Navy report says ice cap could give way to open water

Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The polar ice cap has been shrinking so fast that regular ships may be steaming through the Northwest Passage each summer by 2015, and along northern Russia even sooner, according to a new U.S. Navy report.

Global warming will open the Arctic Ocean to unprecedented commercial activity. The seasonal expansion of open water may draw commercial fishing fleets into the Chukchi and Beaufort seas north of Alaska within a few decades. The summer ice cover could even disappear entirely by 2050 -- or be concentrated around northern Greenland and Ellesmere Island.

For the U.S. Navy, that presents an unprecedented challenge: a new ocean.

The nation's maritime military does not yet have the ships, training, technology and logistics in place to patrol or police a wide-open polar sea, according to the final report from a symposium on Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic.

As a result, the Navy needs to start planning now on how to deal with it, said Dennis Conlon, program manager of high latitude dynamics at the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Va.

For example, the ice ''canopy'' that now hides U.S. submarines will disappear, while opening the surface to marine operations by rival navies, criminals or even terrorists.

The report offers an early warning for naval operations, Conlon said in a telephone interview with the Anchorage Daily News.

''It's being briefed at high levels throughout the Navy and the Department of Defense. The specific needs haven't been developed yet, but the attitude is in place. ... I think with any positive reaction to this report, you're going to see an increased role for Alaska.''

Released to the public last week, the report was based on a meeting last spring at the Washington Naval Yard with 50 officers and scientists from the Navy, Coast Guard, Canadian military, Royal Navy and academic institutions.

The most critical needs for the Navy include increasing the bandwidth of radio communications and navigational aids over the Arctic, a process that will likely require additional polar satellites, Conlon said.

''In the Bering Sea, you can still depend on the normal satellite communications and the (Global Positioning System), but the further north you get to the North Pole, those things tend to drop off and become less available,'' Conlon said.

The Navy will also need to bolster search-and-rescue abilities and redesign equipment for operations in a deep ocean that features icing, fog, poor visibility, bad weather and intermittent ice.

The new sea routes will reduce shipping times between Europe and Asia, but are now claimed as national waters by Russia and Canada. Hinting at controversy to come, Alaska officials and environmental groups issued alarms last year over a proposal to use Russian ice breakers to help transport spent nuclear fuel back and forth between Europe and Japan.

Though the 72-page report primarily addressed naval issues, it offered a vivid update on how recent warming has been consuming the polar cap.

Submarine data has found a 40 percent decrease in the volume of the Arctic ice. Since the 1970s, the ice cover extent has been shrinking about 3 percent per decade, bringing more precipitation and worsening weather north of Alaska.

The changes may be speeding up, Conlon said. Last year, the Bering Sea remained ice-free for the first time on record. Satellite imagery found that a regular commercial ship could have traveled last summer from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans over Canada.

''It looks like the Northwest Passage was open for about 10 days to two weeks,'' Conlon said. ''That surprised me and a few of my Arctic colleagues.''

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