Navy Task Force To Study Climate Change

With climate change come the possibilities of changing ocean currents, rising sea levels and shrinking polar ice caps. The Navy has created a task force to examine how climate change might affect national security. Rear Admiral David Titley, heads the task force, and he talks with Steve Inskeep about the challenges of climate change.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is the season when the polar ice cap retreats. And in recent years it has backed up a lot more than in the past. One of the latest people to have a look is Rear Admiral David Titley. He is the oceanographer of the Navy. He's on a task force studying how climate change could affect national security.

Rear Admiral Titley just spent several days onboard a Coast Guard cutter in the Arctic. And as the Cutter Healy worked the waters north of Alaska, Titley spotted only a single piece of ice on a calm sea.

What does it look like when you're out on the Arctic Ocean in July of 2009?

Rear Admiral DAVID TITLEY (Oceanographer, United States Navy): The temperature of the water was about 39 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit. We had a lot of hazy sky. The sun, of course, never set at that latitude. But it was always low in the sky. The air temperatures were in the 40s to even at one point approached 50 degrees. And, as I told the crew onboard Healy, I've seen actually many times worse conditions off of southern California or Virginia.

I was also impressed by the fact that we steamed out there for two days and we did not see another ship or really any other type of manmade article of any kind. It's a very empty place out there.

INSKEEP: And I suppose one of the concerns is whether it's going to stay that way as there's less and less ice.

Admiral TITLEY: Exactly. And that is something I know the Coast Guard thinks hard about and the Navy's been thinking hard about, along with the entire government and really all the nations of the Arctic Council are certainly thinking about how that Arctic environment is changing.

INSKEEP: What are some of the what-ifs that you raise when you start thinking about this?

Admiral TITLEY: Well, you start thinking about it, as the ice retreats one of the obvious what-ifs are what if large shipping companies start to operate across the Arctic, the so-called trans-Arctic routes either through the Northwest Passage or the northern sea routes. People are certainly taking a look at the types of resource - use resource exploitation that might be increasing in the Arctic.

Tourism is a, I understand, a growing concern. We understood from talking to the people in Alaska and people in the Coast Guard that a German tourist vessel, the Bremen, pulled into Barrow, just anchored offshore last year. And that was the first time that - at least in living memory - that people had seen German tourists in Barrow, Alaska.

INSKEEP: What, if anything, worries you about the future when you think about this changing ocean and what might be happening there 10 years from now or 30 years from now?

Admiral TITLEY: What worries me is if there are important physical processes that are going on in the Arctic that we have no understanding of. Because if that is happening then our forecasts of what the Arctic may look like in 20 or 30 or 40 years from now, may, in fact, be completely wrong. And I'm talking about forecasts from a physical science prospective. So that's why I think it's important that we, as a nation, and working with the international community, continue the types of research we're doing up there so that we are not surprised by some sorts of physical changes.

If the Arctic is changing, and it is changing, that we understand what that rate of change will be, so that we can then plan and kind of make sure that our structures and our concepts of operation are in concert with what that future Arctic state may look like.

INSKEEP: Rear Admiral David Titley is oceanographer of the Navy. And he has just finished a trip aboard a U.S. Coast Guard ship in the Arctic Ocean.

Thanks very much.

Admiral TITLEY: Thank you, Steve.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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