Arctic submarine maneuvers test capability below the ice

Diminishing Arctic Ocean ice due to climate warming has been blamed for everything from changing weather patterns to the decline of animals that rely on frozen habitat. But submarines? Seriously, the US Navy has studied the Arctic ice for over half a century, using submarines to explore changes beneath the frozen surface.  This invaluable data has a dual purpose.

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Tim Gallaudet (Photo by Ellen Lockyer)
Tim Gallaudet (Photo by Ellen Lockyer)

Picture this.. an unbroken landscape of white stretching beyond the horizon. Suddenly, something dark breaks through from below, pushing through a six foot thick blanket of frozen seawater. On March 17, 1959 the USS Skate did exactly that, punching its hatch through ice at the North Pole, after having traveled three thousand miles in and under the ice for a month.  Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet :

“Submarines, they adjust their bouyancy and so that will cause them to surface, but with ice, it just takes a little more power. Then, you have to end up getting a crew out and then you have to sort of get the ice off the vessel, because there is still some of it, and if it is thick, two feet thick, pull out the chain saws and the ice picks and you go to town to clear a space for the hatch.”

Gallaudet is the oceanographer for the Navy and head of the Navy’s Meteorology and Oceanography Command. Gallaudet is just back from ICEX, this year’s Navy ice camp, located some 200 miles north of Prudhoe Bay, where he witnessed a similar submarine exercise.

He says the ice camps, which started in the late 1940s, have served to allow the Navy and scientists, to gather information on the region long before climate change became a household phrase. Research at the camps provides data for the National Ice Center, but the camps are primarily designed to assist the Navy’s defense preparedness.

“This is nothing new. We’ve done this for decades, over 65 years of Arctic operations with our submarine force. And that’s what this is, a continuation of maintaining that level of proficiency. In fact, the one submarine that surfaced, that I was on board, it is doing a transfer from San Diego to Portsmouth Maine, via the Arctic, because it is the fastest route.”

Gallaudet’s command keeps track of ice thickness, because the data helps route the submarines underneath the thinnest ice, so it is easier for them to surface. While underneath the ice camps, the subs are put through their paces to determine capability.

“Primarily, to do a submarine exercise, you want to know where the subs are, send directions to the sub commands, and observe their operations so we can learn how well they do them, and to do that you have to establish a camp, drill holes through the ice and put in hydrophones and acoustic communications devices to direct the submarine operations.”

One aspect of thinning ice has important applications — it has changed the Navy’s ability to read sonar.

“And because the ice has been retreating so rapidly, it’s all different now. We can now see a lot longer with out sonar, or listen is the right word. We can detect at much longer ranges at certain depths, when we listen or our subs or for other subs or activity, due to some interesting oceanographic phenomena that are occurring because there is less ice.”

He says an elite group of sub pilots is trained to read forward looking sonar to detect hazards, like ice formations that can drop down as far as two hundred feet underneath the surface.

Gallaudet says the Navy has published an Arctic Roadmap .. a plan that addresses what the Navy needs to do to respond to new requirements now that disappearing ice his leading to more human activity in the region. He says, at this time, the Navy is more concerned with future military threats, and the requirements to meet those threats, than it is with providing ice breaking capability for surface vessels.

This year, the Navy partnered with Canada, Norway and the UK in the ice exercise. The Alaska Air and Army National Guard provided support for the camps.