How the U.S. Navy Is Using Underwater Drones to Study Melting Arctic Ice
January 12, 2021 Topic: Security Region: arctic Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: DronesSubmarinesSeagliderArcticU.S. Navy

How the U.S. Navy Is Using Underwater Drones to Study Melting Arctic Ice

Knowing how the Arctic environment will change is key to being able to wage war there if necessary.

Underwater drones have been quietly patrolling beneath the Arctic ice for many years now, to assess, study, analyze and report the changing environmental conditions of the Arctic waterways.

The question of Arctic ice is again resurfacing with vigor in light of the U.S. Navy’s now published new strategy document, called “A Blue Arctic.”

U.S. Navy scientists have in recent years been operating a 110-pound, 2.8 meter autonomous robot called Seaglider to collect data beneath the surface of the Arctic ice. As far back as the end of the summer in 2014, Office of Naval Research scientists had deployed over 100 robotic platforms in the ice and the ocean. Engineered with sensors to receive acoustic “pings” from beneath the surface, the Seagliders were suspended beneath the ice by buoys placed at certain predetermined locations.

The drones have been measuring the temperature and salt content to help scientists develop more accurate computer models with which to predict the anticipated future pace of melting ice, Martin Jeffries, former science advisor to the Office of Naval Research, told the National Interest in an interview several years ago. Jeffries retired last year. Learning more detail about anticipated environmental change and the pace at which ice will melt provides crucial input for strategic Navy planners preparing for future war.

An acoustic signal was sent to help us determine where in the water column below the ice the Seaglider was located to determine temperature and salinity measurements. Scientists then learned temperature and salinity content in the water column from the surface down to depths of 1,000 meters.

Having less ice in the summer means arctic waters have greater exposure to wind and sunlight, factors which can further compound the quickening pace of melting ice, Jeffries explained.

Measuring the temperature of the water beneath the ice helps scientists understand how much greater exposure to wind and sunlight is mixing up the water column and potentially raising the water temperature. Wind-mixing breaks down the water stratification, creates more turbulence in the water column and brings heat from deeper into the ocean up closer to the surface, creating warmer water which then in turn melts more ice.

Jeffries said that warm waters from both the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean currently flow into the Arctic region; warm waters from the Pacific are about 50 meters below the surface, and warmer waters from the Atlantic can flow as deep as 250 meters below the surface.

The Office of Naval Research is also exploring ways to engineer weapons systems able to retain operational functionality at extreme sub-zero temperatures. Some of these innovations include hull-warming sensors for ships operating in icy waters and other technologies designed to improve the Navy’s ability to operate in the cold, snow, ice and fog of the Arctic waters.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.