Diminished Arctic Ice means good news and bad
September 21st, 2008
Diminished Arctic Ice means good news and bad
Open sea lanes require more vigilance
By Edward Lundquist
There is a lot of water in the world for the U.S. Navy to patrol. Now add one more ocean to the list.
Because of a changing global climate, the year-round ice in the Arctic has dramatically diminished, meaning that the Arctic Ocean is now open for ship traffic for at least part of the year. The result is a remarkable shipping shortcut between Europe and Asia from 11,500 miles to 6,000 miles—a journey of almost half the distance.
The newly accessible Arctic is significant for the U.S. “Explorers have sought routes through the Arctic for 500 years,” said Mead Treadwell, chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.
Scientists have documented a recent and steady decrease in multi-year ice. While the Arctic freezes over during the winter, much of the first-year ice melts during the summer. Open water now exists from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. While this represents a huge cost savings for shipping, Treadwell warns there are significant issues about environmental and bio-diversity protection, safety, security and subsistence for native peoples that must be considered.
And just because a satellite photo shows open water doesn’t mean the Arctic offers safe sea lanes for transit. The weather is still unforgiving and the presence of ice in the water—whether large floes or small chunks—can cause catastrophic damage to thin-skinned vessels.
Scientists have known that the multi-year ice is shrinking, but now they are finding that the ice is melting faster than anticipated.
Dr. Richard Spinrad, assistant administrator for oceanic and atmospheric research with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), says an “extraordinary set of observations” confirms that there is a dramatic loss of multi-year ice, occurring at a rate that is exceeding the computer-based predictions. In fact, as the white surface of sea ice is reduced, more solar energy is being absorbed by the dark ocean, which has a cascading effect. Furthermore, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the oldest, thickest ice is confined to a much smaller portion of the Arctic Basin in recent years.
Science and technology play an important role in policy issues. “An ice-diminished Arctic is not an idea, it’s a fact,” says Dr. Sharon Hays from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
New research will be conducted during the International Polar Year, an international coordinated effort than spans March 2007 to March 2009. There are many global influences that can have an impact on the Arctic climate. The National Science Foundation is funding a variety of observation projects to gather temperature, salinity and circulation data in the Arctic that will validate the predictions, in partnership with science organizations around the world.
The Arctic is dynamic. Canada’s Ayles ice shelf, larger than 40 square miles, broke away in August 2005. The 3,000 year-old ice shelf was freed by warmer temperatures and high winds, and is now more than 50 miles west of its origin.
Access to the Arctic can enable researchers to study more about the flora and fauna there. “Today, the Arctic is an ecological haven,” says Navy Rear Adm. Timothy McGee. “Commercial industrial ventures in the Arctic could threaten that.”
With more traffic, if only during the summer months when the water is open, there is an increased risk of ship accidents, environmental incidents or security threats. This essentially means a greater operating area for the Navy and Coast Guard without an increase in ships. “As Americans, you expect your Navy and Coast Guard to be there,” McGee said. “We need to plan for it”
McGee admits that expanding the fleet’s operating areas to include the Arctic poses problems. There will be an increased demand on the fleet to do what they do. Not only are there operational pressures, but infrastructure and support issues too. “How do you sustain the ships? What bases will you need for aircraft?”
Eight nations have a direct interest in the Arctic, including Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark (which controls Greenland), Iceland, Canada and the United States. Territorial claims may become contentious as resources are discovered on and under the seabed. Recently, Russia symbolically “claimed” some of the Arctic sea floor, from its northern boundaries to the North Pole. When it comes to providing for safety and security of the Arctic, McGee calls for a coalition approach. He sees this as an opening for a very meaningful alliance with Russia and the other Arctic nations.
“We can’t look at everything as a threat,” McGee said. “We have to look at opportunities.”
Such cooperation exemplifies the U.S. Navy’s emphasis on cooperative engagement with maritime partners.
