By Dr. Martin Jeffries
Office of Naval Research
Arctic Science Advisor and Program Officer for Arctic and Global Prediction
Something is afoot in the Arctic, and computer models predict that we can expect further changes, including even less sea ice — perhaps no ice at all — at the end of summer some time this century.
It should come as no surprise that the vast expanses of open water now being observed in the Arctic Ocean, and the even greater expanses projected to occur in the future, are attracting the attention of the shipping and fishing industries; oil, gas and mining companies; and cruise ship operators, to name a few.
An anticipated large increase in human activity in the Arctic Ocean and adjacent waters is why the Navy has an Arctic Roadmap, and why we need to study the Arctic Ocean, beginning with the Marginal Ice Zone.
Arctic Ice and the Rise of Robotics.
Between March and October 2014, a multi-institution, multi-nation (U.S.A., France, South Korea, U.K.) team of scientists sponsored by the Office of Naval Research conducted an ambitious field experiment in the Marginal Ice Zone of the Arctic Ocean sea ice north of Alaska. It’s not called marginal because of the quality of the ice — although that can be very dodgy — but because it’s located at the seaward edge of the ice pack, where the frozen ocean meets the open ocean.
The Marginal Ice Zone experiment was the largest in 2014 in the Arctic Ocean, and the largest of its particular kind, ever. But few of the scientists spent much time in the field, either aboard aircraft and vessels or on the ice itself. Instead, they relied on a large array of robotic technologies, deployed quickly by a small number of people, for autonomous observations of the atmosphere, ice, ocean and sea as the sea ice melted and retreated northward during the summer.
These and many other field observations were supplemented by hundreds of radar images collected by satellites in space.
The 2014 Marginal Ice Zone experiment has demonstrated convincingly that robotic technologies like these are the future of sustained autonomous observation of the Arctic Ocean. The Marginal Ice Zone scientists are, right now, analyzing the many data streams obtained during the field experiment. By the time the project formally ends in fall 2017, we’ll have a much better scientific understanding of, and computer modeling capability for, this dynamic and complex region of the Arctic Ocean.
Why is that important? Because if we can improve our computer models of Arctic sea ice and other conditions, we’ll have vastly better chances of keeping vessels — both Navy and civilian — safe, by giving them better predictions of what conditions lie ahead in a particular region or time.
Why study the marginal ice zone? Why study the Arctic Ocean at all?
In November 2009, Navy Task Force Climate Change — a group formed at the request of the Chief of Naval Operations — issued the second Arctic Roadmap. It was Navy’s first attempt to list the capabilities required for safe and effective operations in the Arctic should the need arise. Then, in February 2014, the Navy issued the second Arctic Roadmap with a detailed implementation plan to complete preparations for possible Arctic operations by 2030.
The Navy has an Arctic Roadmap because of two major events that occurred in 2007 and 2012. On Sept. 16, 2007, when the annual summertime retreat of sea ice ceased, the Arctic Ocean was left with an unprecedented area of open water and very low ice extent. Shortly afterward, the National Snow and Ice Data Center announced “Arctic Sea Ice Shatters All Previous Record Lows.”
The 2007 record sea ice minimum caught many people off guard, including very experienced Arctic scientists — but the ice had another, even bigger surprise up its sleeve. On Sept. 16, 2012, a new record-minimum sea ice extent occurred just five years to the day since the previous record low.
The eight lowest sea extents in the satellite record occurred during the period 2007- 2014.
The ONR Arctic and Global Prediction Program.
In response to the Navy Arctic Roadmap, Office of Naval Research created the Arctic and Global Prediction Program to address the need for better science and technology, and environmental observation and prediction. The program goal is to improve prediction of the location of the sea ice edge, and the thickness, concentration and volume of the ice at a variety of time and space scales to support safe and effective Navy operations.
The program has three tightly connected objectives: develop sensors for sustained observations in the challenging Arctic Ocean; improve understanding of the region’s physical environment; and develop the capability to model the complex, highly connected atmosphere-ice-ocean-sea states.
The Marginal Ice Zone project is the first large, multi-investigator, multi-nation study fielded by the Arctic and Global Prediction Program. It addresses each of the program objectives listed in the previous paragraph, and it was logical to address the need to understand recent, rapid sea ice retreat by focusing first on the front line, where the frozen ocean meets the open ocean – the Marginal Ice Zone.
Through the Marginal Ice Zone project, and other smaller projects by researchers in the U.S. and overseas, Office of Naval Research is contributing to the implementation of the Navy Arctic Roadmap.
Together with Navy, inter-agency and international partners, Office of Naval Research -sponsored researchers are making a vital contribution to much-needed improvements in observing, understanding and modeling the Arctic Ocean system of atmosphere, ice, ocean and surface waves — and the prediction of what we might expect to happen there in the future.