Why the Army Has an Office Dedicated to Tracking the World’s Biggest Blocks of Ice


Katherine Quinn, a civilian Navy analyst and ice master, was doing a weekly check of the icebergs she was monitoring when she saw it: a tooth-shaped piece that had separated from iceberg A-74 in the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. The iceberg had “calved” or split into two drifting pieces, each as large as a major city in the world.

A-74A, as it was now called, the larger piece, measured 28 nautical miles by 18 nautical miles, or about 32 statute miles by 21 miles. A-74B, the calf, was nine nautical miles by four nautical miles, or about 10 miles by five statute miles — as long as Washington, DC and about half as wide.

But why does the US military care enough about how the ice breaks up at the bottom of the globe to have an office dedicated to monitoring it?

The National Ice Center

It turns out that the US National Ice Center, operated by the US Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, based in Suitland, Maryland, and staffed jointly by active duty officers and civilians from the Navy, Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is the only entity that monitors the movement and formation of ice around the world. And it has been doing so since shortly after World War II, when the Navy began monitoring ice for its own ships.

The most famous ship-to-ice disaster is, of course, the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, but the Navy has had many opportunities to consider the value of reliable tactical ice surveillance while operating in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The service even came up with a plan to put a flight deck on an iceberg and turn it into an aircraft carrier, build a prototype from a mixture of ice sawdust called Pykrete in Lake Patricia in Canada in 1943. Unfortunately, this sci-fi carrier never made it to the fleet.

Today, many different entities may want to keep up to date with iceberg calving and other ice movements, Katherine Quinn told Sandboxx News in a phone interview.

“Calving is a natural process, so it will happen. Many of those we follow are very important. And if a ship is there, they can see it,” she said. “I know researchers [also] use this information. There are companies, there are scientists who follow this information.

Fast and dangerous

Not only are the icebergs tracked by the center huge – they now monitor 53 icebergs in Antarctica that measure at least 10 nautical miles – but they can also move quite quickly. A-74 became an iceberg when it calved from the Brunt Ice Shelf, home to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Halley Research Station, in March 2021. It has since drifted 90 nautical miles – or 104 statute miles, to the west, officials said the National Ice Center.

Halley researchers had tracked the potential calving event for 10 years or more, moving one of its research stations in 2016 and limit station deployments to the Antarctic summer in 2017 in recognition of the imminent need for a sudden evacuation.

In August 2021, the newly formed A-74 was hit by strong easterly winds and collided with the shelf, largely a non-event, but one that could have created a massive new iceberg if the collision s was produced with more force.

Two divers are lowered to the ice Feb. 1, 2020 from the U.S. Coast Guard Polestar (WAGB-10) about seven miles north of McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Scuba divers from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army, and Royal Canadian Navy serve aboard the Polar Star to perform much-needed emergency repairs on the 44-year-old heavy icebreaker. The Seattle-based Polar Star crew is working near Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2020, the U.S. military’s contribution to the U.S. Antarctic Program run by the National Science Foundation. (NyxoLyno Cangemi/US Coast Guard)

National Ice Center analysts will leave

Coast Guard cutters and Navy surface ships and submarines often check in with the National Ice Center before scheduled deployments or movements to get an accurate picture of the ice at their destination, Quinn said.

“In fact, we provide tailor-made support products. So if a ship, whether it’s the Coast Guard, a Navy ship, a research vessel, universities, all of that – when they’re traveling somewhere, they might say: “Hey, that’s where we’re going. What can you provide us? »

In addition to tracking current ice formation and forecasting future ice, the center’s analysts sometimes deploy aboard Coast Guard icebreakers to conduct research and provide crews with an extra level of situational awareness.

Quinn added that the center produces a daily ice analysis, which shows ice cover and distinguishes between light ice and pack ice, new ice formation and old ice, so skippers know exactly what they will meet in a new region.

To do this, Quinn and the other analysts rely on tools including incredibly detailed satellite imagery from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and NOAA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometric Suite (VIIRS). . They also use Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery, which uses radio waves to create three-dimensional models of landscapes and other objects. When clouds or harsh weather obscure an area, Quinn said, SAR imagery can still provide an accurate picture of the ice. But there are some things only an experienced human eye can pick up.

New ice, she said, does not show up on visible imagery and therefore must be interpreted from SAR models.

“For new ice, it’s going to be darker and you’re going to see it forming around the current ice edge,” she said. “As it gets thicker, it gets brighter…As the ice gets bigger, it starts to fracture, so new ice becomes young ice. As this ice circles around the Arctic for a season or years, these floes become more rounded and also darker. So we know what type of ice cream we are considering based on the appearance.

Erratic like ice

Calving can be frantic at times, sporadic at others. Prior to the calving of A-74 in June, the last reported calving was the creation of a new iceberg, C-39, from the Scott Glacier area of ​​the Shackleton Ice Shelf in April. Icebergs are named according to the quadrant in which they formed (A, B, C, or D), then the order in which their tracking through the ice center began. The center does not name Arctic icebergs, which are generally much smaller than their southern counterparts.

“I was away for a few months a few years ago, and when I came back there were a ton of new icebergs,” Quinn said. “Sometimes they are constantly calving and breaking.”

While Quinn said she would not comment on trends in ice activity or how it has been affected by climate change, saying she is not a climatologist, scientists said that warmer air and ocean temperatures in Antarctica have led to increased sea ice collapse. (The Brunt Ice Shelf A-74 calving is not believed to be linked to climate change.) Senior Navy and Coast Guard Officials spoke several times about how the newly opened sea routes in the Arctic are changing the national security picture and creating a new global competition for dominance.

“Our work is and always has been important. And I think we’re also growing our customer base through what we do and the services we provide,” Quinn told Sandboxx News. “Our active duty officers who are here, they learn what we do, and they take it with them into their new commands. And they tell us, they say these commands, ‘Hey, if you need an ice analysis, the National Ice Center has it for you.’ »

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