Category Archives: Arctic

2016 Arctic Sea Ice Minimum Was Second Lowest on Record

On 15 September 2016, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, CO reported their preliminary assessment that the Arctic sea ice minimum for this year was reached on 10 September 2016.

Arctic sea ice minimum 10Sep2016Source: NSIDC

The minimum extent of the Arctic sea ice on 10 September 2016 was 4.14 million square kilometers (1.60 million square miles). This is the white area in the map above. The orange line on this map shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent of the Arctic sea ice for that day.

  • There were extensive areas of open water on the Northern Sea Route along the Arctic coast of Russia (the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, and in the Laptev and East Siberian seas).
  • In contrast, there was much less open water on parts of the Northwest Passage along the Arctic coast of Canada (around Banks and Victoria Islands).

The 2016 minimum tied with 2007 for the second lowest Arctic sea ice minimum on record.

The historic Arctic sea ice minimum, which occurred in 2012, was 3.39 million square kilometers (1.31 million square miles); about 18% less than in 2016 [750,000 square kilometers (290,000 square miles) less than in 2016].

You can read the NSIDC preliminary report on the 2016 Arctic sea ice minimum at the following link:

https://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

An historic event in the Arctic occurred in September 2016 when the commercial cruise liner Crystal Serenity, escorted by the RRS Shackleton, made the first transit of the Northwest Passage by a cruise liner. The voyage originated in Vancouver, Canada and arrived in New York City on 16 September 2016. The timing of this Arctic cruise coincided well with this year’s minimum sea ice conditions. See my 30 August 2016 post for more details on the Crystal Serenity’s historic Arctic voyage.

Cruise Liner Crystal Serenity is Navigating the Northwest Passage Now

Background:

The Northwest Passage connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans via an Arctic sea route along the north coasts of Alaska and Canada. The basic routes are shown in the following map.

The Northwest Passage connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans via an Arctic sea route along the north coasts of Alaska and Canada. The basic routes are shown in the following map.

Northwest PassageSource: Encyclopedia Britannica

While it has been common for icebreakers, research vessels and nuclear submarines to operate in these waters, it is quite uncommon for commercial or private vessels to attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage.

The first recorded transit of the Northwest Passage was made in 1903 – 06 by the famous Norwegian polar explorer Roland Amundsen in the ship Gjoa.

Amundsens ship GjoaAmundsen’s ship Gjoa. Source: Underwood Archives/UIG/Everett Collection

Since then, there have been many full transits of the Northwest Passage. You’ll find John MacFarlane’s list of 126 transits for the period from 1903 – 2006 on the Nauticapedia website at the following link:

http://www.nauticapedia.ca/Articles/NWP_Fulltransits.php

Notable Northwest Passage transits by commercial and private vessels

In August 1969, the heavily modified oil tanker SS Manhattan, chartered by Humble Oil & Refining Company, became the first commercial vessel to navigate the Northwest Passage. At the time, the SS Manhattan was the largest U.S. merchant vessel, with a length of 1,005 feet (306 meters), beam of 148 feet (45 meters), draft of 52 feet (16 meters), and a displacement of 115,000 tons. Total installed power was 43,000 shaft horsepower (32,000 kW).

THE MANHATTAN SS Manhattan and CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent. Source: Associated Press

Prior to the Arctic voyage, the SS Manhattan was fitted with an icebreaking bow and heavy steel sheathing along both sides of the hull and in other vulnerable locations to protect against ice. The specific route of the SS Manhattan, from the Atlantic to Prudhoe Bay and then back to the Atlantic, is shown below. Several U.S. and Canadian icebreakers supported the SS Manhattan during its voyage.

Manhattan route 1969Source: NOAA, Susie Harder – Arctic Council – Arctic marine shipping assessment (AMSA)

Oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. A barrel of crude oil was loaded on SS Manhattan in Prudhoe Bay to symbolize that supertankers operating in the Arctic could serve the newly discovered oil field. Further testing that winter off Baffin Island showed that year-round oil tanker operations in the Arctic were not feasible. Instead, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska was built.

