Arctic Melt: Reopening a Naval Frontier

By Rear Admiral David Gove, U.S. Navy

With roughly 1,000 miles of Alaskan coastline in the Arctic, the United States has a variety of national interests in the region, and the impact of physical changes there raises issues with respect to national sovereignty, security, and defense. One means for addressing such issues is the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum, which has undertaken collaborative projects in research and environmental protection. Member nations include the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark (with claims through Greenland), Sweden, Finland, and Iceland.

Competing claims dealing with the Arctic are often political in nature and have important implications. For example, in the summer of 2008 Canada announced that it would increase its military presence in the region, begin construction of a deep-water port on Baffin Island, establish a cold weather training base at Resolute Bay, and build six new ice-hardened ships to patrol the Northwest Passage. During the same period, Russia conducted strategic bomber flights over the area for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

Within the U.S. government, the changing polar climate has resulted in increased focus on areas of national interest ranging from management of natural resources and research to national defense. Climate change in the predominantly maritime environment of the Arctic may have important implications for the Navy and Coast Guard.

Documented Change

Indicators of measured change in the region include increased air and sea temperatures, decreased extent of sea ice, degraded permafrost, reduced glacial coverage over Greenland, increased atmospheric water vapor, decreased snow cover, and larger discharges from rivers. All of these factors have noteworthy impacts on the region's ecosystems.

For the Navy and Coast Guard, decreased sea ice in particular is a problem. While sea ice has gradually decreased over the last 50 years, this trend has been accelerating over the last two decades—satellite measurements have shown an average three percent decrease per year. A 2007 report on the findings of the Second Workshop on Recent High-Latitude Climate Change quantified the issue: the 2007 summer minimum extent of sea ice was 40 percent less than the minima of the 1980s. According to the National Ice Center, a joint Navy-National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-Coast Guard office that monitors and measures sea ice for navigation safety, the summer of 2007 witnessed the smallest extent of Arctic sea ice coverage in the observational record. The 2008 summer season, recorded as the second smallest sea ice extent, reinforces the decline documented over the past 30 years.

With less ice coverage over the ocean, a cycle is generated: as more water is open to absorb solar radiation, becoming warmer, this in turn melts more sea ice. This loop may greatly boost the rate of change. All current climate models project a continuing decline in sea ice extent. According to a report by the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, a median of model predictions calls for an additional 30 percent decrease by 2050 with a 40 percent decrease in ice volume.

Much of what we currently know about the bathymetry and hydrography of the Arctic Ocean comes from measurements made by submarines during the Cold War. As the most experienced explorers of polar waters, submariners provided some of the first indications that the polar environment was changing, reporting a surprising degradation of the ice thickness in the 1990s. In a program known as Scientific Ice Explorations (SCICEX), the Navy provided Sturgeon -class nuclear-powered attack submarines for collaborative scientific cruises carrying civilian specialists to the Arctic basin. From 1993 to 2000, six SCICEX missions allowed scientists to gather data on the physical and biological properties of the northern waters, with particular emphasis placed on understanding the dynamics of sea ice cover, circulation patterns in the water, and the structure of the Arctic Ocean's bathymetry.

More recently the Navy's Arctic Submarine Laboratory sponsored ICEX 2007, a month-long ice camp located on the edge of the perennial ice. Designed to test submarine operations beneath the ice, the camp also included researchers from various institutions working to better understand the dynamic changes taking place in the Arctic ice fields.

Preserving Sea Lines of Communication

The most apparent change in the environment has been the decline of perennial (multi-year) ice, especially evident along the Northern Sea Route (NSR). This navigable waterway connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans via polar waters along the northern coast of Russia. Commercial carriers choosing the NSR over more conventional mid-latitude routes will trim their passages significantly, much as the aviation industry has adopted trans-polar great circle routes to reduce flight time. An article published by the American Scandinavian Foundation noted the distance between Yokohama and Hamburg is almost 5,000 miles shorter by using the NSR, so it is not surprising that the commercial shipping industry has expressed great interest in the potential of Arctic transits.

Preserving freedom of navigation in the region is an important tenet of U.S. policy. The NSR, however, is a contested waterway, with Russian claims of sovereignty competing against U.S. and European Union insistence that it is an international strait available to all nations, subject to mutually recognized terms. Another potential transoceanic shipping route may be the Northwest Passage, which extends from the Atlantic through Baffin Bay and the Canadian Archipelago and into the Pacific by way of the Bering Strait. Canada claims sovereignty over the waters of the Canadian Archipelago, although the United States and the European Union claim that the Northwest Passage also constitutes an international strait which allows right of innocent passage.

The 2008 summer ice minimum opened up both the NSR and the Northwest Passage (defined by the World Meteorological Organization as having less than one-tenth ice coverage) for the first time in recorded history.

