Navy Charts Way Ahead in Arctic

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The chief of naval operations created a task force, headed by the Navy's senior oceanographer, to better understand and evaluate the changing climate and its implications for maritime security.

"Task Force Climate Change was initiated ... to assess the Navy's preparedness to respond to emerging requirements and to develop a science-based time line for future Navy actions regarding climate change," explained Rear Adm. David Titley, Navy oceanographer in a July 28 interview on Pentagon Web Radio's audio Web cast, "Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military."

"Because the Arctic is changing faster than any other place on the planet, our first deliverable will be a strategic roadmap proposing actions for the Navy regarding the Arctic region," Titley said.

This may include an assessment of how the maritime strategy applies to the Arctic region, potential improvements in infrastructure and recommended investments in force structure and capabilities to prepare for the challenges presented by the changing climate, he explained.

Titley was interviewed while staying in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States, located 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where he was joining Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, chief of naval research, for a visit to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB-20), an icebreaker supporting scientific research in the Arctic Ocean. The visit was intended to observe retrieval of several bottom-moored buoy sensors funded by the Office of Naval Research.

"Observations from these buoys will give us a better science-based and fact-based understanding of what is going on in the Arctic," Titley explained.

Global climate change may present many challenges to national security, Titley said. Rising sea levels from the melting of glacial and sea ice are of specific interest to the Navy due to the coastal location of many of its bases.

"We need to understand what it will take to protect these valuable investments," he said.

Increasing ocean temperatures may compound the problem.

"As the ocean temperature warms, thermal expansion may be a significant ... and underestimated component of sea level rise," Titley commented.

"We are also very interested in the distribution of extreme weather events," Titley said, explaining that while the mean global temperature may be rising, some regions may experience extreme heating while others are seeing colder-than-normal temperatures.

Titley explained that changing ocean currents and precipitation patterns may produce regional droughts and floods that could have severe consequences for stressed and poor populations, who have the least ability to adapt to a quickly changing environment.

"This could result in an increased potential for large-scale humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts," he noted.

The Arctic already is experiencing dramatic changes.

"Since satellite observations began in 1979, we have seen a forty percent decrease in perennial, or multiyear, sea ice," Titley said.

This decline in sea ice, he added, is opening up the Arctic for more human activity, including resource exploration and ecotourism in the near term and the potential for increased commercial shipping and fishing in the decades to come.

"As the climate changes and the sea lanes start to open, the United States Navy has a role to play in maritime security, working with our Coast Guard and international partners to ensure the sea lanes remain open and navigation is free for all," Titley said.

Titley discussed the intricate dynamics of ocean currents influencing the changes that are occurring in the Arctic.

"The more I learn about the complex Arctic environment," he said, "the more I realize that we still have significant aspects of the basic oceanography to understand before we are going to be able to accurately forecast and model these interactions."

The Navy has a long history of polar operations, Titley noted, and the earliest indications of decreasing ice thickness were reported by Navy submarines in the 1990s. Since then, he added, the Navy has funded various scientific studies there in collaboration with other federal agencies and numerous partners in the world of academia and research.

Titley pointed out that another example of collaboration is the National Ice Center, a joint operation among the Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard. The center charts sea ice worldwide for safety of navigation and operations and their measurements have been crucial to quantifying the changes that are occurring in the Arctic, he said.

Titley said the Navy has many assets that can assist in understanding the changing climate. From a wide array of data-gathering sensors and platforms to super-computing facilities that process the data and create predictions, Navy assets continuously work to provide comprehensive knowledge of the physical environment.

"The naval oceanography program exists to provide environmental information to the operating fleet, allowing it to operate more safely and effectively," Titley said.

"I like to say that we are operating in nature's casino; I intend to count the cards," he quipped.

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