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Arctic Ocean naval operations may change as ice melts

Arctic Ocean naval operations may change as ice melts. Commerce, tourism and exploration could pose a new security threat.

In the Arctic Ocean our accessible waters are expanding as sea ice diminishes. Due to the changing environment, scientists have been studying the region to understand these changes and support the U.S. Navy’s actions in a region which was once unreachable. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) commissioned research on this topic, which was published today.

“This changing environment is opening the Arctic for expanded maritime and naval activity. Developing a deeper understanding and knowledge of this environment is essential for reliable weather and ice predictions to ensure the safety of future scientific and operational activities in the region,” said Rear Admiral Mat Winter, chief of naval research.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center recently revealed that 2016’s sea ice minimum tied with 2007 for the second-lowest ice minimum since the 1970s. The lowest minimum ever was recorded in 2012.

In order to understand the region, scientists measured the strength and intensity of waves and swells moving through the sea ice. This growing database will help develop models and prediction forecasts for ice, ocean and weather conditions.

The research team uses sophisticated equipment to gauge temperature, salinity, ice and ambient noise conditions under the ice surface.

“Abundant sea ice reduces waves and swells and keeps the Arctic Ocean very quiet,” said Dr. Robert Headrick, an ONR program officer overseeing the research. “With increased sea ice melt, however, come more waves and wind, which create more noise and make it harder to track undersea vessels. The goal of [this research] is to gain a better and more comprehensive understanding of these changing oceanographic conditions.”

Arctic Ocean naval operations have been reduced to submarine operations based on the thick coverage of sea ice, but as this ice melts, opportunities are opened up for commerce, tourism and exploration, in turn raising new security concerns. This process could create new navel requirements in the area.

“Having accurate forecasting models will help the Navy determine what types of surface vessels it will need to build in the near future and 30 years from now, to withstand the climate conditions,” said Dr. Scott Harper, another ONR program officer. “That way, the Navy can operate as safely and effectively in the Arctic as it does throughout the rest of the world.”

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