14 February 2002

Arctic Ice Cap Could Disappear

by Kate Melville

The Arctic ice cap is shrinking� that much is known with certainty. Over the past century, the extent of the winter pack ice in the Nordic Seas has decreased by about 25%. Last winter the Bering Sea was effectively ice-free, which is unprecedented, and if this big melt continues, some say the formerly ice-locked Arctic will have open sea lanes as soon as 2015. By 2050, the summertime ice cap could disappear entirely. "Although recent terrorist events keep our minds occupied elsewhere in the world, what a navigable Arctic means for our national security is significant," " says Dr. Dennis Conlon, Program Manager for Arctic Science at the Office of Naval Research. "Geographical boundaries, politics, and commerce changes would all become issues."

In April 2001, the Office of Naval Research co-sponsored* a meeting of Arctic subject matter experts from the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain in a preliminary attempt to address the capabilities that would be required for naval forces to operate in the Arctic. Their report has just been released, and it speaks to the national and strategic issues surrounding naval ship and aircraft operations in an ice-free Arctic, including policy, doctrine, and possible new systems and ship and aircraft designs.

The potential implications of an ice-free Arctic are enormous. Both the Northern Sea Route (north of Russia) and the Northwest Passage (through the Canadian archipelago) provide far shorter routes from Europe to Asia, though both routes are claimed to be through national waters. An increased level of transnational activity might give rise to adversarial action, international criminal and terrorist elements, and environmental challenges. Disappearance of the ice canopy would eliminate a haven now provided to submarines, and the acoustic environment would drastically change. An ecological disruption due to climate and habitat changes would affect marine mammal populations, and this in turn would affect indigenous peoples.

One significant conclusion was reached in the report: the U.S. Navy must rely on bilateral and multinational alliances, especially with Canada and Russia, in order to deal effectively and fairly with an ice-free Arctic. Ensuring access and stabilizing the global commons would be the most overriding reason for increased operations in what would remain a very hostile environment, ice or no ice.