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With Shrinking Arctic Sea Ice Comes Heightened National Security Concerns

November 26, 2018

While Arctic sea ice continues to shrink, human activity in the region is only growing. Ice extent, which is monitored by the U.S. National Ice Center (USNIC), often determines what types of activities are pursued in the region. Shrinking ice cover is making the Arctic more accessible to various countries, commercial entities and researchers, among others.

Image of Ships

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent makes an approach to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the Arctic Ocean, Sept. 5. The two ships are taking part in a multi-year, multi-agency Arctic survey that will help define the North American continental shelf. (Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley)

However, this increased human activity in the Arctic has also led to more national security concerns from both a traditional and non-traditional point of view. For the U.S., national security in the Arctic is more than just shielding the nation from potential threats to the northern border.

Instead, the nation is starting to look at Arctic security more broadly. As changes continue in the region, the U.S. is considering national security from an environmental, economic and resource development perspective.

Monitoring Arctic Sea Ice Extent

The U.S. National Ice Center, which is part of the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), uses satellite data from NOAA, NASA, and other domestic and international agencies to monitor sea ice extent across the Arctic.

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Kevin Berberich, the deputy director of the USNIC, explained that ice analysts use a combination of visible and infrared satellite imagery and space-based synthetic aperture radar, among other data sets, to determine ice extent.

This year Arctic sea ice extent reached its annual minimum on both Sept. 19 and 23, shrinking to 1.77 million square miles, according to a report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The 2018 annual minimum is tied with 2008 as the sixth lowest average September ice extent in the satellite record.

Berberich and Shannon Jenkins, the U.S. Coast Guard’s senior Arctic policy advisor, both pointed out that just because ice is retreating, it doesn’t mean there isn’t ice still out there.

There are several types of ice, but analysts focus on first-year and multi-year ice when tracking ice extent on an annual basis. Multi-year ice is thicker ice that’s survived at least one melt season, and first-year ice is much thinner.

Image of Ice Stage Development

The stage of development product is generated by the USNIC's sea ice analysts who interpret a variety of remote sensing sources. It is a weekly assessment of the current Arctic marine environment. The stage of development is determined by the analysts using the shape, tone, texture, fracture patterns, and surface topography of features depicted in satellite imagery, as well as the ice analyst's knowledge of the geographical area, weather patterns, and current sea ice development. In-situ monitoring and global forecasting models are also used in the analysis.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center’s September 2018 extent report noted that the amount of multiyear ice remaining at the end of the summer is now considerably lower than it was in recent decades.

A significant portion of the Arctic sea ice extent during the peak of the ice season is first-year ice, which melts more easily.

“That’s a big reason why we’re seeing less and less ice as well,” Berberich added.

Forecasting as the Arctic Becomes More Accessible

With the landscape of the Arctic changing so quickly, Jenkins explained that the region has become a more competitive space as accessibility grows to include nation states, entrepreneurs and tourists, among others.

As a result, Berberich explained that the USNIC is evolving to produce information that mariners are looking for as they attempt traversing these waters, many of which haven’t been navigated before.

“Right now the ice center puts out a lot of ‘nowcast’ products, which is just an analysis of where the ice is,” Berberich said. “We’re evolving to put out more forecast products -- so where the ice is going.”

The USNIC also relies heavily on the International Arctic Buoy Program to maintain a healthy network of buoys across the Arctic domain. The buoys provide near real-time information to assist the USNIC’s ice analysts in product production.

Security Concerns in the Arctic

In response to the growing opportunities and risks in the region, several federal entities are updating or developing new Arctic strategies. For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has started developing its own strategy for the region to address the evolving security and sovereignty environment.

David Kennedy, the senior advisor for the Arctic region at NOAA, explained that drafting a DHS strategy was the “first major clue that there was a real changing sense of what was important in the Arctic.”

He added that within the last few months, the National Security Council has even formed an Arctic security working group, which includes representatives from NOAA.

“Most of the groups there are defense and intel, but NOAA is there in part because there is a strong belief that understanding the science of the change and how quickly it’s occurring, is part of developing a strategy for national security,” Kennedy said.

Beyond traditional national security concerns, such as protecting the U.S. border, Kennedy said things like tourism can pose a sort of non-traditional national security threat in the Arctic.

For instance, Kennedy said that ever since the luxury cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity sailed through the Northwest Passage in 2016 and 2017, others in the tourism industry have begun looking to the Arctic as a place to invest time and resources.

Jenkins and Kennedy explained that much of Arctic hasn’t been charted to modern standards. Many of the existing charts were created using outdated techniques that date back to the 1800s, and as a result, navigating those waters can be treacherous.

With this increased presence in the Arctic, Kennedy explained there is also a heightened threat of pollution, oil spills, and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, among other things.

“I think it’s pretty well understood that should we have any significant oil spill in the Arctic, we’re not very well prepared,” Kennedy said.

He added that there are still a lot of questions surrounding how to even approach an oil spill in that region.

“What happens if you have an oil spill and it freezes up and the ice is now covering the oil? That’s a very dynamic situation -- the ice is moving, the oil is moving, so where’s it going to end up when it does thaw?” he questioned.

Beyond that, Jenkins explained that under the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic, the U.S. has search and rescue responsibilities that stretch all the way to the North Pole.

Responding to an incident near the North Pole poses a significant challenge for the U.S. As the number of transpolar flights increase and the cruise industry continues building more ice-capable ships that can reach the North Pole because it’s more accessible, the U.S. must reassess how to respond if an emergency were to occur in the region.

The U.S. Coast Guard, for example, is continually assessing the current and emerging risks associated with increased activity across the Arctic, including what could go wrong and what the potential impacts are for people operating on the water, the environment and the people who rely on the environment for their subsistence.

As the ice continues to retreat, there will only be more national security challenges to consider in the Arctic. The most important takeaway, Kennedy emphasized, is a continued U.S. presence in the Arctic.

“If we’re not there,” he said, “it’s hard to say we really care about the Arctic.”