In 2007, the Northwest Passage became ice-free and navigable along its entire length without the need for an icebreaker for 36 days during August and September. During that period, the sailing vessel Cloud Nine passed through the Northwest Passage during its 6,640 mile, 73 day transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific. You can read David Thoreson’s blog about this Arctic voyage, Sailing the Northwest Passage, at the following link:

http://davidthoreson.blogspot.com/2007/09/completing-northwest-passage-2007.html

This voyage was a remarkable achievement for a small vessel. In his blog, David Thoreson commented:

“I feel strongly that we have witnessed the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. The golden age of exploration, Amundsen’s era, has come to a close, and a new era of exploration involving study and change in the earth’s climate is just beginning. We on Cloud Nine have experienced both eras. Frozen in and stuck in the ice twice over 13 years, and now sailing through unscathed and witnessing an ice-free Northwest Passage. We have bridged the two eras.”

Are we seeing the start of tourism in the Northwest Passage?

On 10 August 2016, Crystal Serenity departed Vancouver for Seward Alaska and the start of what is scheduled to be a 32-day voyage to New York City via the Northwest Passage. The ship is scheduled to arrive in NYC on 16 September 2016. The planned route for this cruise is shown below.

nwp-map-300-dpiSource: Crystal Cruises

The Crystal Serenity is smaller than SS Manhattan, but still is a fairly big ship, with a length of 820 feet (250 meters), beam of 106 feet (32.3 meters), draft of 25 feet (7.6 meters), and a displacement of 68,870 tons. On this voyage, Capt. Birger Vorland and two Canadian pilots will navigate the Northwest Passage with more than 1,600 passengers and crew.

Crystal Serenity will be accompanied by the icebreaking escort vessel RRS (Royal Research Ship) Ernest Shackleton, which was chartered by Crystal Cruises for this support cruise. Along the planned route, there are few ports that can accommodate a vessel the size of Crystal Serenity. Along most of the route emergency response capabilities are quite limited. Therefore, RRS Shackleton is equipped to serve as a first response vessel in the event of an emergency aboard Crystal Serenity. RRS Shackleton also carries two helicopters and additional crew to support special adventures during the cruise.

Crystal Serenity at Seward AlaskaCrystal Serenity in Seward, Alaska. Source: NPR.com, Rachel Waldholz/Alaska Public Radio

You can find a current report on the sea ice extent along the Northwest Passage at the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s website at the following link:

http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

The ice extent report today is shown in the following chart, which shows that the current ice extent is well below the 1981 – 2010 median. However, there appear to be sections of the Northwest Passage around Banks and Victoria Islands that are still covered by the Arctic ice pack. Crystal Serenity is scheduled to be in these waters soon.

Ice extent 28Aug2016Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

You can track the current position of the Crystal Serenity as it makes its historic voyage at the following link:

http://www.cruisemapper.com/Crystal-Serenity-location?imo=9243667

As of 5:50 PM PDT, 29 August 2016, the ship is approaching Barrow, Alaska, as shown on the following map.

Location of Crystal Serenity 29Aug16Source: cruisemapper.com

A second cruise already is planned for 2017. You can book your Northwest Passage cruise on the Crystal Cruises website at the following link:

http://www.crystalcruises.com/northwest-passage-cruise

Update 24 September 2016: Mission accomplished!

On 16 September, the Crystal Serenity became the first cruise liner ever to transit the Northwest Passage. The west – east passage from Seward, Alaska to New York City took 32 days and covered 7,297 nautical miles (13,514 km).

