March 1, 2010  

Ice breaker

While the science community debates whether global warming is fact or fraud, this much is certain: The Navy will soon sail uncharted waters — and it won’t be a pleasure cruise.

Arctic climate changes over the past 30 years have been more dramatic than in other regions. It is warming twice as fast as the temperate latitudes (between the tropics and the polar circle).

The amount of summertime ice coverage has decreased by half over the past 50 years. The icecap is also about 50 percent thinner, resulting in greater seasonal variations.

The climate changes are expected to cause several weeks of annual “ice-free” conditions, meaning there will be less than one-tenth ice coverage. This would likely bring a flotilla of trans-Arctic container shipping, fleets of fishermen and even the ill-advised thrill seekers.

And all these will meet in a resource-rich region buried beneath disputed claims, untested treaties and amidst five nations vying for their share of sovereignty.

Indeed, the Arctic is opening. The fundamental question is not if, but when?

And the answer is, sooner than you may think.

“The Arctic is changing, and it is changing rapidly,” said Rear Adm. David W. Titley, oceanographer of the Navy. “If the Navy does not start looking at this today … we could wake up in seven or eight years and find ourselves way behind the power curve. I think we have the right level of attention on this … but if we take our eye off the ball, we would be at risk.”

As few as four years ago, leading experts anticipated ice-free summers by the end of the century. Now, such conditions are expected in the 2030s — and many key scientists say those may be conservative estimates; some put the earliest ice-free summer at 2016.

In anticipation, Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, on May 15 ordered the establishment of Task Force Climate Change.

Six months later this matrixed organization produced the “U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap,” a far-reaching five-year strategy that addresses everything from missions and money to forecasts and facilities.

“I think you’ll see ships going up from time to time testing things, but I don’t see routine presence up there [until] 2025,” Roughead told AFJ.

But a sustained presence requires a lot of answers and training in the near future. Specifically, the harsh environment will require significant modifications in ship and satellite architecture.

“Where do we keep our fuel?” the CNO said. “The way that we design our heating and ventilation systems are just not designed to keep up with ambient temperatures that are as cold as it gets up there. You have difficulties sometimes in how the more traditional outside equipment is maintained, and when you have freezing rain and things like that, how do you keep it clear? There are a lot of ship designs and ship alterations aspects. … What sort of communication architectures do we have to have? I really believe now is the time to start thinking about that because it means changes to ship design, which means we have to start laying in. It means perhaps some new overhead satellite architectures, and those are extraordinarily costly.”

The road map calls for fleet readiness and mission requirements to be assessed in the coming year. Strategic objectives and combatant commander authorities will be developed. Research and development of a next-generation environmental prediction capability applicable to the Arctic also has begun.

Capabilities-based assessments and preparation for major funding requests will follow in fiscal 2011-12. A priority will be an increase in hydrographic and bottom-mapping surveys, as less than 5 percent of the region is mapped to current standards. Simultaneously, training to increase experience and competency in search and rescue, maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster response will expand. The first major investments for major training and ship preparation will be sought in fiscal 2014.

In short, the Navy is looking at this now so this “challenge will not become a crisis,” Titley said.

With rights to much of this resource-rich region in dispute, and previously inaccessible areas open to exploration for their abundant reserves of oil and natural gas, the Arctic has been likened to a 21st century gold rush.

It’s not hard to understand why.

For example, Russia in 2007 planted a flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole, laying claim to an underwater mountain range that is thought to contain oil and gas reserves. This past August, two German merchant ships mapped a new trade route as they sailed from Asia to the Netherlands through the previously impassable Northeast Passage — and did so with minimal icebreaker support.

While the rush is on, Titley is quick to shoot down any suggestion that the Arctic is an aquatic wild west. The risk of conflict there is “very low,” he said.

The five nations with Arctic lands (the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark) as well as three with Arctic equity (Iceland, Finland and Sweden) are abiding by the laws of the sea, he said.

But that doesn’t mean weapons won’t be involved.

Diminishing ice fields mean Russia has a new active border to protect, and one that is close to many of its key oil and gas fields. As such, Russian Bears have been flying frequent patrols in the region and missile tests have been conducted near the North Pole.

Russia in 2008 also sent a submarine destroyer and a missile cruiser to patrol Arctic waters. It was the first time Russian warships were there since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Russian officials said protecting fishermen was one of the aims of the new Arctic patrols, specifically those blocked from seas around the island of Spitsbergen, where Norway claims exclusive rights. Russia does not recognize the 200-mile economic zone delineated by a 1982 U.N. treaty.

