U.S. Navy navigates a sea change in the Arctic

by Kathryn Hansen
Monday, April 16, 2012

Last September, at the international Arctic Forum in the Russian city of Arkhangelsk, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin compared new Arctic shipping routes to the Suez Canal. The Northern Sea Route, he said, which follows the country’s northern coastline, would dramatically shorten trade routes between Europe and China.

The new shipping routes are possible due to the declining extent and thickness of summer Arctic sea ice. Although completely ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean are not expected for at least another three decades, impacts of the decline are already evident: For two consecutive years, the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route have been passable for ship traffic during summer months. In addition to opening new shipping passages, an increasingly accessible Arctic is attracting increased resource exploration, scientific research and even tourism. Shipping companies, entrepreneurs, scientists and tourists, however, are not the only ones looking north; militaries around the world, including the U.S. Navy, also have an interest.

“As sea ice decreases, accessibility of the region increases and therefore human activity in the region is increasing and will continue to increase,” says Cmdr. Blake McBride, Arctic Affairs Officer for the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change. “The Navy, by virtue of our global mission, provides stability to international commerce and global order, which allows for a common prosperity. This means we need to ensure we are able to operate and have a presence wherever and whenever human activity is occurring in the maritime environment.”

Toward that mission, the Navy has created a task force, developed a roadmap, and employed a corps of geoscientists to synthesize scientific information. About halfway through the roadmap’s five-year timeline, planning continues and scientific challenges remain.

A New Normal

Arctic sea ice grows each year to an annual maximum extent during the dark, cold winter and spring, and then retreats through the summer to reach its annual minimum extent in September. In 2007, scientists tracking Arctic sea ice from satellites watched as a record-breaking melt season unfolded. Starting in June, the extent of Arctic sea ice retreated swiftly and by August the ice had already fallen below the previous melt record set in 2005. Finally, on Sept. 16, 2007, sea-ice extent dropped to just 4.13 million square kilometers, 38 percent below average since the start of the satellite record in 1979. The record melt that year could be attributed in part to warm temperatures and an alignment of conditions just right for melting the ice, including sustained periods of clear skies and warm winds.

Extremes aside, however, scientists say that the Arctic has entered a “new normal.” In December 2011, NOAA issued the annual Arctic Report Card. Last year saw the second-lowest sea-ice extent on record, but it’s not just the ice that has changed. Near-surface air temperatures in 2011 were 1.5 degrees Celsius above the 1981-2010 baseline period. Ocean temperatures and salinity levels appear to be stabilizing after a period of warming and freshening. And Arctic lands look to be greening up.

That the Arctic is changing is not news. The sea-ice extent has declined by 12 percent per decade since 1979, and the ice is thinning too. Model results from the University of Washington Applied Physics Lab showed that the volume of Arctic sea ice in January 2012 was 41 percent lower than in 1979. Thickness matters because compared to thick multiyear ice, thin first-year ice can more easily melt or be pushed around and broken up by storms.

“With a greener and warmer Arctic, more development is likely,” said Monica Medina, NOAA principal deputy under-secretary of commerce for oceans and the atmosphere, in a NOAA statement about the Report Card. At a press briefing in December to roll out the report, she noted that the changes would affect decisions about oil and gas exploration activities and plans being made for the next five years.

The Navy, however, is looking even further into the future and trying to ascertain what the Arctic might look like as much as 30 years out — about the time it takes to design and build new ships.
“To justify expenditures, we need information about the expected environment,” McBride says. “If we don’t have plans, it’s hard to argue for what we’ll need in order to operate in that environment. What kind of ships will we need? What roles, missions, responsibilities, and organizational structures might need to change?”

Establishing a Plan

Even before the so-called “new normal” was described this year, scientists and the Navy had a good idea that sea ice was thinning. The Navy’s exploration of the Arctic started almost a century ago with flights by Rear Adm. Richard Evelyn Byrd Jr. starting in 1926. It continued during World War II, and then, in 1958, the Navy made the first submarine transit of the North Pole in the USS Nautilus. Since then, submarines have maintained a presence in the Arctic for training and research, some of which has contributed to volumetric estimates of the ice from below. The Navy has also worked closely with academic institutions to collaborate on ice camps and expeditions, such as Science Ice Exercise (SCICEX), which from 1995 to 1999 collected geological, physical, chemical and biological data from the Arctic Ocean, and ICEX, a submarine exercise during which the Navy practices working in Arctic conditions.

For a continued presence in the Arctic, however, the Navy faces challenges from the changing Arctic landscape, so the Navy set out in April 2001 to establish a plan. That year, the Office of Naval Research, the Arctic Research Commission, and the Naval Ice Center hosted the first symposium on Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic, at which participants discussed naval operations and national strategic issues. A follow-up symposium in 2007 took the discussion further to explore impacts on commercial transportation, oil and gas exploration, fisheries, and scientific research.

In 2009, former President George W. Bush signed a national security presidential directive establishing a national Arctic policy. The policy calls on the departments of State, Homeland Security and Defense to implement the policy through specific actions, such as: “Develop greater capabilities and capacity, as necessary, to protect United States air, land and sea borders in the Arctic region,” and “Consider, as appropriate, new or enhanced international arrangement for the Arctic to address issues likely to arise from expected increases in human activity in that region …” It also details several directives to promote international scientific cooperation, including the accurate prediction of the future Arctic climate and environment. Although the policy does not call for specific new naval missions, the Navy is nonetheless considering the directive goals in strategic planning.

