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Following in the Wake of USS Nautilus – a Renewed Focus on the Arctic

By Rear Adm. Jonathan White
Oceanographer/Navigator of the Navy and Director, Task Force Climate Change

On August 3, 1958, USS Nautilus (SSN 571), the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, also became the first submarine to complete a submerged transit to the geographic North Pole.  While that achievement captivated the world, the real accomplishment was that Nautilus sailed from the Pacific Ocean through the Bering Strait, transited through the Arctic Basin completely under ice, and surfaced to the northeast of Greenland in the Atlantic Ocean.  This was the first time a submarine had used the Arctic basin as a transit between the two major oceans.

USS Nautilus (SSN 571)
USS Nautilus (SSN 571)


In 1958, the Arctic was largely covered in solid multi-year ice all year-round.  With icebreaker support, ice-strengthened surface ships could operate on the edge of the Arctic’s ice zone for short durations, but there was little practical reason to be up there.  During the early years of the Cold War, military vessels spent some time in Arctic waters helping to set up the Distant Early Warning radar system (DEW line), designed to deter and defend against Soviet missile attack across the Arctic basin.  But by 1965, the Navy turned over its icebreaker assets and the ice-breaking mission to the U.S. Coast Guard.  As the Navy has turned its attention to the warmer waters of lower latitudes, Arctic-capable surface ships largely disappeared from the Fleet.

USS Nautilus (SSN 571) crew approaches the North Pole.
USS Nautilus (SSN 571) crew approaches the North Pole.

Submarines, however, continued to transit under the ice pack since that was the shortest route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Submarines used upward-looking sonar to determine the thickness of the ice so that they could identify thin areas to break through to perform communications downloads.  In the ensuing years, warming air and sea temperatures around the globe began to have a notable impact, and by the mid-1990s submarines were starting to report significantly thinner ice.  This means that Arctic sea ice is losing volume as thick, multi-year ice disappears and is replaced by thin seasonal ice that melts away each summer and freezes back each winter.

Sea ice extent, the area of sea ice coverage, is also decreasing.  The first satellite imagery of the Arctic was received in 1979 and we have had a continuous satellite record of Arctic sea ice extent ever since.  This has shown conclusively a net diminishment, and the summer of 2012 set the record for the smallest amount of sea ice in recorded history, roughly a 40 percent reduction of sea ice compared to the observed mean.

There is an unequivocal consensus among climate and ocean scientists that the Arctic ice will continue to diminish, opening up the region for increased commercial enterprise.  The region is already seeing expansions in Arctic shipping, oil, gas and mineral exploration, commercial fishing, and adventure tourism.

In 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower publicly announced the accomplishment of Nautilus, he imagined a time when nuclear powered cargo submarines would use the Arctic Ocean as a far shorter transit between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.  The president could not have known then that within 50 years the Arctic sea ice would diminish to the point that cargo would indeed transit the Arctic Basin – but on surface ships!

ICE CAMP NAUTILUS: The view at sunset of Ice Camp Nautilus, located on a sheet of ice adrift on the Arctic Ocean, during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2014.
ICE CAMP NAUTILUS: The view at sunset of Ice Camp Nautilus, located on a sheet of ice adrift on the Arctic Ocean, during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2014.

The U.S. Navy is a global fleet.  We are America’s away-team and often the first responder to international crises.  While we do not anticipate any conflict in the Arctic in the foreseeable future, we must be ready to respond to contingencies and operate forward in this ocean, just as we do in all the others.

Arctic capabilities will require preparation and commitment.  Last February, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert released the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap 2014-2030, a document that presents the Navy’s perspectives on the changing Arctic, offers a predicted timeline of the opening of various sea routes through the Arctic Basin, and provides an implementation plan to prepare the Navy for future operations in all dimensions as the Arctic evolves.

The accomplishment of USS Nautilus did not happen on a whim.  It required systematic planning and preparation, and design modifications like a new inertial navigation system, a specialized gyro, and an ice-hardened hull.  We are similarly preparing the Navy for future Arctic missions –   missions that will change the way we do business in the high latitudes.  We will do this methodically, with an eye towards the safety of our fleet and an emphasis on ensuring that we do not invest limited fiscal resources unnecessarily or before need.


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