Russia plans to drop paratroopers at the North Pole in the spring. Officials say the act is to mark the 60th anniversary of the first parachute jump at the pole, made by two Soviet scientists in May 1949. But nations with possible seabed claims under the disputed territory aren’t buying it.

The announcement has particularly outraged Canada, which has been doing some polar posturing of its own. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made high-profile visits to the Arctic for the past four years. In 2008 he revealed plans to double Canadian jurisdiction over Arctic waters to 200 nautical miles for environmental and shipping regulations.

“To develop the North, we must know the North,” he said. “To protect the North, we must control the North. And to accomplish all our goals for the North, we must be in the North.”

Canada is planning to build six new Arctic patrol craft for its Navy. The first is scheduled to be delivered in 2014.

The Canadian Senate’s fisheries and oceans committee in December recommended the nation arm its icebreakers with deck guns to improve security when “unauthorized” foreign vessels enter the Northwest Passage, the sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific.

Canada also has threatened stricter registration requirements for ships sailing the route. Many nations, the United States included, consider the passage an international waterway and have cried foul.

Canada’s fisheries and oceans committee said such opposition poses a challenge to Canada’s right to control shipping.

Whether such talk is rhetoric or readiness remains to be seen. But the Navy’s road map acknowledges the United States’ significant financial and territorial interests in the Arctic, and requires continued assessments to determine the most dangerous and most likely threats in the region in 2010, 2015 and 2025.

“[T]his opening of the Arctic may lead to increased resource development, research, tourism, and could reshape the global transportation system,” the road map says. “These developments offer opportunities for growth, but also are potential sources of competition and conflict for access and natural resources.”

Even four to six weeks of ice-free conditions would offer lucrative resource extraction, fishing and commercial shipping. That means the Navy must prepare itself for potential mission requirements in the far north.

But there’s a catch.

The Navy has no surface ship experience, very little aviation experience and diminishing submarine expertise in the Arctic.

“As the effects of climate change make the Arctic Ocean more accessible, there will undoubtedly be more human presence there in the future, and the U.S. Navy will need to have greater capabilities and capacity in the region,” said Lt. Cmdr. Phil Rosi, a spokesman for Fleet Forces.

As such, the Navy is boosting Arctic exercises to ensure junior sailors and officers receive experience operating in, on and above polar conditions.

Exercises such as the biennial ICEX and operations Nanook, Arctic Edge, Arctic Crossroads and Arctic Care will continue with added emphasis. Sailors also can expect an increase in observer exchange with the Coast Guard and Arctic nation navies.

And that’s a good start, according to Cmdr. Bill Sommer, deputy assistant chief of staff for technology, transition and integration with Naval Meterology & Oceanography Command.

“We need to appreciate the corporate and institutional knowledge the Coast Guard has in polar ops,” he said. “In terms of leading surface ops, they’re it. Not to put down my own Navy, but the Coast Guard is that body of knowledge on moving north.”

Roughead visited ICEX 2009, saying that “as interests in resources grow and potential trade routes open in the Arctic, it’s important that we maintain an awareness of this very important region of the world.”

While exercises will bring some experience, the question remains how that experience may be expressed.

Speaking at the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen, on Dec. 16, Titley said changes in temperature and precipitation patterns may require greater humanitarian and disaster relief missions, and that could affect naval infrastructure and force structure.

The Navy would not talk about the steps it is taking to identify mission requirements or needs in the Arctic.

“The Navy understands the importance of the Arctic Ocean, as well as the partnerships with other Arctic nations,” Rosi said. “However, at this point, specifics and details regarding roles, missions or a way ahead would be speculative.”

But this much is certain: Prospective Arctic missions will be neither comfortable nor easy. The rise in regional temperatures doesn’t belay the bitter realities of this harsh environment. In some ways, it adds to the challenge.

An increase in open water will add to already gale-force winds that produce waves of below-freezing temperatures. Titley, a career naval meteorologist/oceanographer with a doctorate in meteorology, is no stranger to the region. He has endured the “pretty rough conditions” of a sub-Arctic exercise, has spent time on the Coast Guard cutter Healy and has visited the Arctic as oceanographer of the Navy. He likened conditions there to those seen on the Discovery Channel series, “Deadliest Catch.”

Such a comparison was echoed by Sommer, a career oceanographer who described the six weeks he spent aboard the ice-hardened Healy in 2009 as “brutal.”

“Weather governs everything you do, and the weather makes everything hard,” he said. “You spend a lot of time waiting, then frantically try to get everything done. It is damp and constantly foggy. A storm blows through every three days — if there is no ice cover, it really kicks the sea up.”

