NUWC Division Newport oceanographer studies how melting Arctic ice presents challenges for naval operations

It’s well known that scientists attribute the melting ice in the Arctic to climate change and the rising temperatures on Earth. However, not many people are aware of the multifaceted ramifications a shrinking Arctic region has on naval operations, now and in the future.

Dr. Lauren Freeman, a senior oceanographer in the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport’s Ranges, Engineering and Analysis Department, presented a briefing on how the melting of Arctic ice relates to research and development and Navy operations on April 23.

The premise for Freeman’s presentation was how much the Arctic region has changed in the last few decades, as evidenced in NASA imagery which she displayed in a video.

“Since about 1980, the Arctic, the region of the Earth that’s north of 60 degrees latitude, has warmed about four times faster than the entire rest of the globe,” Freeman said, citing an article published in the refereed journal “Nature” in 2022. “That is concerning because not only is the Arctic interesting for Navy operations and geopolitics, but it has a lot of natural resources that a large number of countries are interested in utilizing. It’s an important part of the Earth’s climate system.”

Freeman is the ocean atmosphere lead for the U.S. in International Cooperation and Engagement for Polar Projects Research (ICE-PPR). The goal of ICE-PPR, which includes representatives from Canada, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden, is to establish strong cooperative relationships that preserve stability and security in the polar regions.

Freeman represented Division Newport at a workshop on polar oceanography and operations held Oct. 23-25, 2023, in Newport in support of ICE-PPR. The event was attended by 70 engineers, scientists and operators from international defense and research organizations.

That event included discussions about the Northwest Passage, a sea route that joins the North Atlantic and the North Pacific by way of the Canadian Arctic Ocean, once considered a myth, as it eluded explorers for generations. However, one outcome of ice melting in the Arctic is that new pathways have been created that are only navigable in the summer.

“You’re taking something that was blocking surface navigability for everything from fishing to trade to warfare and naval operations, and you’re getting rid of it,” Freeman said. “So you’re creating these new pathways for everybody to travel through the Arctic, not just us.”

The nations bordering the Arctic Ocean, including Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland, have exclusive economic zones that extend into the ocean.

“The exclusive economic zones are right on top of each other,” Freeman said. “There’s a lot of room for contention as you get into those boundaries and some of those passageways between islands.”

Another source of contention are the valuable natural resources in the Arctic Circle that were previously inaccessible.

“Resources such as oil and gas that have not been accessible to any nations historically are becoming more and more accessible as we’re losing ice cover,” Freeman said. “Rare earth minerals, such as manganese and lithium, used in electric cars, cell phones, and computers, are suspected to be present in these different exclusive economic zones.”

A new phenomenon discovered in the last 10 to 15 years found after Arctic ice melted is different layers of water that rest on top of each other. This changes how sound travels, which Division Newport must consider when conducting sonar research, as it affects signals sent and received by submarines.

“The layer of fresh water that we’re getting from the warming air on top of the extremely salty water has created what scientists call the Beaufort duct,” Freeman said. “What that means is that sound energy gets trapped. It’s not nearly as simple as the boundary between those two layers being an impermeable wall, but it nearly is.

“If a submarine in the Beaufort duct is looking for another submarine that is below the Beaufort duct, it would have a hard time because any active transmissions sent out are not going to get out of that duct and the only passive transmissions, you’re going to receive are those that are created within the duct.”

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Different layers of ice and water also complicates matters if a submarine needed to reach the surface, Freeman said.

“Thicker, multi-year ice is primarily forming over deeper water,” Freeman said. “It’s forming over that nice big bowl in the middle and once you get over those shelves you’re getting into what’s called the marginal ice zone. That can be a mix of sea ice, icebergs, pancake ice, etc. That’s an incredibly challenging and dynamic environment if you don’t know if you’ve got a straight shot to the surface or not because you don’t necessarily know how thick that ice is that you’re looking at. If you’re underwater, you can’t guarantee that you have ice overhead or you don’t have ice overhead if you’re a submarine that wants to come up.”




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