Battle stations for an ice-free Arctic

The summer seas around the North Pole could be ice-free in 15 years. Rear Admiral David Titley was given the task of working out what that meant for the US Navy. He talks with Elizabeth Finkel.

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Scientists aboard the USS Connecticut as it surfaces to test the Arctic ice.
Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin O’Brien /DVIDS

In the unfolding Greek tragedy that is climate change, we’ve grown used to the voices of particular actors. There are the Cassandra scientists, the smug deniers and the vacillating politicians. One voice that’s not typically part of the cast is the United States Navy. But this February it spoke out loud and clear with the release of its “Arctic Roadmap”.

The Earth’s climate is changing and nowhere more so than around the North Pole. In about 16 years, what was once a year-round expanse of white ice and snow will become an ice-free expanse of blue ocean each summer. And that doesn’t just affect polar bears. Climate change deniers may bury their heads in the sand or find succour in statistical noise, but the US Navy is getting ready to deal with the first new ocean that strategists have had to deal with since Magellan sailed into the Pacific.

The 2014 Arctic Roadmap lays out the new challenges involved in patrolling an isolated, infrastructure-lacking and extremely harsh Arctic Ocean. The conclusion is that the Navy must now ready itself for everything from armed conflict to supporting mining, fishing and tourism.

This is not the first of the Navy’s Arctic Roadmaps. The inaugural plan was produced in 2009 by the now-retired Rear Admiral David Titley. After a career helping the Navy deal with the risks of climate, he is offering his services to the wider world as head of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University. “I’m civilianising this,” he told me at the Chicago meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) earlier this year.

‘The Arctic is not like Vegas – what happens there does not stay there.’

The 2014 AAAS conference takes place in the cavernous Hyatt Regency but in the nearby Swissotel, a five-minute trudge through an underground pedway, is a parallel world of media conferences – science-lite for the army of assembled journalists. Titley is on an early morning panel entitled “Santa’s revenge”. His four fellow panellists are drawn from US scientific institutes. But Titley – the clean-cut fellow in a beige suit and sky blue tie – stands out. I have arrived at the session a little late and, apart from one panellist, snowy-bearded James Overland from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, looking remarkably Santa-like, I’m not really sure what the Santa reference is all about.

The assembled scientists deliver some familiar facts. The Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Jennifer Francis from Rutgers University believes the resultant weakening of the polar vortex is probably responsible for the brutal blizzard that shut down many North American airports leaving conference participants a little thin on the ground.

Yet it is the retired naval officer who commands the most attention.

Climate change is like stacking a deck of cards, David Titley says. “You can be sure to get some strange hands." – Eric Forberger

“The Arctic is not like Vegas,” he says – unlike Sin City, what happens there does not stay there. It affects the rest of the planet climatically, economically and politically.

“It’s an ocean surrounded by land where millions of indigenous people have lived for thousands of years. And it’s changing, thanks to climate change, faster than any other region on Earth. We see that with sea ice, with the warming, with permafrost melt, with ice sheets sliding off Greenland.”

Stunning words from an admiral, so after the presentation I zero in on him. The engaging affability he’d presented on the panel is in full force. Titley is a master of the genteel cut-through, the turn of phrase that renders clunky jargon into a message of crystal clarity. So what did he think of the current “attribution” game in the US – the betting on whether this or that extreme event is due to climate change? Surely not a scientific pastime?

“It’s like stacking a deck of cards,” he says. “You can be sure to get some strange hands. Look at the storm track of Hurricane Sandy and its left hook to New Jersey. We haven’t seen anything like it in a hundred years. Is it climate change? When you see a lot of events that you’ve never seen in a hundred years, you start getting suspicious.”

Titley agrees to a longer interview and so we meet at 4.30pm after his scientific session. We retire to the bar in the vast atrium of the Hyatt Regency for beer and cheese. He remains candid and easy-going, free of regimented Navy-speak.

It’s not just the beer. Despite his formidable rank, Titley’s personality is that of a mild-mannered weatherman, a person accustomed to reducing complex data to practical information – and doing it with a smile. “I’ve done forecasting all my life,” he says. Those forecasts have had a lot riding on them, like keeping naval fleets away from deadly typhoons, predicting “pirate risk” for commercial vessels, or preparing the Navy for an Arctic Ocean. “With naval officers, no one was interested in models A, B or C. I had it boil it down and put it into plain language.” Now in his latest role at the Pennsylvania State University, he brings his skills to bear to help the world prepare for climate change. “None of this was planned… I’ve ended up in a position where I can straddle these different communities.”

Titley’s navy career trained him to reduce complex data to practical information. – Eric Forberger

It all began when he was five, growing up in New York state, when his favourite toy was a thermometer. Later, when his family moved to Jamaica for his father to take up a job as an accountant for a construction company, it was a rain gauge. He still has pages full of the immaculate daily records he kept back then. Titley joined the Navy as a way to pay his tuition fees. It was just after the Vietnam War and military service was unpopular. “I’m not sure I’d get in now,” he says.

In return for college, Titley owed the Navy four years of his life, but to his surprise it was to his liking, and the Navy certainly liked him. Barely a year in the service and he was in the Mediterranean piloting a destroyer.

Nights would see him in sole command of a multi-million-dollar ship and hundreds of lives. “You’re given responsibility at a very young age.”

