The Polar bears, Seals and Sea Lions are picking up more water to swim in, yet amid circumstances which could have a detrimental long-term impact upon their natural habitat. The Arctic ice is melting and fast. The pace at which ice is warming up and dissolving into the ocean continues to generate an increasing sense of alarm for a wide swath of countries, businesses and adventure seekers.
Less ice in the Arctic means more open water, waterways and shipping routes in the region. More open water naturally leads to increased maritime transportation and greater competition for natural resources such as oil and gas mining.
As a result, Navy scientists are using unmanned underwater autonomous robots, or drones, to examine what’s called the marginal ice zone—the portion of frozen ocean’s packed ice that meets open water, Martin Jeffries, former science advisor to the Office of Naval Research (ONR), told The National Interest several years ago. (Jeffries retired in 2020.)
During this discussion several years ago, Jeffries said ONR scientists have been studying water salinity, temperatures of the water column and the impact of the waves upon the ice cover, water temperature and surrounding atmosphere.
“Waves can be damaging to the ice cover when they crash into the ice. It can accelerate the melting,” Jeffries said in the previous interview.
The idea behind the research is to assess the pace of change in the Arctic environment as a way to better predict the pace of melting ice. Faster ice melting means the opening up of new strategic waterways, passage routes and overall activity in the region among nations.
The U.S. Navy’s just released Arctic strategy, called “a Blue Arctic,” identifies the unfolding phenomenon. “In the decades ahead, rapidly melting sea ice and increasingly navigable Arctic waters—a Blue Arctic—will create new challenges and opportunities off our northern shores,” the strategy writes.
Jeffries explained that by absorbing more sunlight, or solar radiation, the surface of the ocean becomes much warmer, leading ice to melt at a faster pace. It’s called the “albedo feedback mechanism,” a term which refers to the reflectivity of surface ice. Surface ice has a much higher “albedo,” allowing it to reflect sunlight and solar radiation back into the atmosphere.
Jeffries explained that water is much darker and has a low ‘albedo’—it absorbs a lot more solar radiation which heats up the water, therefore increasing the pace of ice melting. Therefore, this becomes what could be called a self-perpetuating cycle, increased sun warmth impacts the water column when then in turn increases the water temperature to dissolve large segments of ice. 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.
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.