the subject of two papers by Cowee and Eick, which they will present at the upcoming Arctic Technology Conference.

Initially begun for exploration permitting purposes, the project represents tens of millions of dollars of investment and can benefit research in numerous disciplines, said Eick, GIS project manager and senior analyst.

The meticulously cataloged collection is being released through an agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"It's been a pretty great project to be a small part of," Eick said.

"What's truly unique, from my point of view, anyway, is that getting through seven years and making the data public required the ongoing partnership of three big petroleum companies, a very large investment from all of them and a willingness and eagerness that's unusual in this industry to make the project completely transparent and available to the public through the data sharing agreement with NOAA," she added.

Data Within Data

From the beginning, a major focus was standardization of data and metadata - data about data - to make sure the information would be accessible and usable now and well into the future.

"This was especially challenging over the course of seven years with turnover among the field teams, generally grad students," Eick said. "Oversight was constant to ensure standards were maintained."

Collecting data on boats in the Arctic can be daunting.

"Data management challenges ranged from computer networking and connectivity issues on the vessels, and between vessels and land to ensure that all data was accounted for at the end of each cruise and the end of each season," she said.

"Once all the data was accounted for the next biggest challenge as a data manager was communicating the importance of standardized data year in and year out," she added.

Accuracy and accountability were paramount. Any inaccurate or missing data could affect permitting, forcing a company to delay or halt drilling during open water season, potentially costing millions.

The study initially took place in two 900 nm2 study boxes, including ConocoPhillips' and Shell prospect areas. It grew to include Statoil's study area of the same size and at some points took on a regional focus as needed, Cowee and Eick wrote.

Disciplines in the study included sea birds, marine mammals, plankton, physical oceanography, sediments, benthic studies, acoustic monitoring, chemical oceanography and fish studies.

The result is a product "perfect for any scientific studies that support natural resources development, including petroleum and mining," she said.

"A key point is that strict management, storage and documentation of large or small datasets enables that data to be accessible, usable and defensible into the future. This is a good justification for the extra expense.

"When a company shuts down a project only to resurrect it five or 10 years in the future, which happens a lot, the company doesn't have to start from scratch with baseline studies if all the previous data exists, is well-documented and is locatable within a corporate network infrastructure," Eick said.

"Arctic data, whether offshore or terrestrial, can be incredibly expensive to collect," she continued. "These methods protect the results of multimillion dollar data collection efforts."

Eick offered three general examples of how CSESP collections have potential impact of exploration efforts:

Whale migration - Knowing when and where the whales will be is critical during the operations planning phase to mitigate potential disturbance of migration patterns.

Metocean buoys and vessel instruments provide seven years of detailed (every few minutes) weather and sea state information during the open water season in the potential drilling operations areas.

Sediment sampling each year has built a history of baseline sediment chemistry that can be compared with post-drilling sediment samples.

Not As Easy As It Sounds

Constantly verifying data and bringing it up to the necessary standards required for release took intensive efforts.

"Data managers gathered annual reports, program documentation and annual metadata files submitted by CSESP scientists to mine these for the required information to meet the Federal Geographic Data Committee Content Standard for Digital Geospatial Metadata," Eick said.

"Many follow-up calls with principal investigators and the vessel crews were needed to double-check details like the makes and models of scientific equipment, sampling methodology and even the error tolerance of the fathometer used to collect depth information," she said.

"Attaining and maintaining the standards ensures that data is usable to future users," she said.

The CSESP began in 2008 during the open water summer months. The initial agreement with NOAA for release of the data was approved in 2011.

Eick said data collection concluded after its seventh open water season in October 2014, although it will take scientists several months to analyze their data and write final reports. The 2014 data should be available to the public sometime during summer and fall 2015.

To help spread word about the project and its availability, a 66-page book telling the story of CSESP is being prepared for distribution to agencies and other interested parties.