Environment: Operations

American Tern cargo vessel

The cargo vessel American Tern at McMurdo Station. A resupply vessel arrives once a year to McMurdo to bring food and materials.
Photo by Kristan Hutchison, courtesy of National Science Foundation.

Regions covered by sea ice play an important role in specialized human activities in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Large, but sparse, industrial operations take place in the Arctic. In Alaska, the Prudhoe Bay oil fields lie along the shore. In Russian Siberia, many cities along the Arctic coast have factories. Normally, most of these pollutants would sink near their source and only contaminate the local region. But if sea ice is present, these pollutants can become entrained, or captured, in the ice and distributed throughout the Arctic as the sea ice circulates.

Antarctica has no indigenous people, but several thousand people live on Antarctica during parts of the year, supporting scientific research at various stations. McMurdo Station, the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program, is resupplied by ships each year after an icebreaker clears a path through the sea ice. During years when sea ice is thicker and more prevalent, the icebreaker's job is more difficult and time-consuming. Thick sea ice delays the resupply and costs more money. In recent years, a large iceberg, called B-15A, wedged itself aground near McMurdo Station. The iceberg was more than 3,108 square kilometers (1,200 square miles) in area and up to 270 meters (886 feet) thick. It blocked currents and winds that normally pushed sea ice away from McMurdo. The sea ice was thicker and more abundant than usual, which made it more difficult for icebreakers to clear a path to McMurdo. An extra icebreaker was sent to help clear the ice, at a considerable expense.

Arctic operations are also affected by the presence of sea ice. While most of the Arctic is covered with perennial (year-round) sea ice, the Arctic Ocean is still a strategic sea route, for both commerce and the military.

The Arctic Ocean provides the shortest route between Europe and Asia. However, this route is typically impassable because of sea ice. Ships must traverse around Africa's Cape Horn or through the Panama Canal to travel between Europe and Asia. If sea ice extent continues to decline, routes through the Arctic Ocean may become navigable for part of the year.

Military operations

Navy and Coast Guard surface ships do not routinely cruise the heart of the Arctic Ocean, but submarines have historically used sea ice as the perfect cover to hide from surface ships and aircraft.

U.S.S. Pogy

U.S.S. Pogy (SSN 647) surfaces through Arctic ice at sunrise, 05 November 1996, during a 45-day research mission to the North Pole.
Photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Steven H. Vanderwerff, courtesy of U.S. Navy.

German U-boats used sea ice as an escape route after attacking ships on the Russian coast during World War II. When the Cold War emerged, submarine operations in the Arctic became a crucial part of strategic defense for the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1958, the U.S. submarine U.S.S. Nautilus was the first submarine to reach the North Pole and traverse under the ice across the entire Arctic. The cover provided by sea ice and the location of the Arctic Ocean—bounding the U.S. and the Soviet Union—provided the potential for submarines to surface through the ice near each country's coastline without warning, and launch missiles.

Sea ice can present a navigational hazard for submarines, which typically travel near the surface, and crews are always on the lookout for keels from ridged sea ice that may cause severe damage. Also, while some submarines in the Arctic have features to help surface through the ice, they still cannot surface through ice that is greater than three meters (nine feet) thick. Submarines that are not ice-strengthened can only surface through ice that is less than one meter (three feet) thick. Submarines must be able to quickly locate leads or thin ice to surface quickly during emergencies, to send messages, or to launch missiles.

U.S.S. Hawkbill

The sail of U.S.S. Hawkbill (SSN 666) breaks through the Arctic ice on 03 April 1999, at a camp set up as a joint venture between the U.S. Navy and the National Science Foundation.
[Still from CNN video]. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy.

Sea ice also plays an important role in submarine operations because of the ice's acoustic properties, the way it interacts with sound waves. Submarines use sonar, or pulses of sound waves, to "see" the area around them. Sonar is particularly critical in finding enemy submarines and obstacles to navigation. Sea ice cracks and groans as it moves around on the ocean surface, creating an acoustic signal that interferes with the signals detected by the submarine's sonar. Plus, the bottom of the sea ice reflects signals from other, nearby objects, which makes it difficult to interpret sonar returns. Sea ice can help a submarine avoid detection from an enemy submarine, but it can also impede attempts to track the enemy's location.

In the 21st century, the U.S. Navy continues to conduct operations under the ice, such as Ice Exercise (ICEX) missions in the Arctic.

In the 1990s, several scientific cruises took place as part of the Scientific Ice Expeditions (SCICEX). These operations were military in nature, and most details remain classified. However, submarines participating in SCICEX collected many sea ice and ocean observations that are otherwise difficult to obtain. The most important observations in regard to sea ice were estimates of ice thickness from an upward-looking sonar. A comparison of recent data with data from submarines in the 1950s through the 1970s shows that sea ice has thinned by about 40 percent. See the sea ice section of NSIDC's State of the Cryosphere for further details on thinning sea ice. NSIDC archives and distributes data from SCICEX in the Submarine Upward Looking Sonar Ice Draft Profile Data and Statistics data set.

U.S.S. Hawkbill

Decrease in Arctic sea ice draft from 1958 to 1997.

—Graph derived from Rothrock et al. 1999.

Science expeditions

In September 2019, the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) Mission begain — the largest polar expedition to date. Led by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), MOSAiC sent an international team of researchers to the Arctic, aboard the German research icebreaker Polarstern. With individual scientists working in months-long shifts, the mission aimed to spend a year drifting in Arctic ice to "take climate research to a completely new level."

Last updated: 3 April 2020