Navy Completes Arctic Environmental Assessment

By Bob Freeman, Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy
Wednesday, August 17, 2011

WASHINGTON (NNS) -- The Navy released an Arctic environmental assessment and outlook Aug. 15 that will be instrumental in developing future strategic plans and investments in a region that is becoming increasingly accessible to exploration and commercial enterprise.

"In the past the Arctic was largely inaccessible, but increased seasonal melting of the sea ice is opening the region and creating opportunities for oil and gas exploration, maritime shipping, commercial fishing, and tourism," said Rear Adm. David Titley, director of the Navy's Task Force Climate Change.

According to the assessment, the Arctic region is experiencing "increasing air and water temperatures, loss of volume in ice sheets and glaciers, melting of permafrost, and the poleward migration of ecosystems and fishing stocks from warmer regions."

"The geography of the Earth is changing," Titley said, "We are confronted by a new ocean for the first time in 500 years."

The assessment notes that the U.S. has close to a thousand miles of Arctic coastline in Alaska and significant coastal waters for resource exploitation.

"With Alaska's coastline, the U.S. can lay to claim to roughly 200 thousand square miles of territorial and exclusive economic zone waters," explained Cmdr. Blake McBride, Arctic affairs officer for the task force.

The Arctic Ocean could be predominantly ice-free during the summer melt season in about 25 years, according to the assessment. It notes that human traffic on the Arctic Ocean has already substanially increased due largely to scientific work, oil and gas exploration, some shipping, and adventure tourism. Earlier this month U.S. regulators approved the oil exploration plan of Royal Dutch Shell for Alaska's Beaufort Sea.

Despite moderating conditions, the operational challenges of working in the Arctic will continue to be extreme. The assessment lists such challenges as extreme seasonal cold, months of darkness, vast distances with no supporting shore infrastructure, lack of logistical support, unreliable communications and ice-compromised sensors and weapon systems.

"Equipment and personnel casualties will quickly become emergencies in remote Arctic regions," the report says, adding that "Arctic surface operations will require greater efforts to remain within safety margins."

"The Navy has over a half-century experience in Arctic submarine operations, but we have very limited experience with surface and air operations in the region," McBride said. "In the past, we had little need to go there."

The new assessment notes that National Security Presidential Directive 66/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 25, signed by President Bush in 2009, requires a sovereign maritime presence in the Arctic to ensure protection of maritime commerce, national borders, critical infrastructure, and key resources.

In May 2009, the Navy released an Arctic Roadmap, a five year plan to guide Navy policy, investment and actions. The Arctic environmental assessment was conducted to meet a requirement set forth in the Arctic Roadmap.

The Roadmap emphasizes the development of partnerships with other Arctic nations, and the Task Force has proactively engaged with environmental scientists, numerous federal and state agencies, Alaskan Natives, and foreign diplomats and military representatives.

"Our meetings with various stakeholders have identified several immediate issues," McBride noted. "These include the need for greater environmental monitoring and forecasting capabilities of the changing environment; the lack of shore-based infrastructure to support high-latitude operations; the potential for increased joint military training and exercises; and the need for greater monitoring of human activity in the Arctic region," he explained.

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