A year and a half into the job and Titley was made the ship’s navigator, “one of the most rewarding jobs of my life”. There was no satellite navigation in the 1980s and he used a sextant to “shoot stars”. It was a valuable lesson for where he would find himself some 30 years later. “It teaches you the mindset of looking at a whole bunch of observations and mentally weighing it all to decide where you are and where you are going. Even today, I use a slide of a sextant in my talks. It’s about using lines of evidence that are really very different from each other. With climate change you have rising sea surface temperature, air temperature, ecosystems moving up in elevation, glaciers melting. Maybe you could argue about any one of these, but taken all together you’d need an amazingly complex theory to say global warming is not happening.”

Titley, right, testifies to a Senate committee on Arctic strategies. – Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley /DVIDS

After 28 years in the Navy, including 10 at sea, Titley’s childhood dream came true. He was made head of the Navy’s meteorology and oceanography services, headquartered in southern Mississippi. With that came promotion to admiral. His duties included keeping typhoons and ships well apart – a particularly sensitive mission for the US Navy as its second-greatest loss of life after Pearl Harbour was caused by Typhoon Cobra in 1944, when 790 sailors were lost with three destroyers. That disaster was made worse because meteorologists provided inaccurate information about the direction of the storm. “I would have my officers read the eyewitness account by C. Raymond Calhoun [Typhoon, the Other Enemy],” says Titley. “It scared the crap out of them.”

Titley’s duties also included predicting pirate risk. With intelligence on the approximate location of Somali pirate mother ships, and some long-range weather predictions – the motorised skiffs used for the chase are no match for two-metre waves – Titley could offer measures of risk along various stretches of the Somali coast.

And so the story might have ended, except that in March 2009 Titley received a call from Admiral Gary Roughead, the Chief of Naval Operations. The meteorologist experienced mild panic. What had he done? Titley’s orders were to come to Washington to brief the Navy on the state of the Arctic. He recalls Roughead saying something like, “We need to get a hold of this Arctic stuff. I want the US Navy to show leadership on this issue at a national level.” They were, Titley recalls, “the most wonderful orders I ever received.”

‘In the say ‘here’s the trend line, let’s prepare for that’.’

What everyone knew was that two years before, in September 2007, at the end of a long, warm summer, a vast chunk of the Arctic’s ancient, thick white ice melted to be replaced in the winter by a thin blue facsimile. The Navy wanted to know what the future held. Was the ice coming back or were we heading for ice-free Arctic summers? Titley, who only 10 years before had been something of a climate sceptic, had two months to deliver his best answer. He spent most of them talking to people with expertise in Arctic matters at the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington.

Evidently Titley delivered a commanding performance. He played a video produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing the wax and wane of the Arctic ice cap between 1994 and 2007. Summer after summer the ice cap would shrink further and the expanse of ice-free ocean grow larger. Since the late 1970s, the summer minimum ice cover has declined 12% a decade.

“I would go to any admiral and show him the satellite video and say, ‘unless you, Admiral, can tell me when this is going to stop, I think we better plan for this’. In the Pentagon you do that sort of thing all the time, whether its demographics, economics or politics, you say, ‘here’s the trend line, let’s prepare for that’.”

The Navy is expecting several ice-free routes across the Arctic in coming years. – Source: United States Navy

Titley’s forecast was that the Arctic was likely to be ice-free in the late summer by the late 2030s, a 50-year advance on what most people were expecting. He was duly appointed head of the US Navy’s first task force on climate change. But the pace of change galloped ahead even of that prediction. Five years later, the 2014 Roadmap headed by Rear Admiral Jonathan White, Titley’s former second-in-command, predicts summers in the Arctic to be ice-free in late summer by the mid 2020s. Titley says that this time around a lot more senior Navy are interested in the Roadmap. “They must have thought, ‘Holy s…, maybe five years ago those guys weren’t smoking dope after all’.”

So what is the Navy’s stance on climate change? Titley answers in a word: “pragmatic”. Indeed the opening up of the Arctic will create new scenarios. The Arctic could hold as much as 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its undiscovered oil. Nations will be eager to explore these newly accessible seabeds. And the newly open Arctic sea routes, like the Northern sea route transited by the Danish ship Nordic Orion last summer, are predicted to be reliably ice-free for six weeks each summer by 2025. That represents a significant short cut for vessels ferrying cargo from the Baltic to China.

Five countries border the Arctic – Russia, with half the Arctic coastline and the economically important port of Murmansk there, the United States, Canada, Denmark (Greenland) and Norway. Titley says all understand their responsibilities, co-operation in the region is exemplary and “armed conflict is very, very, very unlikely”. Nevertheless, with the recent events in Crimea and Ukraine, he warns: “It’s not a vacuum. Changes in Euro-Russian and US-Russia relations may impact how we work with and relate to Russia in the Arctic.”

The 2014 Arctic Roadmap is mostly about preparedness to operate ships in an unforgiving environment. “I’ve seen a submarine surface through eight feet of ice. There’s no coast guard to help you. If you screw up, it will kill you,” says Titley.

Despite the gloomy predictions for the climate change trajectory expressed at AAAS, Titley is not a pessimist. He takes inspiration from a past victory against the odds – the Apollo 13 moon mission. “We harnessed amazing ingenuity in a short time to save those astronauts.”

Ultimately he believes that data, the thing he has spent his life meticulously collecting and presenting, will win over our leaders. The main thing, he says, is for those who can communicate the facts about climate change to be persistent – a virtue he seems to have in spades. But “we’ll do a lot of suffering before we get to a solution”.

“At some point, I see a major US city like Atlanta running out of water. Then we’ll have our Apollo 13 moment.”

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