Crystal Serenity Arrives in New York after Historic Northwest Passage VoyageCrystal Serenity arrives in NYC. Source: Crystal Cruises

The Sad State of Affairs of the U.S. Icebreaking Fleet and Implications for Future U.S. Arctic Operations

On 1 Sep 2015, while visiting Alaska, President Obama announced that he would speed up the acquisition of icebreakers to help the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) operate in the Arctic. A Congressional Research Service report entitled, Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress, was issued on 2 Sep 2015.  You can download this report at the following link:

https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf

This report asserts that a new heavy polar icebreaker will cost in the range from $900 million to $1.1 billion.  The report also provides an interesting history of prior USCG assessments  of their icebreaker needs and  budget actions taken over the past few years that significantly reduced the budget available to pursue new icebreaker acquisition.

Role of the National Science Foundation

In 2006, the G.W. Bush administration moved budget and management authority for the U.S. polar icebreaker fleet from the USCG to the National Science Foundation (NSF). The USCG retained custody of the polar icebreakers, which continue to be operated by USCG crews. This arrangement is recorded in the following 2006 document: Memorandum of Agreement Between United States Coast Guard and National Science Foundation Regarding Polar Icebreaking Support and Reimbursement. You can read the details of this convoluted agreement at the following link:

https://www.nsf.gov/geo/plr/opp_advisory/briefings/oct2005/2005_uscgnsf_moa.pdf

The current U.S. polar icebreaker fleet

Currently the entire U.S. national capability for Arctic and Antarctic icebreaking operations is found in a very small icebreaking fleet consisting of:

  • One heavy polar icebreaker, Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star
    • Commissioned in 1976
    • Displacement: 13,194 tons
    • Horsepower: 75,000 hp (gas turbines) + 18,000 hp (diesels)
  • One medium polar icebreaker, Coast Guard Cutter Healy
    • Commissioned in 1999
    • Displacement: 16,000 tons
    • Horsepower: 30,000 (diesels)
  • Some ice-capable tugs and tenders

In addition to this active “fleet”, the U.S. also has an inactive heavy polar icebreaker; the  Polar Sea (sister ship of Polar Star), which was commissioned in 1978 and placed in inactive commission in Seattle, WA in 2010 after a major propulsion plant equipment casualty. A 2013 USCG analysis, required by Congress to forestall the planned scrapping of the Polar Sea, showed that Polar Sea could be rehabilitated and reactivated for a fraction of the cost of building a new icebreaker. Polar Sea remains in inactive commission.

Polar Star_Polar SeaSource: Wikipedia

Polar Star & Polar Sea together in happier days.

In 2006, NSF put Polar Star in caretaker status due to equipment aging / wear-out issues. The ship originally was designed for a 30 year operating life.  After a modest refurbishment, the ship returned to Antarctic service in late 2013. Polar Star is expected to continue operating until about 2020.

After Polar Sea suffered its major propulsion system casualty in 2010, and until the Polar Star returned to service in late 2013, the medium icebreaker Healy was the only active U.S. polar icebreaker.

In February 2015, the USCG reported that it needed three heavy and three medium icebreakers to cover the U.S. “anticipated needs” in the Arctic and Antarctic. Six different U.S. agencies have missions in Polar regions.

U.S. Coast Guard’s 2013 Review of Major Icebreakers of the World is a chart that provides a good visual representation of the world’s icebreaker fleets. This chart is reproduced below, but you may need to go to the following link to see a more readable and downloadable pdf version of this  chart:

https://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg552/docs/20130718%20Major%20Icebreaker%20Chart.pdf

Icebreakers

The icons in this chart for the U.S. icebreaker fleet include the Polar Star, Polar Sea (inactive) and Healy, as expected. The other two vessels are:

  • Nathaniel B. Palmer, a privately owned, ice capable research ship leased by NSF to support Antarctic science missions.
  • Aiviq, a privately owned icebreaking, anchor-handling tug supply vessel chartered by Royal Dutch Shell to support their oil exploration activities in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.

So, really, the U.S. currently only has two polar icebreakers. One typically serves the Antarctic and one serves the Arctic.  In 2013, the USCG got approval too explore developing a new heavy-duty icebreaker.  In mid-2015, the USCG website reports:

“The Coast Guard is in the preliminary phase of a new, heavy polar icebreaker acquisition program. This stage in the process includes developing a formal mission need statement, a concept of operations, and an operational requirements document – all necessary before developing and implementing a detailed acquisition plan.”

