Efforts to determine why the Arctic ice cap is shrinking could be seriously hampered by the U.S. Navy’s recent decision to discontinue its six-year-old Scientific Ice Expeditions program. Navy officials say its attack submarine fleet, pared to 50 boats from 94 a decade ago, may be too busy to engage in such research activities.
The annual science-only cruises, conducted at no cost to civilian researchers aboard Sturgeon-class attack submarines, are scheduled to end in March, when the Navy will retire the last of those aging vessels.
Scientists who have participated in the naval expeditions say the submarines allow them to do in days what would require months aboard an icebreaker. During the first voyage in 1993, researchers aboard the U.S.S. Pargo spent 17 days under the Arctic ice while traveling at 30 mph. They ran as deep as 800 feet, deploying instrument probes and taking sonar measurements.
During the last decade, the Arctic ice cap has thinned by about a foot, to 6.5 feet thick. In some places it has retreated by nearly 100 miles.
Some observers blame the meltdown on manmade global warming, while others consider it simply part of a natural cycle. Research already has shown that ice cap thinning and retreat took place long before man arrived on the planet, but scientists say another 10 years of continuous monitoring is needed to understand the cause of the current melting.
In the meantime, polar researchers–some of who wonder if robot subs can do the same job–are negotiating with the Navy to keep at least one of its newer, larger Los Angeles-class submarines available for research. A spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said talks also are being held with the Russians for use of their nuclear subs, but political and technical problems could sink that proposal.