Aside from access and right of passage, the Navy and Coast Guard, in particular, must also be concerned with strategic choke points such as the Bering Strait, Canada's Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Northwest Passage, and Russia's Severnaya Zemlya and New Siberian Islands in the Northern Sea Route. These narrow passages offer some protection from persistent ice blockage, but they are also vulnerable to control or blockade by adversaries that would significantly disrupt potential commercial shipping and oil transport.

While melting of sea ice facilitates maritime transportation, the melting of the permafrost on land may necessitate it. Warming on land is already causing degradation of land infrastructure by turning snow- and ice-packed roads into impenetrable morasses. Furthermore, as the permafrost melts, support structures of the Alaskan oil pipeline and the Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline sink deeper into the ground causing stress breaks in the pipes, and badly degrading paved roads. With reduced transportation options on land, maritime alternatives for shipping oil and other resources will likely become increasingly important.

Sovereignty Issues

International maritime law assigns a nation complete sovereignty over its territorial waters, defined as waters extending 12 nautical miles from the low water mark of the associated coastline, known as the Territorial Sea Baseline (TSB). Beyond the territorial waters, coastal nations have resource management and exploitation control over their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles beyond the TSB. In an area where the continental shelf extends beyond the EEZ, known as the Outer Continental Shelf, nations may claim limited sovereignty over resources in the seabed. In the Arctic, areas outside the jurisdiction of bordering nations are considered part of the Arctic Commons and are administered by the International Seabed Authority.

The United States and Russia have tried to reach bilateral agreement on the Bering Sea based on the "median line" principle, which uses a line drawn equidistant from the TSB of each nation. The nations' representatives delineated this line in 1990, but while the accord is provisionally in force, the Russian parliament has yet to officially ratify it. At stake are 18,000 square miles of the Bering Sea that Russian hardliners are reluctant to cede.

Under Article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), jurisdiction may be claimed by a nation based on undersea features that are considered an extension of the continental shelf if the structure is geologically similar to their continental land mass. In a highly publicized event in August of 2007, a Russian deep submersible planted the Russian Federation flag on the seafloor at the geographic North Pole, claiming sovereignty of the Pole. This symbolic claim was based on the Russians' contention that the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater land feature that transects the Arctic Ocean and passes within 200 nautical miles of the North Pole, is an extension of the Siberian landmass. Canada counter-claims the ridge as an extension of its landmass, and Denmark has made a claim based on its province, Greenland.

Russia's claim to the Lomonosov Ridge, including the North Pole, is currently being reviewed by the 21-country Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, a body established by a provision in UNCLOS to make science-based recommendations to member states regarding claims to the continental shelf. The commission is advisory in nature and operates independently of the UN.

Unfortunately, the United States is not represented in that forum because it has not ratified UNCLOS. In fact, it is the only Arctic nation—and the only industrialized nation—that has not ratified UNCLOS. Despite strong support from the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the President, Senate ratification remains elusive. The issues of Arctic territoriality will ultimately be decided under the framework of UNCLOS, but the United States will be absent from many of these discussions unless the treaty is ratified.

Access to Resources

As a moderating environment provides more opportunities for access into the northern waters, the potential for tapping anticipated oil and gas reserves has caught the attention of the energy industry. According to the U.S Geological Survey (USGS) there are currently some 400 oil and gas fields in the region's onshore areas, comprising about ten percent of the Earth's petroleum resources. One of the first far northern areas to be developed for oil production was Alaska's North Slope. This area is rich in oil, and the Alaskan pipeline runs from Prudhoe Bay on the slope to Valdez on the Gulf of Alaska. If the North Slope is any indication, offshore oil and gas in the region could be significant. Core samples from the Lomonosov Ridge suggest that some 55 million years ago semitropical waters rich in organic matter covered the Arctic basin, perfect conditions for the formation of vast hydrocarbon beds.

Last July, USGS completed the Circum-Arctic Resource Assessment of undiscovered conventional oil and gas resources in all areas north of the Arctic Circle. Their findings suggest a potential 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids may remain to be found there, of which approximately 84 percent is expected to be discovered in offshore areas. While this is the most comprehensive study to date, it remains a qualified speculation until oil companies begin to dig assessment wells.

Valuable mineral resources may also be contained in the ocean floor, including potentially significant amounts of high-grade manganese, copper, nickel, and cobalt, as well as diamonds and gold. For the moment, the area's seabed resources are too difficult to harvest to make them commercially viable, however, technological advances may change that.

Of more immediate interest, retreating ice opens up the possibility of reaching untapped commercial fishing stocks, particularly in the Bering Sea. Warmer water temperatures may also result in some northward migrations of fish species. Commercial fishing could develop into an important economic concern in the not-too-distant future.