Russia’s polar icebreaker fleet

In comparison, the USCG’s 2013 chart shows that Russia fields almost 40 icebreakers with up to a dozen more planned or under construction. Russia has national plans to exploit its Arctic resources along the Northern Sea Route, which passes through the Arctic Ocean along the north coast of Russia. Nuclear-powered icebreakers play important roles in those plans.

The first of the new LK-60 nuclear-powered heavy polar icebreakers, Arktika, is under construction in St. Petersburg’s Baltic Shipyard and is expected to enter service in 2017. Its icebreaking bow was installed in August 2015.

LK-60_Arktika-bow_Aug2015 Source: http://bellona.org/

Contracts for two additional LK-60-class icebreakers were placed in May 2014. They are scheduled for delivery in 2019 and 2020.

U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap 2014 – 2030

The recently published U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap 2014 – 2030 includes the following observations:

  • U.S. Navy expects the Arctic “to remain a low threat security environment where nations resolve differences peacefully.”
  • It sees its role as mostly a supporter of U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) operations and responder to search-and-rescue and disaster situations.
  • However, the presence of vast resource endowments and territorial disagreements “contributes to a possibility of localized episodes of friction in the Arctic Region, despite the peaceful intentions of the Arctic nations.”
  • “Navy functions in the Arctic Region are not different from those in other maritime regions; however, the Arctic Region environment makes the execution of many of these functions much more challenging.”

Regarding the first and third points, above, Russian activities in the Arctic during the past year suggest that the U.S. Navy has underestimated, at least publically, the likelihood of non-peaceful actions in the Arctic and the potential need for a military response in the region. Recent Russian activities in the Arctic highlight this risk.

Given the poor state of the U.S. polar icebreaker fleet, I would say that the last point, above, is a gross understatement. The USCG and the Navy are not well-positioned for surface operations in the Arctic Ocean. Surface naval operations in ice-covered Arctic regions will be almost impossible to execute without a capable U.S. icebreaker fleet.

You can download a copy of the Navy’s Arctic Roadmap at the following link:

http://www.navy.mil/docs/USN_arctic_roadmap.pdf

Examples of worrisome recent Russian activities in the Arctic are:

  • Since early 2014, Russia has been conducting bomber and fighter missions close to the airspace of its Arctic neighbors.  This kind of military behavior has not been seen since the Cold War ended in the early 1990s.
  • 1 December 2014: Russia’s new Arctic Joint Strategic Command became operational. This provides central management of all Russian military resources in the Arctic, and there are a lot of them. The new command, based on the Northern Fleet and headquartered at Severomorsk, will acquire military, naval surface and strategic nuclear subsurface, air force and aerospace defense units, assets, and bases transferred from other Russian Military Districts
  • 15 – 20 March 2015: Russia conducted a massive, five-day military exercise in the Arctic involving about 80,000 troops, 220 aircraft, 41 ships, and 15 submarines. This exercise was conducted on the one-year anniversary of the Russian annexation of Crimea.
  • 4 August 2015: Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that Russia had re-submitted to the United Nations it’s Arctic extended continental shelf claim. Russia is seeking recognition for its formal economic control of 1.2 million square kilometers (463,320 square miles) of Artic sea shelf extending more than 350 nautical miles from the shore.

The new U.S. Arctic Executive Steering Committee

In contrast to  Russia’s new Arctic Joint Strategic Command, President Obama issued an Executive Order in 15 January 2015 setting up the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which will be responsible for enhancing coordination of national efforts in the Arctic.  How this new Steering Committee will affect progress on revitalizing the U.S. polar icebreaker fleet remains to be seen. You can read the full text of this Executive Order at the following link:

https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/21/executive-order-enhancing-coordination-national-efforts-arctic

The bottom line

The U.S. is well behind the power curve for conducting operations in the Arctic that require icebreaker support.  Even with a well-funded new U.S. icebreaker construction program, it will take a decade before the first new ship is ready for service, and by that time, the new ship will be entering the fleet just as the  Polar Star is retiring or entering a comprehensive life-extension refurbishment program.

