Scientific evidence indicates that the Arctic climate is changing twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Data compiled by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) between 1979 and 2010 indicate that the summer sea ice extent is decreasing at the rate of 11.5 percent per decade. The summer ice cap is estimated to be only half the size it was 50 years ago, and the past six years have seen the lowest ice minimums in the staellite record. The 2010 summer minimum was 30.5 percent less than the 1979-2009 average, an area almost as large as Alaska and California combined.
More importantly, ice volume is also decreasing. Data from satellites, moorings, field measurements and Navy submarines confirm a consistent decrease in ice thickness since 1980. This means that thin, single-year ice melts more readily during the summer months, allowing the water to absorb more heat from the sun, further increasing the melting of the thicker ice.
The continuing loss of sea ice implies that an increasing portion of the Arctic will be navigable for longer durations during the summer. Consensus of many forecast models and researchers is that the Arctic will be “ice-free” for at least four weeks each summer sometime during the 2030s.
Even though there is considerable uncertainty associated with the timing of this forecast, it is clear that the time period each year for easier Arctic access is increasing.
Although the Arctic remains a challenging environment, the potential for resource extraction, like oil, gas, and minerals, and the attraction of significantly shorter shipping routes, will likely attract commercial interests.
With over a thousand miles of Arctic coastline and close to a million miles of sovereign waters, the U.S. has a national security and homeland defense interest in the region. A presidential memorandum signed by President Bush in January 2009 tasks the Department of Defense to “project a sovereign maritime presence” in the Arctic.
The Navy views the Arctic as a challenge, not a crisis, and acknowledges that the risk of conflict is low in the region. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides an effective framework for resolving sovereignty disputes, and although the United States has not yet acceded to the convention, we adhere to its principles.
In November 2009, the Navy released an Arctic Roadmap to guide Navy policy, investment, action, and public discussion regarding the Arctic. The goal of the roadmap is to ensure naval readiness and capability and promote maritime security in the Arctic region. Key elements of the plan include improving environmental understanding, increasing operational experience, and promoting cooperative partnerships.
Other key elements of the roadmap include an assessment of current readiness for operating under harsh Arctic conditions, the continuation of Arctic and sub-Arctic training exercises, and investments in more robust sensing and modeling capabilities. The Roadmap also recommends the participation of Navy survey assets to help determine the extent of U.S. sovereignty based on outer continental shelf claims.
In May 2010 the Navy released the U.S. Navy Strategic Objectives for the Arctic. This document specifies the objectives required to ensure the Arctic remains a safe, stable and secure region where U.S. national and maritime interests are safeguarded and the homeland is protected.
In August 2011, the Navy completed an Arctic Environmental Assessment and Outlook, an action item from the Arctic Roadmap. This document synthesizes the current state of knowledge about the changing polar environment and will be used to guide strategic planning for potential future Arctic missions.
The Navy is currently conducting a capabilities-based assessment of potential future mission requirements that will determine the capabilities needed to complete those missions. Information of this sort will inform strategic planning and future budget considerations.