When experts, scientists, and policy makers met in Washington, D.C., for the 5th Symposium on the Impacts of an Ice-Diminished Arctic Ocean on Naval and Maritime Operations, held in July at the Naval Heritage Center, the bottom line was this: The ice is receding, and traffic is growing.
“There are a lot of academic discussions around the Arctic these days, but for us, this is not an abstract academic discussion,” said U.S. Coast Guard Deputy Commandant for Operations Vice Adm. Peter V. Neffenger.
“Since this symposium was last convened in 2011, NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] has reported a rather startling string of events and milestones that mark an unprecedented rate of change in the Arctic,” said Kathryn D. Sullivan, Ph.D., acting under secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and acting NOAA administrator. “For example, just last year carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere in the Arctic reached the historic benchmark level of 400 parts per million. And summer sea ice melted to an historic low, which is the second historic low in just five years. Furthermore, the minimum extent of multiyear sea ice has diminished by 50 percent in area, and 75 percent in volume, compared to 1970s climatology. It is now the normal case that the massive, thick, multiyear ice that once was prevalent is commonly represented as a fragile, seasonal ice cover, Arctic-wide. Before 2050, we can realistically expect a nearly ice-free summer in the Arctic; it’s a lot sooner than many earlier estimates had suggested and a so-called ice-free Arctic will bring an expansion of commercial activities and, in turn, increase the demand for NOAA products in the region – from comprehensive up-to-date nautical charts, to more detailed Arctic weather forecasts, severe storm warnings, better short-term and long-term sea ice forecasts, and integrated environmental impact assessments.”
“NOAA will continue to bring the best of its resources – from our ships and satellites, to our scientists and airplanes, and other observational platforms – to the challenge of keeping pace with rapidly changing conditions in the Arctic,” Sullivan said.
“There are a lot of academic discussions around the Arctic these days, but for us, this is not an abstract academic discussion,” said U.S. Coast Guard Deputy Commandant for Operations Vice Adm. Peter V. Neffenger. “As people move into a region where there are challenging operating conditions, difficult lines of supply, lack of shore infrastructure, lack of logistics… it demands a presence of those agencies like the Coast Guard that are required to govern those areas. So, all of the Coast Guard’s authorities and responsibilities in the rest of the country around the coast apply in this new ocean that is opening up.”
“We look to see an ice-free Arctic in as close as mid-century, then I suspect that that will become a much more attractive route for people to travel,” Neffenger said. “There’s a great deal of potential resources, and we know that people are interested in finding those resources and extracting those resources, whether that’s minerals, gas and oil, or living resources – fish stocks are tending to move further north as the waters warm up. There’s also a significant amount of ecotourism.”
Both of Alaska’s senators spoke at the event. Both called for more cooperation among stakeholders, and more capability to respond to emergencies.
“We are seeing more water in the Arctic that the Coast Guard is charged with,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “What we haven’t done as a Congress is step up to that responsibility as an Arctic nation.”
Maintaining access for oil and gas shipments through the Arctic is an economic and security issue, and requires more infrastructure to support the Coast Guard, including bases and icebreakers in arctic waters to be able to respond quickly to emergencies.
Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, said the Coast Guard must accelerate development of operational requirements for a new icebreaker and ensure the capacity and viability of the industrial base. He also called upon the Coast Guard to homeport a national security cutter in the Arctic.
U.S. Navy: Arctic is part of our future
Rear Adm. Jonathan White, navigator and oceanographer of the U.S. Navy, said the Navy and the Coast Guard have a growing area of responsibility (AOR) in the Arctic. “As the Arctic opens up more and more, we believe there is going to be a need for more Navy presence. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert says that the Arctic is part of our future in the Navy, and he has been very adamant about that. We’re looking at the environment, the projected activity, the missions of the Coast Guard and the Navy, and determining what are the enablers. From the communication, charting, infrastructure, and the ships I have today, what do we need to be able to operate in the Arctic in 10, 15, 20 years? For example, with the ships we’re building, will the overboard discharges and fuel systems work in that environment.”