If you think such conditions are tough on the sailor, realize they’re even tougher on the ship.

When frigid temperatures meet the increased moisture produced by diminished ice, the freezing spray that covers ship superstructures creates buoyant instability.

Ships in such environments would likely be “ice hardened,” meaning they have heavier plating at the waterline to withstand to a certain degree the stress of passage through light, thin or loose ice. Of course, the procedure is no guarantee. The commercial tanker Manhattan was given an icebreaking bow so it could use the Northwest Passage 40 years ago; it wasn’t strong enough, and Manhattan had to turn back and was permanently laid up, according to A.D. Baker III, a retired Office of Naval Intelligence analyst and longtime editor of “Combat Fleets of the World.”

The Navy’s experience in such conditions is limited, to say the least. Aside from a few submarines, no Navy vessels have operated there in the past 40 years. Before that, operations were on a very small scale and only in very light ice conditions.

“The CG-47 class, which is already at or even above its limiting displacements and has been suffering metal fatigue problems for several years would be unsafe to operate there,” Baker said. “Ice can still form quickly on a metal ship in cold precipitation conditions. The Burkes might survive. Flight ops from a carrier or LHD would be essentially impossible in heavy weather.”

The changing political, economic and environmental climate — and the effect each will have on Arctic operations — is not lost on the Coast Guard.

Capt. Bruce Baffer, the lifesaving service’s top officer for surface acquisitions, said more ice-strengthened ships are needed to operate in the Arctic, but what the Coast Guard actually buys remains an open question.

Speaking at a Surface Navy Association event outside Washington in November, Baffer said tomorrow’s ice-capable ships will need to handle many more missions than today’s fleet of two Polar-class icebreakers and one ice-strengthened research ship.

“The issue we’re looking at is that it’s not just science, but law enforcement,” he said. “What is the right asset mix for that?”

The Coast Guard’s Polar-class breakers, the Polar Sea and Polar Star, were designed to break a channel through the Antarctic ice so cargo ships could resupply the McMurdo Station research post. The ice-strengthened research ship Healy was designed as a platform for Arctic science experiments. None of the icebreakers was built primarily for law enforcement, search and rescue, fisheries protection, or any of the other jobs expected to become common in the melting Arctic.

On the other hand, not needing to break channels for other ships means that tomorrow’s Arctic cutters can be much more conventional — and cheaper — than the polar rollers, which, for example, have complex ballast systems to help them rock from side to side to break ice.

Baffer said one option the Coast Guard is considering is a modified version of its Offshore Patrol Cutter, the third large ship it plans as part of its modernization program. The Coast Guard could build a “Flight II” OPC, he said, built specifically to withstand the punishing seas and drifting ice. All the ships in that special class would likely be stationed in Kodiak, Alaska.

Operating in the Arctic isn’t a matter of simply heading north and dodging icebergs. The Arctic is a fairly closed basin with its own behavior. Little is known about its unique ocean patterns, and less than 5 percent of the region is mapped to current standards.

“The ocean is very mysterious once you get beneath the skin,” said Capt. Brian Brown, commanding officer of the Naval Oceanographic Office [NOO] at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. “You have variations in height and temperatures, and when you consider its size and nature, information is sparse and ever-changing.”

Unmanned systems have become the leading pioneers in the search for Arctic data. Unmanned underwater vehicles are used for oceanographic and hydrographic data collection. Buoys collect atmospheric and ice-related data. There even is a potential for collecting atmospheric and ice-related data using unmanned aerial systems.

But as the Navy looks to map and forecast oceanographic conditions, all eyes are not on multibillion-dollar submarines or satellites, but instead on a few small, relatively inexpensive gliders. These $110,000 gliders collect salinity, depth and temperature data and can measure optical properties such as water clarity. The information is then fed real-time into ocean models.

Such data is invaluable to naval operations in the Arctic. For example, a glider released from the Healy in 2009 recorded temperatures dropping from 3.5 degrees Celsius at the surface, to -1.5 degrees at 100 meters then rising to 0.5 degrees in deeper waters. That variation is a “pretty significant change” that is important to acoustic propagation, according to Richard Myrick, director of the Oceans Management Department at NOO.

Such findings are critical considering the Navy will have to hone its antisubmarine warfare if and when conventional surface fleet and aviation forces operate in the Arctic. The constant changes in temperature and salinity there have a significant effect on sound speed, and there is not a lot of current data on such noise, or the way in which Arctic sedimentation interacts with acoustics. In addition, there are many shallow areas that adversely affect active sonar.