Vice Adm. John Morgan, Jr., Deputy Chief of Naval Operations is developing the nation’s new maritime strategy, built upon the principals of common interests and requirements among maritime nations. “When asked what elements the new maritime strategy should include, chiefs of navies and coast guards replied, ‘international cooperation, maritime security, threat and crisis response and information sharing.’”
The concept of a 1,000-ship navy is based upon the contributions of the many to the collective global security environment. Each nation can participate. “What’s in it for me? That’s a fair question. Every nation has to ask that question,” said Morgan. “We’re not offended by that question. We’re heartened by that question.”
Even with the opening of the Arctic, it is unlikely that there will be a rush for ships to transit that ocean.
According to Douglas Bancroft, director of the Canadian Ice Service, ship traffic in the Canadian Arctic today is typically restricted to the very short open water season between
July and September, and involves a relatively low level of shipping, perhaps just 100 voyages a year. Some of these ships are cruise ships carrying eco-tourists. Most shipping occurs in coastal waterways within and adjacent to the Canadian Arctic islands. Multi-year ice is a significant hazard throughout this season.
“Transits are rare, destination trips more common. They go in. They go out. They don’t go through,” Bancroft
Most ships, including naval ships, are not built for sailing in ice-infested waters. Even a modest-sized piece of ice can puncture the hull of a moving vessel. One proposal calls for a terminal to be built at Adak, Alaska, and another in Iceland, so that Asian cargo can be transferred to special ice-strengthened ships at Adak bound for European ports via Iceland, and vice versa.
About half of the nation’s seafood by weight comes from Alaskan waters (although that catch is declining), and there is strong evidence that there are significant oil and gas reserves in the remote Arctic region. Using the Arctic as a transit route raises concerns about aids to navigation, communications and navigational safety, said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Brian Salerno, assistant commandant for policy and planning. Increased traffic will inevitably lead to vessels in distress.
The U.S. Coast Guard ensures safe and reliable navigation for mariners. “Our presence is limited by our capacity,” said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen.
Polar presence requires icebreakers and ice-strengthened vessels. The Coast Guard currently operates three polar icebreakers, the USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB-11), USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10), and USCGC Healy (WAGB-20). These ships are primarily employed in support of polar research and Antarctic resupply operations under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation. “Even if they worked well, we only have three,” Allen said.
The current U.S. icebreaking fleet, operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, includes three polar icebreakers and one Great Lakes icebreaker. Two of these ships, USCGC Polar Star and USCGC Polar Sea entered service in 1976 and 1978 respectively. Both have been deployed in support of polar missions in the north while also conducting the annual breakthrough to McMurdo Station in the south, opening the channel for Military Sealift Command ships bringing fuel, food and supplies and removing refuse (a job that usually requires two icebreakers). McMurdo Station, which facilitates research for U.S. scientific interests in the Antarctic, also provides logistical support to the other two U.S. research stations, Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole and Palmer Station on the Antarctic peninsula. The two icebreakers are near the end of their service life. Polar Sea completed a major refit in 2006, but Polar Star is currently in a “caretaker” status requires extensive refurbishment to be made serviceable again.
USCGC Healy, built by Litton-Avondale Industries and commissioned in 2000, is primarily committed to research in the Arctic. Healy can be used to support the Antarctic mission, but doing so can impact work required in the Arctic.
In addition to the three polar icebreakers, the U.S. Coast Guard also operates an icebreaker for Great Lakes ice operations. The USCGC Mackinaw (WLBB-30), built by Marinette Marine in Marinette, Wis., is a 240-foot heavy icebreaker.
“It’s in our nation’s interest to have two new icebreakers,” Allen said.
“Open seas in the Arctic means you have another side of this continent exposed,” said retired Adm. Donald Pilling, a former vice chief of naval operations, who was part of a Center for Naval Analyses study on national security and the threat of global climate change. “Between the Canadians and us, there are a handful of ships oriented for the northernmost latitudes. There is not much flexibility or depth there.”