William Pentland/Forbes Mar. 25 2011 – Original article here
The U.S. Navy is staging the aquatic-equivalent of a dog-and-pony show in the Arctic Ocean this month with a small fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
The military exercises are designed to bolster U.S. claims on emerging – and likely lucrative – commercial opportunities in the region, which have attracted intense interest in recent years as global warming accelerates what appears to be the permanent loss of sea ice in the Arctic.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center reported in early March that 2011 has tied with 2006 for the record low sea-ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean (in the satellite record). By the mid-2030s, scientists have predicted that the Arctic will be ice-free for at least one month of every summer, which will expand to two-to-three ice-free months by around mid-century.
The U.S. Navy has deployed two nuclear-powered submarines off the coast of Alaska close to a temporary camp constructed on the ice roughly 150 miles north of Prudhoe Bay. The submarines are conducting military training exercises.
On March 7, 2011, the winter ice covering the Arctic reached its maximum size for the year at 5.65 million square miles, which is more than 20% below – or, 463,000 square miles – below the average annual coverage from 1979 to 2000 (6.12 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1979 to 2000 median extent for that day. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole.
The exercises train U.S. submarine crews to deal with craggy ice keels that extend 20 to 50 feet into the water, and varying salinity levels that complicate communications and navigation under the ice cap.
Submarine crews practice surfacing the 8,000-ton submarines, directly through thick ice or in nearby open waters, and learn to avoid hitting another ship. The ice exercise, which did not include any torpedo testing, cost an estimated $3.5 million, according to Larry Estrada, director of the Arctic Submarine Laboratory which manages the camps with the Applied Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington
The graph above shows daily Arctic sea ice extent as of March 22, 2011, along with daily ice extents for 2006, which had the previous lowest maximum extent, and 2007, the year with the lowest minimum extent in September. Light blue indicates 2011, green shows 2007, light green shows 2006, and dark gray shows the 1979 to 2000 average. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
A delegation of defense contractors and military brass visited the camp last week, according to Reuters. The training was meant to ensure that the United States maintained access to the Arctic, home to the world’s largest undiscovered oil and gas reserves. Russia, the United States, Denmark, Greenland, Canada and Norway, which border the Arctic, and China are also scrambling to control the region and access to the commercial ventures there.
“It is a key potential transit line between the Atlantic and the Pacific,” U.S. Navy Captain Rhett Jaehn, told Reuters. “We want to be able to demonstrate that we have global reach. That we can operate in all oceans, and that we can operate proficiently in any environment.”
Jaehn is the commanding officer for the more than two dozen Navy officials, researchers, engineers and scientists working at the temporary ice camp. Ironically, finding a thick enough ice sheet to support the temporary camp was among the difficulties the Navy encountered this year.
Receding ice levels are likely to open new shipping routes in the Arctic, which could ultimately make the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska a compelling alternative to shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.