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Home / US / Climate change melts the polar ice cap and the navy looks north: NPR

Climate change melts the polar ice cap and the navy looks north: NPR



An F / A-18 super hornet prepares to take off from USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Gulf of Alaska.

Zachariah Hughes / Alaska Public Media


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An F / A-18 Super Hornet prepares to depart from the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Gulf of Alaska.

Zachariah Hughes / Alaska Public Media

The US Navy looks north.

As climate change melts the ice, which has long sealed off the region from transit and industry, the military is considering how to expand its presence in the waters of the far north, especially outside the Alaskan coast.

The engine of the push is that much of the commercial activity and development interest in the region stems from nations that consider the Pentagon rivals, such as Russia and China.

The presence of the navy in Alaska has increased and decreased over the years. The state has a wealth of military and air force assets, and the Coast Guard is distributed to all areas. The Navy performs submarine exercises under the sea ice off Alaska's North Coast.

Until last year, no US aircraft carrier had ventured over the Arctic Circle for nearly three decades. The USS Harry S. Truman took part in naval exercises in the Norwegian Sea last October, the first ship of its kind to travel so far north since 1991.

And for the first time in a decade, in May this year, an aircraft carrier strike group – led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt – sailed it as part of Northern Edge to Alaska, a biennial large-scale military exercise, where employees of all military branches – airmen, marines, soldiers, sailors, and shores – are brought together. The Navy is always there, but this year it was in force.

Lt. Cmdr. Alex Diaz monitoring traffic on the USS Theodore Roosevelt flight deck.

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Lt. Cmdr. Alex Diaz, whose job it is to monitor the traffic on the USS Theodore Roosevelt flight deck.

Zachariah Hughes / Alaska Public Media

Counter Administrator Daniel Dwyer commands the nine ships of strike group Roosevelt. On an observation deck several floors above the flight deck, he said climate change adds a new urgency to training as it increases marine activity in Arctic waters.

"You see the shrinking of the polar ice cap, the opening of sea lanes, more traffic through these areas," said Dwyer. "It is the Navy's responsibility to protect America through these approaches."

The Department of Defense considers the threat of military conflict in the Arctic to be low, but alarmed by the increasing activity of Russia and China in the region. A 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office on the Arctic's role in the Arctic states that abundant natural resources such as gas, minerals and fish stocks are becoming more accessible with the melting of the polar ice cap, creating "competing sovereignty claims".

Defending US interests in the Arctic

When the Roosevelt sailed through the Gulf of Alaska, the F / A-18 Super Hornets launched and landed in a brisk clip. Each departure is a full-body experience for those on deck who shake everything from shoes to teeth. Aircraft are being launched by a steam catapult system powered by the ship's nuclear reactors.

Some of the jets flew more than 100 miles towards mainland Alaska and continued their work in former mountain ranges to synchronize with those of the Air Force and Marine Corps operating in the US airspace around Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. Then they returned to the Roosevelt. The entire journey takes about four hours.

A map shows the position of USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Gulf of Alaska.

Zachariah Hughes / Alaska Public Media


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A map of USS Theodore Roosevelt's position in the Gulf of Alaska.

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To land, the Superhornissen suddenly fell from the sky and dangled from a hook that caught on wires that brought them to a standstill in 183 feet of full speed. It looked less like a car braked than a roller coaster that still strikes to give the riders one last push.

"During this recovery we catch six to 25 planes," a voice crackled over a speaker on the deck. "I'm not sure yet [how many]. If they turn up on the ball, we'll catch them."

The deck was a coordinated mess in which crewmembers and planes swirled through intricate maneuvers like a baroque ballet swirling steam billowing from the launching gear.

The deck crews are referred to as "cones" because they wear uniforms that are color-matched to their work. Similar to sweets, most of the rainbow is represented. The Greens take care of takeoffs and landings. The Reds are dealing with weapons. Purples deal with fuel and are called "grapes".

The Navy indicates that, given the current expectations in the region, the crews are trained and equipped to carry out their missions as well as the navies of other nations. [19659008] "Regardless of the conditions: day, night, good weather, bad weather, shallow sea, heavy seas, it's the same procedure every time," Dwyer said of the jets taking off below as a helicopter on the flight deck deposed.

A Shift of Focus to the "High North"

At this year's inauguration of the Coast Guard Academy, national security adviser John Bolton said the military would play a role in American influence over the US US Air Force to "re-strengthen" Arctic.

"We want the High North to be a low-tension region where no country seeks to force others through military rearmament or economic exploitation," Bolton told the graduates.

The Trump administration is expected to uncover a new Arctic strategy sometime in June. [19659008] Predictors predict that the slowing ice will reliably open the northern seaways, reducing the time and cost of transporting goods from Asia to Europe and leading to an increase in shipping traffic.

The military is aware that the warming climate opens transit routes, where sea ice has long held on. However, the presence of the US Navy is currently low.

The F / A-18 Super Hornet is fired from a steam-powered catapult by the USS Theodore Roosevelt during naval exercises in the US Navy Gulf of Alaska.

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The F / A-18 Super Hornet is fired by a steam-powered catapult in front of the USS Theodore Roosevelt during the naval exercises in the Gulf of Alaska.

Zachariah Hughes / Alaska Public Media

"If you want to be a neighbor, you have to be in the neighborhood," said Vice Adm. John Alexander, Commander of the Navy's Third Fleet, which is responsible for the North Pacific, including the Bering Sea and Alaskan Arctic.

"We need to make sure that these waters are clear and open," Alexander said.

However, the Navy faces major obstacles to expanding its presence in a maritime environment as tough as the Arctic. According to the GAO report, most naval surface vessels are not "designed to operate in icy water."

The authors point out that naval officials have stated that "construction sites for contractors currently have no experience with the design for the construction of winterized ships, ice-capable surface fighters and amphibious warships."

After years of study, the Department of Defense still has select a location and design for a strategic port near the Arctic that can provide a lasting, strong naval presence.

And even if you can operate in the Arctic, you still have to arrive there. Currently, the waters of the region are frozen for much of the year. According to the Coast Guard, there are more than 40 icebreakers in Russia, including three new giant nuclear-propelled ships to be deployed by sea along the North Sea route. In contrast, the US military currently only has two working icebreakers.

This story is from American Homefront, a military and veteran reporting project by NPR and member stations.


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