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  November 21st, 2016 | Written by

Ice Melt Heating Up Operations in Arctic

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  • Disappearing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is expanding navigable waters.
  • Naval researchers are studying the changing Arctic environment.
  • The sea ice minimum in the Arctic for 2016 tied with 2007 for the second-lowest on record.

Disappearing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is expanding navigable waters, so scientists sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) have traveled to the region to study the changing environment and provide new tools to help the U.S. Navy operate in a once-inaccessible area.

The study has implications for cargo shipping as well, as decreasing Arctic ice may allow more ocean freight operations through a northern passage. Caused by climate change and the warming of the Earth, a navigable Arctic Ocean could reduce transit times and costs of voyages between Asia and Europe and the Americas.

“This changing environment is opening the Arctic for expanded maritime and naval activity,” said Rear Admiral Mat Winter, chief of naval research. “Developing a deeper understanding and knowledge of this environment is essential for reliable weather and ice predictions to ensure the safety of future scientific and operational activities in the region.”

A recent announcement from the National Snow and Ice Data Center revealed the sea ice minimum for 2016 tied with 2007 for the second-lowest ice minimum since satellite monitoring began in the 1970s. The lowest minimum ever occurred in 2012.

For the ONR project, scientists measured the strength and intensity of waves and swells moving through the weakened Arctic sea ice. The accumulated data will be used to develop more accurate computer models and prediction methods to forecast ice, ocean, and weather conditions.

“Abundant sea ice reduces waves and swells, and keeps the Arctic Ocean very quiet,” said Dr. Robert Headrick, an ONR program officer overseeing the research. “With increased sea ice melt, however, comes more waves and wind, which create more noise and makes it harder to track undersea vessels. The goal is to gain a better and more comprehensive understanding of these changing oceanographic conditions.”

The Arctic historically has had limited naval strategic relevance due its thick shield of ice. But as this changes, it is opening new commercial shipping lanes; increasing oil and natural gas exploration, fishing, and tourism; and raising potential new security concerns. It also may create new requirements for the Navy’s fleet.

“Having accurate forecasting models will help the Navy determine what types of surface vessels it will need to build in the near future and 30 years from now, to withstand the climate conditions,” said Dr. Scott Harper, an ONR program officer. “That way, the Navy can operate as safely and effectively in the Arctic as it does throughout the rest of the world.”