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Nuclear Subs Taking Scientists on Secret Arctic Missions

Feb 21, 2011 – 2:45 PM
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Joseph Schuman

Joseph Schuman Senior Correspondent

SAN DIEGO -- To avoid detection and take advantage of the ultimate polar route during classified missions, U.S. Navy nuclear submarines regularly cross under the Arctic. So why not do a little science on the way?

Starting this year, civilian scientists from the Navy's San Diego-based Arctic Submarine Laboratory will join the crews on otherwise secret passages under the ice to gather data on phenomena that range from the effects of global warming to how changes to the Arctic could help or threaten American shipping interests.

Los Angeles-class submarine USS Annapolis
U.S. Navy
The submarine USS Annapolis is shown on the surface of the Arctic Ocean after breaking through 3 feet of ice during Ice Exercise 2009. Civilian scientists will join Navy submarine crews on otherwise secret passages under the Arctic ice to gather data on global warming and other phenomena.
A memorandum of agreement signed last year by the commanders of U.S. submarine forces in the Atlantic and Pacific, the chief of naval research and the National Science Foundation outlines a plan to capitalize on the underwater fleet's ability to go where scientists could otherwise never venture.

The program is called Science Ice Expeditions, or Scicex, and builds on a previous series of hybrid missions in the 1990s.

All scientific undertakings and equipment on board the subs will have to conform to the security requirements of the planned submarine operations. The vessels' commanding officers will retain "absolute authority to modify or delete portions of the science plan" if they threaten to interfere with the subs' safety or missions, according to the document.

And though the scientific data will be shared with the public after the missions, starting and ending points of information gathering will be tailored "to avoid any inference of the classified aspects of the submarine's mission."

Moreover, "all data will be afforded proper protection if determined to be classified due to extenuating circumstances or existing national security guidance."

But the Navy is willing to let the subs take an extra two or three days to cross under the polar ice cap to allow the scientists to collect data and even water samples.

Bill Smethie, a chemist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and participant in the program, said the military is expecting to get a lot out of it as well.

"The Navy seems to be quite interested in the changes that are occurring in the Arctic," Smethie told the science journal Nature. "They're interested because they need to know what capabilities they'll need to operate in the Arctic in the future and what U.S. assets need to be protected, such as shipping, which may become more prevalent."

For the scientists, the submarine access is an invaluable opportunity, especially as a means of tracking the effects of climate change.

"We need to develop time series to see how things are changing in the Arctic, and things are changing quite rapidly now," Smethie said. "As the ice is melting back, it's changing the freshwater content. And it's changing the biology as more water becomes open during the summer."

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From the subs, the scientists will be able to launch expendable conductivity, temperature and depth sensors that gather a host of data on salinity, nutrients, chemical composition and sea life as they fall through the water.

The original Scicex program included five unclassified one-shot scientific missions between 1995 and 1998 that were specifically aimed at studying the ice canopy, Arctic waters and seafloor. That program ended when the Sturgeon-class nuclear subs used for the missions were decommissioned.

The new Scicex, with one or two science missions a year initially anticipated, is open-ended.
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