The oceanographer of the Navy and commander of the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command (NMOC) recently discussed the Navy's future in the Arctic at the third Symposium on the Impacts of an Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Rear Adm. David Titley spoke about the Arctic and is scheduled to deliver a "roadmap" for Navy action regarding the Arctic late this summer.
Titley's task came out of a Chief of Naval Operations Executive Board (CEB) meeting on the Navy's response to the changing environment and a new national Arctic policy.
"My first deliverable, a Navy Arctic roadmap, is a way to get a handle on the Arctic and climate change in general," Titley said.
In 2007, the summer sea ice minimum in the Arctic reached a record low. The summer ice cap was estimated to be half the size of what it was 50 years ago, although there will always be 100 percent ice cap cover in the winter months. Based on trends of the last 50 years, experts predict within the next 40 years the Arctic will be ice-diminished for about four weeks at the end of the summer. During ice-diminished periods, ships may be able to transit across the Arctic region, which has never been possible in history.
An ice-free or ice-diminished Arctic, even if only for part of the year, will have huge implications for the Navy, Titley said.
"The bottom line is that no new naval missions are specified, but clearly there will be an increased scope of naval operations in the Arctic. Ensuring access and stabilizing the global commons are the main reasons for increased presence in the Arctic," Titley said.
Operating in the extreme conditions of the Arctic, even an ice-free Arctic, presents a number of challenges to the Navy – whether the ships and other platforms can operate there, whether the Navy needs a nearby base of operations for logistic support and how to predict weather, ocean and ice conditions.
"I think it's important that we remember that it is a tough environment in which to operate," Titley said. "Despite the warming trend, extreme freezing air and water temperatures will continue."
Additionally, geologists estimate that the Arctic holds up to one-fourth of the Earth's oil and gas reserves and other mineral resources, so there are territorial aspirations by some of the Arctic nations.
Titley said a lot of uncertainty remains.
The Arctic environment, he said, is complex and difficult to model, with few observations and characterized by high variability. Current models cannot accurately predict ice conditions 30 years into the future.
"There is considerable uncertainty in future model projections. The more important message from models is that all but a few outliers predict enormous sea ice retreat this century," he said.
The road map he is developing will describe current and anticipated conditions to allow naval policy-makers, planners, commanders, operators, and designers of platforms and equipment to accommodate and incorporate those new operational parameters.
"The Navy understands the recent changes [in the Arctic]," Titley said. "It wants to understand them better so it can prepare and invest accordingly."