National Security Challenges

U.S. naval interests will face new challenges in an increasingly ice-free Arctic with a strategic objective to understand potential threats to the United States from the maritime domain. As throughout the global commons, the U.S. Navy must be aware of activities that could be harmful to national security interests in a region that will, no doubt, see fewer barriers to access by potential adversaries in the future. National and homeland security interests pertinent to the U.S. Navy in the region would include early warning/missile defense; maritime presence and security; and freedom of navigation and over-flight.

Portions of this unique operating environment may, in fact, become a more conventional Navy operating environment. Nonetheless, patrolling this frontier will not be easy, and maritime patrol aircraft and ships will still confront a dangerous and demanding environment. During the Cold War, the Arctic climate was cold enough to preclude significant moisture from entering the atmosphere, thus limiting the number of foul-weather occurrences. Warmer temperatures there will allow more moisture to be absorbed by the atmosphere, facilitating the development of local-weather events and greatly increasing the risk of aircraft in-flight icing and ice accumulation on ship superstructures, which may also degrade weapon systems.

Surface ships operating in the area must be ice-hardened, or reinforced to withstand potential encounters with floating ice. For operating in areas of first-year ice, the American Bureau of Shipping's "Rules for Building and Classing Steel Vessels" requires strengthening of the bow and stern. Further consideration must be given to propellers, rudders, fin stabilizers, and bow-mounted sonars that would be particularly vulnerable to ice. Atmospheric ice accumulation on the superstructure may also necessitate adjustments to ship buoyancy and stability design.

The U.S. Navy has no ice-hardened surface ships, and all of its icebreakers were transferred to the Coast Guard in 1966. Currently the Coast Guard has three icebreakers, although the USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10) and USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB-11) are the only two built to handle heavy ice. They were designed to steam continuously at three knots through ice up to 16 feet thick. At 30-years of age, both are near the end of their service life, with Polar Star currently in caretaker status. According to the Coast Guard's Ice Operations branch, it would cost an estimated $400 million to refit her for an additional 25 years of service.

The Coast Guard's other icebreaker, the Healy (WAGB-20), is a lighter ship designed to break 4.5 feet of ice continuously at three knots. While primarily used for scientific missions, she is also capable of logistics, search and rescue, ship escort, environmental protection, and law enforcement missions. Since 2003, the Healy has made three deployments to survey the uncharted seafloor around the Chukchi Cap. Working in conjunction with NOAA's Office of the Coast Survey and the University of New Hampshire's Joint Hydrographic Center, the breaker's multi-beam sonar and sub-bottom profiler were used to better define the extent of the U.S. continental shelf.

The U.S. Antarctic Program also operates an ice-strengthened research ship, R/V Nathaniel R. Palmer . These four constitute the entire fleet of U.S. ships equipped for polar operations. A 2006 study by the National Research Council recommended the replacement of the Polar -class ships. To date, no action has been taken on that recommendation, and the council estimates that it will take ten years to get from approval to commissioning.

A New Front

While there is no absolute certainty that the Arctic will continue to warm, there are important consequences if it does. Human activity there is already rapidly increasing. The region is primarily a maritime domain and the U.S. Navy of the future must be prepared to protect sea lines of communication supporting maritime commerce and other national interests—including national security—there. In addition to thinking through how we adjust our shipbuilding emphasis to support such operations, the Navy should also be thinking strategically about building the necessary infrastructure to provide logistic support for Arctic patrols, search and rescue capabilities, and shore-based support activities.

To ensure complete maritime domain awareness in the region, and to provide our forces a competitive advantage, it will be necessary to have comprehensive knowledge of the physical environment. Data must be obtained by a suite of remote sensors (satellites, radars), autonomous sensors (data buoys, unmanned vehicles), and manned sensors (shipboard, coastal observing stations). Computer-based ocean and atmospheric models must be adjusted to the geophysical peculiarities of high latitudes. Communication lines for data exchange and reach-back processing at high-performance computing production centers must be robust and reliable. To ensure safety of navigation, we will also need to conduct more high-resolution bottom surveys and increase the scrutiny we place on sea ice conditions.

The Navy relies on its international and interagency partners for assistance to ensure success of maritime domain awareness and maritime security missions. To meet the demands of national security in the changing northern environment, strengthening mechanisms for cooperation among the regional nations and U.S. agencies must remain a high priority. Like everywhere else in the world, sound national security in the Arctic will require strategic access, military mobility, safe navigation, unimpeded maritime transportation, improved homeland security, and responsible, sustainable use of ocean and coastal resources. International and interagency agreements and partnerships are vital to incorporating these essential elements into a viable national security policy and will be critical for resolving future naval challenges of a changing Arctic.

Rear Admiral Gove is the Oceanographer/Navigator of the Navy.


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