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byKris Osborn- Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) The Polar bears, Seals and Sea Lions are picking up more water to swim in, yet amid circumstances which could have a detrimental long-term impact upon their natural habitat. The Arctic ice is melting and fast. The pace at which ice is warming up and dissolving into the ocean continues to generate an increasing sense of alarm for a wide swath of countries, businesses and adventure seekers.

Less ice in the Arctic means more open water, waterways and shipping routes in the region. More open water naturally leads to increased maritime transportation and greater competition for natural resources such as oil and gas mining.

As a result, Navy scientists are using unmanned underwater autonomous robots, or drones, to examine what’s called the marginal ice zone—the portion of frozen ocean’s packed ice that meets open water, Martin Jeffries, former science advisor to the Office of Naval Research (ONR), told Warrior years ago. (Jeffries retired in 2020.)

During this discussion several years ago, Jeffries said ONR scientists have been studying water salinity, temperatures of the water column and the impact of the waves upon the ice cover, water temperature and surrounding atmosphere.

“Waves can be damaging to the ice cover when they crash into the ice. It can accelerate the melting,” Jeffries said in the previous interview.

The idea behind the research is to assess the pace of change in the Arctic environment as a way to better predict the pace of melting ice. Faster ice melting means the opening up of new strategic waterways, passage routes and overall activity in the region among nations.

The U.S. Navy’s just released Arctic strategy, called “a Blue Arctic,” identifies the unfolding phenomenon. “In the decades ahead, rapidly melting sea ice and increasingly navigable Arctic waters—a Blue Arctic—will create new challenges and opportunities off our northern shores,” the strategy writes.

Jeffries explained that by absorbing more sunlight, or solar radiation, the surface of the ocean becomes much warmer, leading ice to melt at a faster pace. It’s called the “albedo feedback mechanism,” a term which refers to the reflectivity of surface ice. Surface ice has a much higher “albedo,” allowing it to reflect sunlight and solar radiation back into the atmosphere.

Jeffries explained that water is much darker and has a low ‘albedo’—it absorbs a lot more solar radiation which heats up the water, therefore increasing the pace of ice melting. Therefore, this becomes what could be called a self-perpetuating cycle, increased sun warmth impacts the water column when then in turn increases the water temperature to dissolve large segments of ice. Having less ice in the summer means arctic waters have greater exposure to wind and sunlight, factors which can further compound the quickening pace of melting ice, Jeffries explained.

Pace of Melting Ice

A new U.S. Navy strategy is calling for a large-scale increase in activity in the Arctic region to deter potential aggressors, increase military operations, enhanced security and stay in front of fast evolving environmental developments.

“Without sustained American naval presence and partnerships in the Arctic Region, peace and prosperity will be increasingly challenged by Russia and China, whose interests and values differ dramatically from ours,” the Jan. 7 Navy Strategy document called “A Blue Arctic,” states.

Several years ago, the Navy unveiled an Updated Arctic Road Map which explained that, due to the pace of melting ice, the service will need to operate in the region in a much greater capacity more than ten years earlier than was planned.

Citing “fleet readiness,” ice-hardened weapons and sensors, greater numbers of icebreakers, massively increased military operations and strengthened search and rescue operations, the Navy’s new “A Blue Arctic” strategy calls upon and extends many of the priorities outlined in the Updated Arctic Road Map.

Of course, the increased pace of melting ice results in the opening up of waterways.

“Arctic waters will see increasing transits of cargo and natural resources to global markets along with military activity, regional maritime traffic, tourism, and legitimate/illegitimate global fishing fleets. The Beaufort, Chukchi, and Bering Seas are experiencing rapid sea ice loss, enabling greater access to waters off America’s Alaskan shores,” the strategy writes.

The strategy explains that the Alaskan coast is already experiencing a large increase in maritime traffic and Canada is strengthening its commercial activities along its Arctic boundary as well.

“Shipping traffic is rising with increased regional demand and movement of natural resources to markets, but will remain constrained by weather uncertainties, draft limitations, and costs. Port infrastructure is being developed to support maritime activity and local communities as ice recedes,” the Strategy states.

Competition for resources is expected to be a large part of why rival nations continue to move quickly to increase presence and influence in the Arctic. The area holds 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves, 13 percent of conventional oil reserves and, according to the strategy, “one trillion dollars worth of rare earth minerals.”

“Fish stocks are expected to continue to shift northward, attracting global fishing fleets and creating potential challenges to the current international prohibition on Arctic fishing. Melting sea ice is making Arctic waters more accessible and navigable, enabling greater trade in the coming decades,” the strategy says.

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Of course, it goes without saying that, along with what could be called an expected or natural interest in pursuing Arctic resources, the area offers unparalleled military and strategic advantages as well. Prominent access and mobility throughout the Arctic would enable countries to quickly access other parts of the globe much more easily, providing an opportunity to strengthen influence or even, in the event of military action, allow for easier avenues of maritime and air attack.

