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Thawing Ice and Data in the Arctic: Navies Uncover Vital Climate Information

Both the UK and the U.S. Navies are cooperating with scientists to share climate data collected in the Arctic.  Naval submarines have spent the better part of the last few decades trawling the depths of the cold waters.  With a changing climate, both physical and political, and melting ice in the Arctic, the data collected during such missions is now an invaluable tool to those trying to get a better, more accurate understanding of what exactly is happening up there.

What the U.S. is doing: In 2010, an agreement between the U.S. Navy and civilian researchers revived a dormant program from 1993 called “Science Ice Exercise,” or SCICEX, which had been shelved when all eyes turned to Afghanistan and Iraq. As mentioned in an article by Lauren Morello from July 2010, the agreement set in motion a number of important actions, including the “collection of baseline data on the Arctic’s ice canopy and seafloor and the physical, chemical and biological properties of Arctic seawater.”

What the UK is doing: The Royal Navy has recently begun de-classifying ocean and ice draft data collected in the Arctic by its submarines, while understandably protecting information that could allow others to track its movements. According to the BBC, “The UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) has been working with the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) and the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) to prepare the data for use by NOC [National Oceanography Center] scientists.”

Why it’s good for climate science: These developments are good news for climate science because they expand the data pool in terms of both quantity and quality. The U.S. and UK navies have the resources, the capacity, and the tools (submarines), to patrol waters and collect ocean floor and ice draft data that many civilian actors, and satellites, simply do not. As Morello reports:

“For scientists, the advantage of SCICEX lies in harnessing submarines that can travel at high speed and operate even in areas that are covered by ice — missions that would otherwise require use of icebreaking ships, which are in short supply. And though satellites can cover more ground and easily document multiple snapshots in time, Richter-Menge said the submarine data would be invaluable to help “ground-truth” measurements collected high in the sky. “The submarine has the advantage of looking up at the ice from underneath,” she said, “When they take an ice draft measurement, they’re measuring nine-tenths of the ice cover, and they’re more accurate.”
Why it’s good for navies and governments: Access to more and better Arctic data helps navies, and their respective governments and intergovernmental institutions, in terms of managing security in the region. Summer ice melt opens up the potential for geopolitical competition among the numerous countries active in the Arctic, as land and resource claims potentially shift and expand. Being able to access and interpret accurate data provides an important asset to the countries, and the inter-governmental institutions, who operate there. For example, the structure, mandate and effectiveness of institutions that govern the Arctic, like the Arctic Council (which includes eight countries and a handful of observers), are dependent upon good information about the movement of ice.

Lastly, giving a broader pool of scientists the ability to access and assess the data can help navies make sense of how changing ocean temperatures and ice will affect their own operations, ranging from search and rescue (SAR), to combating illegal fishing, and anticipating the movements of other sea-faring nations.

The changing future of the Arctic and information-sharing: As temperatures increase, and ice melts, the geopolitics of the region will shift. While there are some concerns about the potential for conflict in this new space, there are also many areas of current and potential cooperation between Arctic-faring nations, whether its joint security and humanitarian operations or information-sharing on ocean and ice draft data. These collaborative efforts between the US, UK Navies and their respective national scientific communities are a harbinger of hope for the Arctic future, and should be supported and maintained. And beyond the Arctic, this information coming to light will help us make better sense of the impacts of global climate change and the security risks that follow, and to create more responsible policies and solutions for mitigating those risks.

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