Tamara Dietrich |
Hampton Roads residents know full well that the Atlantic is gnawing ever more ferociously at the shore, surging into the streets whenever it gets riled up, and a looming threat, experts say, throughout this century and for more centuries to come. What residents may not know is that, while half of the rise in global sea level is attributed to the simple physics that warming waters expand, the other half is caused by melting polar ice sheets, especially in the Arctic.
The Arctic is heating up much faster than the rest of the planet, its vast expanse of sea and land ice shrinking. In fact, its September sea ice has shrunk by half in just 40 years of record-keeping, said Donglai Gong, a physical oceanographer at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point.
“What’s striking is that, regardless of which month you’re looking at, the ice cover is spiraling in towards zero,” Gong said. “And we’re not too far from zero, actually.” When he did the math, extending the last 20-year trend of ice melt into the future, he deduced that the Arctic Ocean could lose its summer sea ice as early as 2040.
“That’s just about 20 years,” Gong said. “So, sometime in our lifetime, the Arctic will be summertime ice-free. How are we going to operate in this new ocean? Humans have never experienced the Arctic Ocean like that.” While many onlookers are salivating at the notion of a new, navigable ocean and the potential for shipping lane shortcuts, oil and gas extraction, fishing, tourism and scientific research, others worry about Arctic nations and others jockeying for territory, maritime conflicts and despoiling one of the last pristine environments on the planet.
Gong worries about those issues and more, including how a shift in Arctic weather patterns could be linked to more ferocious hurricanes in middle latitudes, including the mid-Atlantic. Such concerns are shared by others in the sciences, the military and political arenas.
As climate change policy expert Sherri Goodman, a senior adviser at the Center for Climate & Security and the first Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security, said: “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.” Such concerns are shared by others in the sciences, the military and political arenas.
As climate change policy expert Sherri Goodman, a senior adviser at the Center for Climate & Security and the first Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security, said: “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”
Coincidence or Connection?
Gong and Goodman were among a slate of panelists at a forum last month on “Preparing for a Climate-Changed Future” at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. The forum was hosted by the climate and security center and by the college’s Virginia Coastal Policy Center and its Whole of Government Center of Excellence.
One particular focus: How a melting Arctic affects other parts of the world, from shifting weather patterns to maritime security. With so little known about that remote and rugged region, scientists say it’s hard to predict much, weather-wise, with any accuracy — not just over decades, but on much shorter time-scales.
“We have all experienced winters that seem to be much colder than normal, or warmer than normal,” said Gong. “We have storms moving through our area that seem to be more intense than before. So, what is the connection to that in relation to the Arctic?”
Gong believes he may have found one unsettling short-term relationship between the weather in the Arctic and in lower latitudes: hurricanes. At the forum, he pulled up radar images of weather patterns in the Arctic and the U.S. during three severe storms that affected Hampton Roads — hurricanes Isabel and Maria and Superstorm Sandy. The images showed that, as the three hurricanes raged in the mid-Atlantic, there was a strikingly similar “general anomalous warming” in the central and western Arctic.
“What’s remarkable to me as I plot this up is the general pattern holds,” said Gong. “I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or whether there’s a dynamical connection, and that’s something to look further into.” Climates scientists have long warned that warming global temperatures can cause hurricanes to grow more severe.
As environmental impacts on the Arctic region become starker, so do the security implications. The potential for an open Arctic Ocean already has spurred Russia and China to beef up their polar fleets.
According to the Navy Times, Russia, which has the world’s longest Arctic coastline, already has 46 icebreakers, with 15 more in the pipeline. China, which doesn’t have a territorial claim in the Arctic but does have serious ambitions there, has three breakers and a fourth on the way.
Compared to those countries, the U.S. is a laggard. The U.S. Coast Guard fleet includes just one heavy icebreaker. A second heavy was disabled by a fire in 2010 and now is being harvested for parts to keep the first one afloat. Both vessels are more than 40 years old — well past their 30-year service life. The Coast Guard also has a medium icebreaker and a light ice-breaking research vessel.
In 2013, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommended adding six new icebreakers to the fleet to meet mission demands, and earlier this year Congress earmarked $750 million for a new heavy breaker that would be ready for service in 2023. But that vessel is currently on hold: Homeland Security is reallocating the money to put toward the proposed southern border wall.