“To understand how sound propagates, we have to have a pretty exact model,” Brown said.

Back in the day of the nearly 600-ship Navy, dropping something to determine how fast sonar will travel was a normal daily duty. But oceanographers aren’t getting those measurements anymore. And satellites look only at the surface of water. This gives many clues, but doesn’t tell what water looks like under the surface.

The gliders do.

Built by the University of Washington, the gliders collect ambient noise data and measure reverberation levels. They can deploy from Navy, Coast Guard or scientific ships — whatever is available, Myrick said. Once launched, the glider is remotely controlled at NOO in Mississippi.

“This is a huge change in the way we’ve done business,” Myrick said. “Typically, we used ships to collect data. But they only have a certain amount of time and have other missions. After 20 days, the ship goes home for gas and groceries. These gliders stay out for six months — and cost $110,000 versus the $40,000 a day it costs for a ship.”

And the benefits far outweigh the cost.

“The quality of measurements added to ocean models reveal features of the ocean we never knew were there,” Sommer said. “It has had a great impact on acoustic sonar predictions. That is a complex and difficult thing to get right, and we’re starting to discover why some models were wrong.”

Sommer, who was onboard the Healy when a glider was put in above the shelf break in 2009, said the glider manages power exceptionally well using low power sensors, which enables it to stay out for six months. It typically moves 0.5 to 0.75 knots. A change in ballast enables its wings to translate vertical motion to horizontal motion. The glider can surface, report in and receive new direction from NOO.

The Arctic offers some challenges to navigation, which is true whether you are over, in or under the water. Magnetics are always an issue. And, of course, there is the ice.

“The ocean engineering part can get pretty vicious, and you’re still at the whim of nature,” Sommer said. “You can hit ice keels or get stuck under the ice. If that happens, you can’t get the antenna up to transmit or receive and the glider may not be able to get back to you.”

Sommer said there may be a need to include upward-looking sonar that can find open water, but this would require a trade-off of battery power, thus lowering the glider’s time on station. For example, autonomous underwater vehicles have a propeller, can reach 4 knots and run certain sonar or active sensor equipment. But they have only a 24- to 48-hour range before their batteries are spent.

The glider fleet will expand from 20 to 170 by 2015. Roughly 50 percent will be deployed at any given time in ocean areas of tactical significance and areas of interest, to include the ice-free Arctic, Brown said.

“We transitioned technology into operations and now have the program of record,” he said.

Whether you’re a surface warfare officer, submariner or aviator in the Arctic, safe navigation and operations require you know sea and wind conditions as well as where the ice is, its thickness and how far it can move.

While ocean forecasting models are more difficult to obtain than atmospheric, the ability to provide confident forecasts has just seen an exponential increase.

“These are not subtle tweaks, but evolutionary changes,” Brown said. “The last couple years have been pretty exciting times for oceanographers.”

When he entered the Navy, equipment spit out “kinda sorta” forecasts, Brown said, but the human art provided the most value. Forecasts were pretty good at 24 hours, but diminished as you went beyond. Today, he said, you go to “weather.com,” not a person, and push a button. It’s not a human making the forecast, but a very accurate computer model that collects and assimilates data through supercomputers.

“We can forecast with 90 percent accuracy at 24 hours, 80 percent at 48 hours, we’re damn good at 72 hours and very strong at 30 days out,” he said. “Now, we’ve made a similar evolutionary change in way we view ocean forecasts. Just last year, we ran ocean models showing internal tides for the first time.”

This “evolution” will provide in the coming years a “tremendous increase” in the ability to predict ocean activity on global basis, said Brown, whose Naval Oceanographic Office is the only institute in the world that runs 72-hour global ocean forecasting.

“Soon, we will have as much confidence in ocean models as we have in atmospheric models,” Myrick said. “People will notice two or three years from now that we can tell them what they will see three days out what will be happening below the boat.”

When ocean model is coupled with the atmospheric and ice models, forecasters will have the next evolution — one that will provide relevant oceanographic knowledge across the full spectrum of warfare.

This will provide what Titley calls the “0-30 Solution.” It is the ability to predict air-ocean-ice conditions on tactical (hours-days), operational (days-weeks), seasonal and multidecadal (months-decades) scales.

“This is the scientific component of the Navy working with the nation’s civilian scientific community to provide the best available science we can, in a form that is understandable and usable by senior decision makers to ensure we put our investments and our forces in the right place at the right time,” Titley said. AFJ

LANCE M. BACON is a Senior Writer at Navy Times and a former Marine.