The Navy released an Arctic environmental assessment and outlook report on Aug. 15, 2011 — which will be instrumental in developing future strategic plans and investments in a region that is becoming increasingly accessible to exploration and commercial enterprise.
Scientific evidence indicates that the Earth's climate is changing, with the most rapid changes occurring in the Arctic. While there is uncertainty about Arctic ice extent, scientists agree that the Arctic may experience nearly ice-free summers as early as the 2030s. This opening in the Arctic may lead to increased resource development, research, tourism, and could reshape the global transportation system. Because the Arctic is primarily a maritime environment, the Navy must consider the changing Arctic in developing future policy, strategy, force structure and investments.
CHIPS asked Cmdr. Blake McBride, Arctic affairs officer for Task Force Climate Change to talk about the Navy's assessment and he responded in writing in September.
CHIPS: According to the assessment, sea ice plays a crucial role in the Arctic climate. The amplified warming of the Arctic has been explained as due, in part, to a positive albedo feedback loop: as the air temperature increases, the sea ice cover (which presents a bright, white, highly reflective surface) melts and reveals the darker ocean surface. This dark surface absorbs more solar energy during the summer season when the sun never sets. This causes more heating, which causes more melting, creating a cycle that helps perpetuate warming conditions. For the average person trying to understand why sea ice is melting — is this too simple of an explanation?
McBride: Well, you have explained the feedback loop pretty well. As the darker waters absorb more heat, the ice melts.
But it's worth noting that the Arctic Ocean rapidly freezes back over in the fall and stays frozen for most of the year. The critical impact of the feedback loop is that it is reducing the thickness of the ice. Thin ice is more likely to melt each summer, so more of the water becomes ice free. We have been using satellite imagery to monitor the reduction in area ice coverage since 1979, but ice thickness has been more difficult to measure.
Navy submarines actually began noticing loss of ice thickness in the 1990s. In fact the Naval Ice Center even had a symposium in 2001 titled, "Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic," to begin discussions on this issue and its impacts on the Navy.
Task Force Climate Change works with the Ice Center and the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory to track the volumetric loss of sea ice in the Arctic. Current model projections indicate that by 2017 sea ice volume will be at 10 percent of its estimated 1979 value. Loss of ice volume is really a more significant indicator of environmental change, but it is the resulting reduction in ice extent that is making the region more accessible to maritime enterprise.
The shrinking ice cap is playing a triple role in warming the Arctic. The diminished ice is reflecting less solar energy; the open water is storing more energy that is released back to the atmosphere. This open water is also supplying greenhouse gas to the atmosphere in the form of water vapor. Those three factors combine to produce a strong regional greenhouse over the Arctic.
CHIPS: What does this mean for the Arctic region; does it have global implications as well?
McBride: The Arctic is not a vacuum. Arctic air and water interacts in very complex ways with global air and water circulations. For the reasons you have listed, the Arctic is experiencing a changing climate more rapidly than the rest of the Earth, but it presages what will happen later to the rest of the planet.
It's also worth noting that methane, which is a very strong, but short-lived greenhouse gas, may be released in great quantities from the sea floor in the Arctic and from melting permafrost.
CHIPS: The study states that ice thickness is also closely connected to ice strength, and so changes in thickness are important to navigability by ships, to the stability of the ice as a platform for use by indigenous people and marine mammals, and to light transmission through the ice cover. Studies indicate that polar bears are at risk, as wells as the ringed seals that bears eat, and humans hunt, which are also dependent on the sea ice to rest, give birth, nurse and feed. Is there any kind of human intervention that can mitigate the risks to indigenous people and polar animals?
McBride: The Navy and Coast Guard are aware that some of our operations could impact marine mammal migration routes and feeding patterns, as well as Alaska Native subsistence hunting. When we start doing surface ship and air operations up there, we will need to confer with tribal representatives and conservation authorities to ensure we minimize our impact.