If you find yourself icebound in the Arctic anytime in the next decade, I think your best bet is to call the Canadians or the Russians for help.

5 February 2016 update:

In mid-January 2016, former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp made the following points at the annual Surface Navy Association meeting near Washington D.C.:

  • The U.S. will need eight icebreakers if it decides to have one patrolling in each polar region at all times.  The Coast Guard has never been able to support that high an operational tempo.
  • U.S. Arctic policy is a matter of national security; not just a matter of defense. The State Department’s vision focuses as well on sovereign rights and responsibilities of Arctic nations, maritime safety, energy, economic interests, environmental stewardship, scientific research and support to indigenous peoples.
  • More icebreakers are essential, because the U.S. can’t support its policies without being physically able to move about in the polar regions.

Read more details at the following link:

http://www.navytimes.com/story/military/2016/01/15/coast-guard-needs-8-icebreakers-cover-polar-regions-retired-4-star/78749864/

The current Coast Guard Commandant, Adm. Paul Zukunft, has stated that the schedule for the new icebreaker procurement program calls for a contract award for one icebreaker by fall 2019, with production beginning in 2020. Initial operational capability for this first new icebreaker would not be until the mid-2020s.  A Federal Business Opportunity (FBO) notice for the USCG Polar Icebreaker Replacement Program was posted online on 13 January 2016.  You can read the FBO notice and download the industry data package at the following link:

https://www.fbo.gov/index?s=opportunity&mode=form&id=68bf40747603b6acecc73e5ccc2974b6&tab=core&_cview=1

Well, this is a start.  When the new icebreaker enters the Coast Guard fleet and Polar Star retires after about 50 years of operation, the U.S. still will have only two polar icebreakers.

Arctic Matters – The Global Connection to Changes in the Arctic

Arctic Matters is new public education resource produced by the Polar Research Board of the National Research Council (NRC) and published by National Academies Press (NAP). It draws upon a large collection of peer-reviewed NRC reports and other national and international reports to provide a brief, reader-friendly primer on the complex ways in which the changes currently affecting the Arctic and its diverse people, resources, and environment can, in turn, affect the entire globe.

image     Source: NAP

You can download this booklet for free from NAP at the following link:

http://www.nap.edu/catalog/21717/arctic-matters-the-global-connection-to-changes-in-the-arctic

You also can visit NRC interactive Arctic Matters website at the following link:

http://nas-sites.org/americasclimatechoices/more-resources-on-climate-change/arctic-matters-the-global-connection-to-changes-in-the-arctic-2/

 

 

2014 – 2015 Arctic Sea Ice Maximum Extent was Lowest yet Recorded

The National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, CO, announced on 19 March 2015 that the 2014-2015 Arctic sea ice maximum extent was the lowest since record-keeping started in 1979. In addition, sea ice likely hit its maximum extent nearly two weeks earlier than in recent decades, on February 25, 2015. This happened even as unusually cold air and stormy weather occurred across the eastern half of the United States and Canada this past winter.

sea-ice-extent-march-2015-e1426861980589

The extent of the Arctic sea ice pack is shown in the following graph from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The blue line is the current year.

Arctic sea ice maximum statistics

 

Sea ice grew to it’s maximum extent of 14.54 million square kilometers (5.61 million square miles) on February 25, 2015. If we added an additional 1.10 million square kilometers (425,000 square miles) of sea ice to the Arctic right now, we would be at the average sea ice extent for the 1981-2010 period.

You can read more at the following link:

http://earthsky.org/earth/surprise-arctic-sea-ice-sets-new-record-winter-low?utm_source=EarthSky+News&utm_campaign=bc8bd7ced0-EarthSky_News&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_c643945d79-bc8bd7ced0-394288401