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Life Arts    H4'ed 6/22/11

An Ocean of Opportunity: Is the US Prepared for the Changing Arctic Ocean?

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Simulated Summer Sea Ice Concentrations for 1885, 1985 & 2085
Simulated Summer Sea Ice Concentrations for 1885, 1985 & 2085
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The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation recently held the Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2011 conference in Washington, D.C. to raise awareness about the importance of oceans to our nation's economy and security. Over the course of the conference marine policy professionals, military personnel, fishermen, conservationists and others discussed many of the problems affecting our oceans such as pollution, acidification, rising temperatures and over-fishing.   It is clear that science policy must combine with foreign policy to meet these challenges.   

While there was much debate about the best solutions and policy prescriptions for these problems there exists broad agreement that one issue is of particular and increasing importance: the impact of climate change on the Arctic Ocean.   "One thing we know for a fact," said Rear Admiral Fred Byus during a discussion on climate change and global security, "is the area with the most rapid increase in temperature is the arctic." The rising temperature is melting the arctic sea ice and opening up a huge ocean area and set of resources, and "bordering nations will want to take control of these resources--sustainably or not," explained the admiral.   

"Sea ice is disappearing faster than scientific models predicted," said Sen. Mark Begich during his remarks introducing a panel discussion on how the changing arctic affects our national security and prosperity.   Some experts believe the Arctic Ocean could be ice free in the summer by 2030 introducing new opportunities and challenges.   Increasing temperatures will affect the arctic ecosystem in unpredictable ways.   Natural resources must be managed sustainably.   New sea lanes must be secured.   Melting sea ice may lead to rising sea levels affecting climate and national and international security.   

Climate change deniers and skeptics notwithstanding, the Navy recently commissioned a study by the National Academies on the "National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces."   The study found that, "The retreat of Arctic sea ice in summer is fundamentally altering the naval forces' mission by allowing increasing access to the harsh and highly variable Arctic environment."   Compounding this challenge is the failure of the US to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea severely limiting our ability to respond to Arctic claims by other Arctic Nations including Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark.  

Some are concerned that ratification by the Senate would limit US sovereignty for example by requiring us to "pay royalties to an unaccountable international bureaucracy for the right to exploit oil and gas resources on the U.S. continental shelf."  However, as the NAS study points out ratification of the Laws of the Sea Treaty enjoys broad support at the Pentagon including the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and the Commandant of the Coast Guard.   In fact, the Quadrennial Defense Review Report from February 2010 states, "To support cooperative engagement in the Arctic, DoD strongly supports accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea."

So far news is good on this front.   According to the panel of experts introduced by Sen. Begich, international efforts to cooperate on arctic issues is a resounding success story despite headline grabbing attempts by the media to depict a new "cold war" as countries race for arctic resources.   

In addition to the foreign policy issues, the challenges of a changing arctic require advances in science and technology.   RDML Byus laid out four areas in which the US needs to make major progress over the next ten years: 1) sensors and networks of sensors including climatological, chemical and biological, 2) autonomous vehicles and/or robots, 3) tools allowing for fusion of results from sensors into actionable information and 4) persistent power to allow for the utilization of these technologies.  

The Gulf oil spill last year highlighted the indispensability of robots when operating in the harsh conditions of the marine environment--conditions that are magnified in the Arctic Ocean.   Robots not only worked to stop the spill but also patrolled the sea gathering data about the spills effects and predicting where the flow might go.    

One way science policy can address this need is through a major initiative funding robotics research.   Despite the importance of robotics to our economy and national security, a WTEC study on robotics found that in some areas the US has fallen behind other countries such as Korea and Japan which both have national strategic initiatives in robotics.   To remedy this, President Obama's 2012 budget calls for a new $30 million dollar National Robotics Initiative to focus on "next generation robotics technologies.   Given the widespread applications of robotics technology, such a potentially transformative research effort will have implications for defense, medicine and new high tech industries and jobs.   It's also one small way the US can prepare for the challenges and opportunities of a changing Arctic Ocean.


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Lance Miller holds a PhD in microbiology and does science diplomacy at a DC area nonprofit.
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