It’s a decision that troubles Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C.-based think-tank. She spoke in June at a congressional subcommittee hearing on maritime transportation.
“What concerns me the most,” Conley said then, “is that the United States is placing one very big bet that the Arctic will remain of limited strategic value, and that our current, mostly seasonal approach will be sufficient. “Russia and China view the Arctic over the next half-century; we view it in the next budget cycle.”
At the Williamsburg forum, John Conger, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations and Environment and now director of The Center for Climate & Security, did offer one sign of progress. The U.S. 2nd Fleet, which was merged with U.S. Fleet Forces in 2011, is now being reestablished at Norfolk Naval Base to counter a more active Russian presence in the Atlantic.
“And a huge new mission has been given to Norfolk to deal with the Arctic,” Conger said. “So it’s not just about flooding. The Navy and, in particular, Norfolk has this mission now assigned to them for the 2nd Fleet to have jurisdiction and to have oversight over the Navy’s operations in the Arctic. And that’s a big deal.”
And it’s about time, said Goodman. “The U.S. really needs to step up its game in the Arctic,” Goodman said. “Secretary of Defense (James) Mattis said that not too long ago, so it’s not a new refrain.” In 1996, an intergovernmental council of Arctic nations was established consisting of the eight Arctic nations — the U.S., Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Denmark and Iceland — to promote cooperation in the region. Permanent members and observer states, such as China, have been added since.
Last year, said Goodman, the Arctic Council agreed on a 16-year moratorium on fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean to enable research and observation. “Cooperation continues to be the norm,” Goodman said, “and we should work as hard as we can to preserve it. But we must prepare for a changing future, because, with the sea ice changing so rapidly and opportunities emerging, there will be competition both for resources and potentially for presence in the region in the future.
So we need to increase our presence. We need a clear-eyed view with Russia.” Russia has long had industrial-size cities across the Arctic, where energy and mineral resources provide about 20 percent of its gross domestic product, she said. The country has also changed its command and control and their ability to do very large-scale “snap” exercises, including in the Arctic, said panelist and retired Rear Adm. David Titley.
“Moving tens of thousands of uniformed Russian military personnel on very, very short notice,” Titley said. “This makes our friends in Scandinavian and Nordic countries really quite nervous. “So, of course, if we get nervous, we increase our readiness and Russians increase their readiness and you don’t have to go back through history too far to understand this is not a long-term recipe for success.”
In January, China unveiled its very first Arctic strategy, in which it describes itself as a “near-Arctic nation” with plans to establish a sort of Polar Silk Road, called the Belt and Road Initiative, to link China and Europe through the Arctic Ocean. “So China is a nation to watch and observe,” said Goodman.
As for the U.S., she said, the Coast Guard has long had a “robust” Arctic strategy, while the Navy — which has been criticized for showing little interest in the region aside from deploying submarines — is revisiting its Arctic strategy. The Air Force is finally developing one.
The whole lot of Nothing
Titley urged action, but with a firm grip on reality. “The operating conditions in the Arctic are still very, very hard and, frankly, unlike any other maritime operating environment that our service forces deal with,” Titley said. “There’s virtually no infrastructure up in the Arctic. There’s a whole lot of nothing up there still.
“You have more open water. Open water plus high winds means big waves. Big waves and temperatures below freezing means a lot of ice buildup. So you get also a lot more erosion on the shore. The tremendous amount of fog and restricted visibility in the summertime. So this is still a very, very, very hard place to work.
“U.S. Navy surface ships are not ice-strengthened. I talked to some of the commanding officers we’ve sent up there in joint exercises with the Canadians and the Danes and, frankly, it’s a white-knuckle exercise. They can’t bash up their billion-dollar ship, but they still need to do their mission.”
And, he said, while China, Russia and other Arctic nations are working in a “very deliberate fashion” to realize their overall Arctic strategies, the U.S. Department of Defense is still bogged down in “exquisite bureaucracy, studies and roadmaps.” “But what are we doing?” Titley said. “And I would argue we’re not doing very much. … I think we are at increasing strategic risk of getting caught flat-footed.”
Courtesy: Daily Press