Navy’s role in the Arctic may change as icy lanes clear up

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, right, speaks with Capt. Greg Ott, officer in tactical command of the Applied Physics Lab Ice Station, while touring a U.S. Navy camp in the Arctic Ocean in March.

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 30, 2009

Early explorers dreamed of a safe trade route across the frozen Arctic for hundreds of years.

Now as global temperatures warm and ice rapidly melts, the U.S. Navy is weighing the possibility that within decades the Arctic will open into one of the world’s prime shipping lanes.

New climate data point to a summer season completely free of sea ice as early as 2030 — about 70 years sooner than previously predicted — allowing ships to move freely for the first time in history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

By midcentury, the Navy could be faced with providing maritime security for a new ice-free Arctic and a commercial shipping boom on par with the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca, said Rear Adm. David Titley, commander of Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.

"As the ice melts back … how do we work this as a seasonal-type area?" said Titley, who heads the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change. "I think this is an area that is going to be very, very important to the Navy in the 21st century."

The Arctic includes the Arctic Ocean and North Pole, which are covered by a permanent ice sheet and not owned by any nation, and parts of the United States, Canada, Russia and Greenland.

Studies show Arctic temperatures are rising faster than anywhere else in the world and the region should be a top global warming concern for the Navy and U.S. military, according to a 2007 study, "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change," written by a group of 12 retired admirals and generals.

The Navy’s climate task force has been poring over data and studying the issue since it was formed in May. It plans to draft a long-term Navy strategy in the Arctic for Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead by the end of September, Titley said.

"We don’t want to be caught short, but we don’t want to overestimate" what is needed to handle the Arctic, Titley said.

For now, big increases in maritime traffic are not expected in the near future, he said.

The Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage have long been used to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but heavy seasonal ice makes such trips difficult and costly.

Climate change is melting off large swaths of arctic sea ice during the region’s warm season, but the disappearing ice has not yet convinced the shipping industry that the routes are reliable, Titley said.

"There is a tremendous emphasis on liability and a fixed, known cost to their shipping," he said. "Until the climate can pretty much guarantee shippers two or three months free of ice, the shippers are going to be very cautious about moving their routes."

The climate could warm enough by about 2035 or 2040 to melt sea ice for several months or more during the warm season, which could provide the window needed for increased shipping, Titley said.

"We are living in a world where climate change is a reality and the Arctic may change more than other oceans," he said. "It is not an ‘if’ question but a ‘when’ question."

It may be much sooner than prior predictions by climate scientists, which estimated the summer ice would disappear around the turn of the next century, said John Calder, director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Office.

"For the past couple of decades, things have been changing in an increasingly rapid rate," Calder said.

New climate models show the ice could disappear seasonally by 2030, a few years earlier than Titley’s estimate, he said.

Meanwhile, increasing ship traffic would mean more risk of casualties, collisions and spills, Calder said.

"We don’t have in place the people or the equipment to deal with that kind of thing," he said. "There is also no good search-and-rescue capability in the Arctic."

Members of the Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station clear ice from the submarine USS Annapolis after it breached the ice in March during a U.S. Navy exercise in the Arctic Ocean.