The Arctic: A New Ocean for the Nation


Story Number: NNS130723-20Release Date: 7/23/2013 3:39:00 PM
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By Bob Freeman, Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy

WASHINGTON (NNS) -- The 5th Symposium on the Impacts of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Maritime and Naval Activities was held at the Naval Heritage Center, July 16-18.

"The Navy is a global force responsible for operating forward in all the world's oceans, and that includes the Arctic," said Rear Adm. Jonathan White, oceanographer of the Navy and director of the Navy's Task Force Climate Change, during his remarks at the symposium. "When the Arctic needs us, we must be ready."

As the Arctic Ocean opens up for greater exploration and economic development, cooperative partnerships will be essential for ensuring the safety and security of maritime activities was the common theme throughout the symposium.

White acknowledged that there are serious challenges for naval forces operating that far north. In addition to very harsh environmental conditions, he enumerated the lack of developed infrastructure on America's Arctic coastline, the inability to access reliable high bandwidth communications, the lack of navigation aids and charts with accurate bottom data, and limited reliable weather information.

"This will require a whole of government approach from the United States, and partnerships with other Arctic nations and allied naval forces," White said. "It's a team sport, it has to be a team sport, and we understand that."

White pointed out that the Navy has a long history of working cooperatively with NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the U.S. Coast Guard. "The National Ice Center is a great example of such cooperation, jointly operated by Navy, NOAA, and Coast Guard," he said. The National Ice Center, located in Suitland, Md., provides detailed snow and ice observations, analyses, and predictions to support a wide array of U.S. interests in the cold regions.

In a press conference following his prepared remarks, White joined Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, acting administrator for NOAA, and Vice Adm. Peter Neffenger, U.S. Coast Guard deputy commandant for operations, as a panelist.

Sullivan opened the discussion with a few remarks about the changing climate. "Since this symposium was last convened in 2007, NOAA has recorded...an unprecedented rate of change in the Arctic," she began. "For example, just last year the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, in the Arctic, reached a historic benchmark level of 400 parts per million, and summer sea ice melted to an historic low, the second historic low in just five years. Furthermore," she added, "the minimum extent of multi-year sea ice has diminished by 50 percent in area and 75 percent in volume compared to 1970s climatology."

"Before 2050 we can realistically expect a nearly ice-free summer in the Arctic, a lot sooner than we originally expected," she stated.

In her remarks, Sullivan stressed the importance of critical environmental intelligence, including more robust observations of the ocean, atmosphere and ice, improved analyses and syntheses of the data, and robust numerical models that will lead to reliable and actionable predictions.

Neffenger observed that diminishing sea ice is opening the region for oil, gas, and mineral extraction, steadily increasing shipping traffic, commercial fishing, and maritime tourism. All of this human activity is resulting in a much busier Arctic and requiring a much greater Coast Guard presence to patrol and govern U.S. sovereign waters.

"For us, this is not an abstract, academic discussion," Neffenger said. "All of the Coast Guard's authorities and responsibilities apply in this new ocean that has opened up."

White described the work currently underway to update the Navy's 2009 Arctic Roadmap with the end goal of ensuring Navy has the capabilities to conduct routine surface and air operations in the Arctic within ten years, as required.

"We're not trying to militarize the region," he said. "We believe the threat of conflict is low, but we believe the presence of well-meaning navies from all countries in the Arctic, working cooperatively, is a good thing for the safety and security of the Arctic."

With respect to the current fiscal challenges, Neffenger explained that no agency wants to just start throwing money at the problem. "Until you go up there and begin to operate, until you improve your awareness and better understand what's really happening, it's hard to say what you need," he said. "In the near term, we all think we have what we need now to go up there and start figuring out what the next step is going to be."

"For the Navy, this is a challenge, not a crisis," White said. "We have the time to do this right, and to ensure we are not spending money before it's needed."

The National Ice Center, along with the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, are joint sponsors of the symposium.

 
 
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