Russia Militarizes Arctic

Russia is “militarizing” its Northern Flank and heavily investing in defenses and resources specific to the Arctic region as part of a transparent effort to increase its strategic position, influence and economic advantage along its heavily trafficked Northern Sea Route which borders large portions of the region.

“The escalatory and non-transparent nature of Russia’s military activity and unlawful regulation of maritime traffic along the Northern Sea Route undermines global interests, promotes instability, and ultimately degrades security in the region,” a new U.S. Navy strategy document, called “A Blue Arctic,” strategy writes.

Russia continues to expand its fleet of icebreaker ships, has built forward-operating bases in the Arctic and also continues to pursue a vastly increased operational tempo as waterways open up due to melting ice.

Defending Northern Sea Route approaches and expanding its already large fleet of icebreakers can mean that Russia intends to multiply attack possibilities or at very least extend the envelope of its surveillance operations.

“The Russians operate numerous large “ice-breaker” ships designed to escort commercial vessels through ice-patches by breaking up and separating the ice. Ships wishing to pass through the Northern Sea Route are charged a fee by the Russians for the ice-breaking vessels they provide for safe passage,” the strategy states.

By clearing away debris or other impediments for surface or even undersea attack, Russian icebreakers can leverage the warming ice to occupy strategically-vital waterways. As Russian Navy ships, sensors and weapons systems become increasingly cold-weather hardened, there might be little reason why one of its icebreaker ships could not take on more military missions to include combat patrol, reconnaissance operations, cargo transport or even some kind of Arctic amphibious assault.

A military presence in the Arctic almost instantly assures the prospect of some kind of major offensive attack across a vast area spanning four or more continents susceptible to some kind of invasion or incursion from the North.

“By modernizing its military capabilities and posture—particularly the Northern Fleet—Russia aims to improve command and control, infrastructure, and joint force employment to project power and defend its northern approaches,” the new Navy strategy writes.

Certainly, when it comes to missile launches, such as a potential ballistic missile attack, an ability to fire from the Arctic massively truncates air-travel time, lowers closing distances upon targets due to proximity and, one could even say, greatly expands the potential impact of any kind of nuclear weapons as well.

Also, since Russia is already known to have established military bases and outposts in the Arctic, therefore any increase in maritime activity would naturally improve an ability to forward-deploy or support winter-ruggedized cold-weather land assets such as weapons, air strips, tactical vehicles and ground-fired missiles.

Underwater Arctic Drones

Underwater drones have been quietly patrolling beneath the Arctic ice for many years now, to assess, study, analyze and report the changing environmental conditions of the Arctic waterways.

The question of Arctic ice is again resurfacing with vigor in light of the U.S. Navy’s now published new strategy document, called “A Blue Arctic.”

U.S. Navy scientists have in recent years been operating a 110-pound, 2.8 meter autonomous robot called Seaglider to collect data beneath the surface of the Arctic ice. As far back as the end of the summer in 2014, Office of Naval Research scientists had deployed over 100 robotic platforms in the ice and the ocean. Engineered with sensors to receive acoustic “pings” from beneath the surface, the Seagliders were suspended beneath the ice by buoys placed at certain predetermined locations.

The drones have been measuring the temperature and salt content to help scientists develop more accurate computer models with which to predict the anticipated future pace of melting ice, Martin Jeffries, former science advisor to the Office of Naval Research, told the National Interest in an interview several years ago. Jeffries retired last year. Learning more detail about anticipated environmental change and the pace at which ice will melt provides crucial input for strategic Navy planners preparing for future war.

An acoustic signal was sent to help us determine where in the water column below the ice the Seaglider was located to determine temperature and salinity measurements. Scientists then learned temperature and salinity content in the water column from the surface down to depths of 1,000 meters.

Having less ice in the summer means arctic waters have greater exposure to wind and sunlight, factors which can further compound the quickening pace of melting ice, Jeffries explained.

Measuring the temperature of the water beneath the ice helps scientists understand how much greater exposure to wind and sunlight is mixing up the water column and potentially raising the water temperature. Wind-mixing breaks down the water stratification, creates more turbulence in the water column and brings heat from deeper into the ocean up closer to the surface, creating warmer water which then in turn melts more ice.

Jeffries said that warm waters from both the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean currently flow into the Arctic region; warm waters from the Pacific are about 50 meters below the surface, and warmer waters from the Atlantic can flow as deep as 250 meters below the surface.

The Office of Naval Research is also exploring ways to engineer weapons systems able to retain operational functionality at extreme sub-zero temperatures. Some of these innovations include hull-warming sensors for ships operating in icy waters and other technologies designed to improve the Navy’s ability to operate in the cold, snow, ice and fog of the Arctic waters.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest*.* Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.