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Agency helps U.S., DOD execute Arctic strategy at 'top of the world'

The US Coast Guard Cutter Healy (foreground) and Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent (background) work together on an Arctic Ocean survey in 2011. (University of New Hampshire/NOAA.)
By Jason Moll, NGA Office of Corporate Communications

While the U.S. has had an interest in the Arctic since it purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, climate change has caused national leaders to develop new policies and strategies for the region.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has a key role in fulfilling the nation’s Arctic strategies because of its mission and ability to understand the land, sea and human activity, said Alan Goldberg, a scientist in the agency’s Source Directorate.

Warmer temperatures are causing the region’s ice to melt, which is exposing areas of land and water that have been covered for eons, said Goldberg.

“It’s not melting at a steady rate, but actually is accelerating,” said Goldberg. “Less ice means less light and heat is being reflected back into space. The ocean ends up absorbing all of that energy, which causes more ice to melt.”

The melting of the polar ice has created newly navigable waterways and provided access to virtually untouched fisheries and large deposits of minerals, including petroleum, said Michael Parke, a senior technical analyst with the Frontier Studies and Analysis Group in NGA’s Office of Geospatial Intelligence Management.

New access to the region’s resources has sparked a mad dash among Arctic countries and others hoping to profit, said Parke. Along with the U.S., the eight Arctic countries are Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Denmark, through its association with Greenland.

Calling the Arctic one of the planet’s last great frontiers, President Barack Obama commissioned a policy paper in May 2013 that defined the nation’s interests and objectives in the polar region. The national strategy was followed by Department of Defense and Navy strategies in November 2013 and February 2014. Together, the strategies outline U.S. government plans to protect its interests and achieve its objectives in the region.

NGA’s Arctic activities include mapmaking, electrooptical and radar imagery to monitor natural and human activity, and products and services that enable safe navigation, said Goldberg. Commercial synthetic aperture radar, or SAR, is particularly helpful since it can peer through clouds and capture imagery during the region’s long nights. Commercial SAR coverage is also relatively robust, with each satellite making 14 passes per day over the high Arctic.

“Space-based remote sensing and communication systems are ideal for the region, given its remote location, sparse population and limited infrastructure,” said Goldberg. “These systems allow us to maintain an understanding of the Arctic’s land and water without having to physically be there.”

NGA’s expertise in safety of navigation will be needed as the region becomes what Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called “an evolving navigable ocean” when he introduced the DOD Arctic Strategy.

Traffic in the Northern Sea Route, which links Russia’s Far East with Europe, has increased dramatically since mariners completed the first commercial crossing in 2009. Seventy-one vessels transited the route in 2013, compared to 46 vessels in 2012, according to information from the Northern Sea Route Information Office, a private organization based in Norway.

NGA works with the National Ice Center, or NIC, a joint activity of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Navy and Coast Guard, to advise mariners about where it is safe to travel in the Arctic, said Goldberg.

NGA supplies NIC with SAR imagery that identifies regions of sea ice. NIC passes the information to mariners through bulletins and posts on its website.

NGA also responds to requests for information during special circumstances, like when the Coast Guard dispatched an ice-breaking vessel to Nome, Alaska, after the city’s port and approaches froze in the winter of 2011- 12, said Goldberg.

“NGA’s provision of SAR and (electro-optical) imagery was critical to helping the Coast Guard reach Nome and allow much-needed fuel and supplies to get in,” said Goldberg. “Ice breakers don’t travel in a straight line, but zigzag through whatever route is easiest—and fastest—to break. Time is of the essence during emergencies like this.”

NGA also uses underwater depth data, called bathymetry, to help produce charts the Navy and other mariners use to navigate, said Whitney Anderson, a bathymetrist in NGA’s Maritime Safety Office. NGA obtains raw bathymetric data from ships operating single and multi-beam sonars that ping the ocean floor to determine the depth and produces comprehensive maps with the information it obtains.

“We have seen a marked increase in requests for information in the Arctic,” said Anderson. “And as the waterways expand, we’ll need even more bathymetric data to make sure our charts are as accurate as possible.”

The value of safety of navigation goes beyond helping ships travel from one place to another, said Anderson.

“Safety of navigation is a fundamental component of what we call ‘safety of life at sea,’” said Anderson. “The safety of navigation mission supports the preservation of life and commerce and supports the nation’s defense and the Navy’s dominance of the high seas.”

Policymakers also will increasingly rely on NGA’s mapping expertise to help define boundaries and settle disputes, said Anderson.

“As the ice recedes and more areas of the Arctic become navigable, you’re seeing more debate among international parties and others about who has the rights to the area’s navigable sea lanes and minerals above and below the ocean floor,” said Anderson.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea captures customary law as it relates to the world’s oceans, said Parke. The law states that a country has sovereignty rights extending 12 miles from its shoreline. A country also has exclusive economic rights up to 200 nautical miles from its shoreline. A country has rights to resources on or below the bottom on parts of the continental shelf beyond its exclusive economic zone. Since this includes oil, gas and minerals, this latter right has become contentious in many places including the Arctic.

The international community has yet to universally recognize all of the territorial agreements nations have made with each other, said Parke. The U.S. and its citizens have a direct interest in how these disagreements are resolved.

NGA’s work will be essential in helping the U.S. stay informed about what other nations and non-state actors are doing, said Parke.

“It’s necessary for the U.S. to maintain a leadership position in the region,” said Parke. “At the same time, NGA and its partners are well-positioned to play a key role in informing (the nation’s) leadership about the changing nature of the Arctic.”

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