CHIPS: It almost sounds like the Arctic region could become one big free-for-all with multiple nations staking claim to natural resources newly open to exploration. So far, Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark have claimed territory. Is there a process or plan to address the multinational claims?
McBride: Multinational claims are adjudicated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, and the Arctic Council. As a nation with Arctic territory, the U.S. is a member of the Arctic Council, but we are one of the few nations on Earth that has not ratified UNCLOS. The Navy has been on record for many years that accession to UNCLOS is in the best interests of the Navy and the nation.
While significant uncertainty exists in projections for Arctic ice extent, the current scientific consensus indicates the Arctic may experience nearly ice-free summers sometime in the 2030s. Models predict Arctic summer ice will decrease by 15 to 30 percent (3 percent per decade) and ice volume by 40 percent.
CHIPS: Twenty years seems pretty close, is there a list of priorities so that the Navy and U.S. can prepare for this eventuality?
McBride: The Navy's position is that the most likely scenario is that the Arctic will experience one month of conditions with less than one-tenth coverage of ice in the mid to late 2030s. We acknowledge that wild cards like meteorological variability, changes in ocean currents and rapid glacial ice melting could change the dynamics, but we believe a consensus of opinion supports that timeframe. But our first priority is to develop a better understanding of the changing environment and the many variables that impact it.
How we operationally prepare for an ice-free Arctic depends on what our mission requirements will be. Right now we are assessing environment changes and their corresponding strategic implications, what possible missions we may be called upon to complete, what we will need to do those missions, and what we currently lack.
The Coast Guard has regulatory duties and increased human activity in the region is a more immediate problem for them. They are already seeing some increase in human activity in territorial waters, including destination shipping, oil and gas exploration, and adventure tourism. However, the Navy still has time to approach this deliberately and responsibly.
CHIPS: The assessment discusses how various scientific reports will inform the program objective memorandum process, specifically POM 14. This allows the Navy‘s decisions to be based on a consensus of accepted scientific sources. How will POM 14 be affected? What decisions must the Navy make to ensure national security?
McBride: We have much to learn before we start investing in Arctic capabilities. We certainly do not wish to spend money before need. Aside from getting a better understanding of the rate of environmental change, we need to start assessing how cold weather affects our platforms, sensors, weapons systems and people.
The current fleet is optimized for midlatitude and tropical operations. For example, we're not sure how sea spray icing will affect our exposed sensors, or how extremely cold air and water temperatures will affect habitability systems on the ship. This will only come from experience, so we will need to start making trips to the Arctic. That in itself is not cheap.
Everything in the Arctic is more expensive because it costs a lot to ship supplies and material up there. For POM 14, we may see some commitment of funds for further studies, strategic tabletop exercises and Arctic training opportunities.
CHIPS: Clearly, the scope calls for a whole government approach to dealing with the changes to global navigation, competition for resources, increased greenhouse gases and rising sea levels. What organizations is the Navy working with?
McBride: The Navy's Arctic Roadmap and Strategic Objectives for the Arctic emphasize the importance of partnerships. We recognize that no one agency can afford to deal with the changing Arctic on its own. Task Force Climate Change, for instance, is highly networked, with membership from over 130 military, federal and civilian organizations. We are working particularly closely with the U.S. Coast Guard. We are also building relationships with Arctic nation militaries and security forces so we can learn from their experience and share responsibility for things like search and rescue, oil spill mitigation, disaster response and maritime domain awareness.
CHIPS: Anything else readers should know?
McBride: There are many competing priorities facing the Department of Defense that must be considered in light of limited resources. The good news is that senior leadership of the Navy is aware of the changes taking place in the Arctic and the challenges that we will face in the future. The Navy will ensure that we are ready for any future mission requirements in the Arctic, but we will approach this in a deliberate and responsible manner.
Follow Task Force Climate Change on Facebook: www.facebook.com/NavyTFCC. To access the Arctic Environmental Assessment and Outlook Report, go to http://greenfleet.dodlive.mil/files/2011/08/U.S.-Navy-Arctic-Environmental-Assessment.pdf.