The Navy and other services are considering what future requirements they may have for an Arctic presence, and what implications global climate change may have. Preparing for new missions and requirements will require strategic plans and significant investments made years in advance. All of this must be premised on a reliable, science-based assessment of climate change.
When will the Arctic be navigable for commercial shipping? When will environmental conditions allow safe and reliable resource extraction in the Arctic? When will sea-level rise encroach on coastal military bases? These questions must be answered before we start investing and committing force structure.
While there is overwhelming agreement among scientists that the climate is changing, there is little accord on a timeline of change. The computer-generated numerical climate models that guide some of the popular discussion display a wide range of timelines, primarily because the processes they are modeling are not well-understood, and the data they are based upon is limited. This is especially true of the Polar Regions.
To ensure that investments of public funds are appropriate and timely, the Navy is joining a national enterprise to better understand the nature of the changing climate. The Navy has numerous assets to bring to that enterprise, including environmental sensors that operate underwater, in the air, and from space, sophisticated global computer models, and supercomputers that process sensed data and host the models. For instance, the Navy maintains and operates one of the largest oceanographic databases in the world.
An example of joint operations that has already informed the debate is the Navy-NOAA-Coast Guard operated National Ice Center. Located in Suitland, Md., this facility monitors the extent and motion of polar sea ice, and its measurements have been instrumental in understanding the decline in Arctic ice.
Navy is also working with the Coast Guard and NOAA to begin joint hydrographic surveying operations in the Arctic to ensure safety of navigation and make extended continental shelf territorial claims.
Another important cooperative initiative is in the development of computer models to provide a more reliable timeline of climate change. The goal is to extend atmospheric forecasts from their current fidelity of days out to decades, but this will require a comprehensive data collection strategy, the latest supercomputing assets, and computer models that can effectively integrate data from the ocean, atmosphere, ice fields, terrain, and even space.
An effort of this scope is too big for any one organization, and will require the contributions of many agencies engaged in environmental modeling. Instrumental to this goal will be the involvement of the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability, recently established to promote coordination and collaboration between government departments and agencies.