Jonathan White: Science Can Ensure Arctic Security

National, economic and environmental security in the Arctic depends on good weather and ice forecasts, safe navigation and solid communication networks, all of which can be improved by investing in science, says Jonathan White, VP Ocean Science and Strategy at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership.

Written byHannah Hoag Published on Jan. 14, 2016 Read time Approx. 6 minutes
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Jonathan White knows just how much we still have to learn about the Arctic Ocean – and he wants science to chart the path forward.

As the vice president for Ocean Science and Strategy at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes research, education and sound ocean policy, White helps bring together academia, industry, government and other organizations to answer critical questions about the planet’s oceans.

White joined Ocean Leadership in September 2015, after a 32-year career in the U.S. Navy, where he was an oceanographer and the director of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change. He focused on the Arctic Ocean during the final three years of his Navy career and led the development of the Navy’s Arctic Roadmap 2014-2030.

Less than 1 percent of the U.S. maritime Arctic is charted to modern international standards and most communications satellites orbiting the Earth do not cover the Arctic, making the prospect of increased traffic in the region a security challenge.

Arctic Deeply spoke with White about how investments in science and technology can ensure security – environmental, economic, personnel, national defense and homeland security – in an Arctic that’s in flux.

Arctic Deeply: What is the focus of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership?

Jonathan White: We’re a consortium of academic institutions, industry and some other nonprofit organizations, with 89 plus members, including some of the best academic ocean science institutions in the world, such as Woods Hole, Scripps, Texas A&M and University of Washington. We were designed to bring together academic oceans interests, industrial oceans interests, government oceans interests and the interests of other organizations to solve some of our oceans’ critical problems.

We advocate for good ocean science and technology to answer critical questions. We want to have the industrial folks sitting next to the academic folks, so then we can start to ask: “How much damage is an oil spill really going to do? How much sound am I really putting into the ocean if I have a wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island? What does it mean for whales?”

Arctic Deeply: Is there a recent success you can highlight?

Jonathan White: We recently had a budget passed in the U.S. for 2016, the omnibus budget that was signed off by the president. There had been a lot of talk about limiting the amount of funding to scientific research, especially research related to the geosciences, and a lot of that work is related to the Arctic. We got our academic community together and created a campaign to explain to Congress why this was a bad idea and why our national security relied on sound scientific research. Our role was to bring science, government and industry together.

Arctic Deeply: While you were in the U.S. Navy you worked on the development of the Navy’s Arctic Roadmap. How can safety and operational capacity in the Arctic be improved?

Jonathan White: One way is by being able to predict changes in the environment to ensure safe maritime operations, through weather forecasts and ice forecasts. We do a good job of forecasting weather in D.C., but we definitely don’t do it that well in the Arctic.

Another is the ability to navigate safely. We don’t have good charts for many of the Arctic waterways. As the ice continues to recede, and more and more water is open for longer periods of time, having good charting – so we make sure that we don’t run ships into the bottom – is very important.

There are also communication gaps. We have all become very reliant on satellite communications, but we don’t have that up in the Arctic for a lot of the physical reasons. If you want to find a ship that is in trouble, we need to know where it is and if there is anyone else there that might be able to help – and how fast they can get there.

Those are some of the major gaps: weather ice-ocean forecasts, navigation, communication and maritime domain awareness.

The other gap is the capability gap of being able to operate, especially with surface ships, you need ice hardened ships. A lot has been published on the need to recapitalize the U.S. icebreaker fleet.

Arctic Deeply: How do we close those gaps?

Jonathan White: NASA invests billions of dollars to figure out the science and technical issues of space exploration. We need to figure out the same issues for the Arctic. We need to invest in the science up front. By investing in science, we will ensure that the Arctic evolves securely, and this means economic security, environmental security and national security, which includes both international events and homeland security. It is all about security through science.

Arctic Deeply: Can satellite systems and other technology improve weather and ice forecasting?

Jonathan White: Canada is building a polar communication and weather satellite system and they’re asking other countries, including the U.S., to co-invest with them. There are a lot of opportunities for partnerships. Scientists are great at working together, but scientists don’t always plan effectively based on the long-term decisions that need to be made. At some point you have to take the science that you have and make some decisions: Can I send a cruise ship there or not? Should I build ships that are ice capable? Am I going to be able to drill safely for oil? You have to be able to look at those things from an international perspective.

Arctic Deeply: It sounds like you’re saying, how do we integrate science and knowledge into the government decision making process?

Jonathan White: Yes – and into international policy making. And how do we do it effectively so that we all agree: Let’s not try to get oil out of the ground in the Arctic for another five years until we can do a better job of this. Let’s not send any cruise ships into these areas because it is too hard to get out there and rescue them. Let’s not let any ships that carry oil come up into the Arctic unless we can make darn sure they are not going to spill it.

Some of that is being worked, but some of it is making the public more aware of why it should care. Well, you care if you’re going to take an Arctic cruise ship. You care if you’re going to be buying gas that is based on oil from the Arctic. You care because the Arctic is a very important part of our planet, and if we screw it up we end up screwing up a lot of the planet.

Arctic Deeply: Where should the U.S. invest in scientific research in the Arctic?

Jonathan White: I’d like to see money put into space systems that we can use to understand the Arctic. They don’t have to be expensive.

We need to look at how we can improve navigation. There is a lot of talk about icebreakers, but you can get ice-capable ships that can measure the depth of the water for a lot cheaper than an icebreaker. Investing in ships that would help them do that may be more important than investing in a big icebreaker.

We need to invest in partnerships between the science community and the industries that want to use the Arctic for economic reasons. Shell Oil invested $7 billion to do experimental drilling in the Arctic and then said it was too expensive. There were a lot of scientists saying that it was way too early for that, that the science needed to be done first.

If we take advantage of the science and let the science run its due course before we make bad decisions, we can have a peaceful, a prosperous and a pristine Arctic in the future. And by doing those three things and a few others, we can maybe get it right and not screw it up like we have the rest of the planet.

Arctic Deeply: Where would you suggest those investments be directed, to NASA, NOAA or somewhere else? How much do we need?

Jonathan White: No one expects major increases in anyone’s budgets right now. It’s better to bring people together who have interests in the Arctic, whether it is the cruise ship industry, the oil industry, those interested in minerals extraction, and those that want to look at the Arctic for transit routes. We need to understand what the problems are and what the scientific requirements are.

Top image: Operators aboard a U.S. Coast Guard zodiak recover a small unmanned aircraft after demonstrating its capabilities for detecting oil from the air during Arctic Shield 2013. Investing in science and technology could enhance security in the Arctic Ocean, says Jonathan White of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. (NOAA)