“Our primary objective is to ensure naval readiness and capability and promote maritime security in the Arctic region,” McBride says. “This readiness will ensure that the Navy is prepared to operate in the Arctic if or when called upon to do so.”

Also in 2009, the chief of naval operations established Task Force Climate Change, headed by the Navy’s senior oceanographer Rear Adm. David Titley. Navy geoscientists “ensure an understanding of the physical environment, allowing the Navy to operate safely on the world’s oceans,” McBride says. “Task Force Climate Change is an extension of that, and our role is to characterize the environmental changes of the future and the challenges that these changes will present to the Navy.”


Toward that effort, one of the first deliverables of the task force was a strategic roadmap, a five-year plan of actions and milestones designed to guide Navy policy, investment, action, and public discussion on the Navy’s role and actions concerning the Arctic.

In accordance with the roadmap, the task force issued its first Arctic Environmental Assessment and Outlook Report in August 2011. The document is designed to inform Navy policy by providing an environmental assessment of the Arctic, updated every two years to align with Navy budget and decision-making cycles. The report synthesizes existing scientific information for climate, ocean and land mass trends, and then provides an outlook for resource exploration. It then describes tactical, operational and strategic implications for naval activities, which often relate back to the difficulty of operating in the harsh northern latitudes. For example, ice and even the northern lights can impede communication. Freshening ocean water can change acoustical propagation. And Arctic weather is not easy to accurately forecast.

In a separate task force-sponsored activity, the U.S. Naval War College conducted an exercise called Fleet Arctic Operations Game 2011. In September, 88 participants from the military, academia and industry participated in the four-day tabletop game that sought to explore gaps in maritime operations and to find solutions to those gaps.

“The key finding of the game is that the U.S. Navy is inadequately prepared to conduct sustained maritime operations in the Arctic,” says Walter Berbrick, a professor in the U.S. Naval War College’s War Gaming Department. “This was primarily due to the poor reliability of current capabilities as well as the need to develop new partnerships, ice-capable platforms, logistics infrastructure, satellite communications and educational and training initiatives.”

Also, the game found that as weather and climate conditions intensify — particularly the presence of ice, strong winds and fog — and as the total time and distance traveled during an operation increase, the greater the risk of mission failure and loss of or harm to friendly forces, Berbrick says. “To reduce risk, players relied on additional information and capabilities through partnerships with the U.S. Coast Guard, Joint Task Force Alaska, tribal leaders, industry and multinational partners.”

Pushing Boundaries

Geographically, there are just five nations in the Arctic Council — an intergovernmental forum to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction among Arctic countries — that have Arctic coastlines: Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States. Of those nations, only the United States lacks a national Arctic strategy. Unlike a clear national strategy, the U.S. Arctic policy does not provide guidance on how to invest and prioritize, McBride says. “But that’s more of a near-term problem for the Coast Guard than the Navy,” he says: The Coast Guard has needs now, such as to develop its icebreaking fleet, but the Navy, he says, “has time to prepare.”

Still, it’s unclear exactly how much time the Navy has to prepare. Estimates of when the Arctic will have fully ice-free summers range anywhere from 2040 to 2060. And the U.S. National Petroleum Council, an advisory committee that relays the views of the oil and gas industry to the Secretary of Energy, reported in the Navy’s Arctic Environmental Assessment and Outlook Report that some technology necessary to exploit oil from the Arctic might not be ready until 2050. “If you act too soon, you’re wasting taxpayer dollars because you’re ahead of need, but if you wait too long you’ll have a crisis and spend too much too quickly,” McBride says.

As such, Task Force Climate Change is trying to plan ahead to make the best use of dollars at the right time. But that can be easier said than done, as many scientific questions remain about the Arctic’s future.

To obtain answers, the Office of Naval Research is pushing scientific boundaries with two Department Research Initiatives (DRI). The first, “Predictability of Seasonal and Intra-seasonal Oscillations DRI,” looks to support improvements in climate modeling. This research would lay the foundation for the Navy’s interest in long-range predictions. The second, “Marginal Ice Zone DRI,” looks to improve the knowledge and understanding of the physics of the retreating summer ice edge and marginal ice zone in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Little is known about the point where sea ice gives way to open water, such as how (or if) waves or the sun impact its retreat and thickness.

Also during the last fiscal year, the Office of Naval Research started an Arctic research program, designed to improve the basic understanding of the Arctic environment, as well as to monitor and predict environmental change. The program will require that new platforms, sensors and communications be developed and operable in extreme conditions.

“Overall we see the greatest challenge in climate understanding to be the state of climate computer modeling,” McBride says." A new proposal called Earth System Prediction Capability is meant to address the issue, touted as the next step in numerical weather prediction.

The proposal grew out of discussions between the Department of Commerce and Department of Defense about how the next environmental analysis and prediction system could meet requirements of a zero-hour to three-decade prediction system, to support everything from short-term weather forecasts to seasonal agriculture and energy needs to decadal-scale infrastructure development. The proposal is not without technical challenges, however, and depends on advances in computational capability and the reformulation of existing earth system models.

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