Mississippi and the Arctic: Making Ice Predictions from the Magnolia State

By Pamela Posey, researcher in the Ocean Dynamics & Prediction Branch of the Naval Research Laboratory’s Oceanography Division, and Dr. Ruth Preller, Superintendent of the Oceanography Division and previous lead of the polar research team at the Naval Research Laboratory in Hancock County, Mississippi

The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Hampton (SSN 767) surfaces at Ice Camp Nautilus, located on a sheet of ice adrift on the Arctic Ocean, during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2014. ICEX is a U.S. Navy exercise highlighting submarine capabilities in the Arctic environment and usually occurs every 2–3 years. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin by Dr. Amy Sun/Released)

At first glance, Mississippi, with its hot, humid summers and mild winters, has little in common with the cold, snowy Arctic. However, on the banks of the Pearl River, next to the Mississippi–Louisiana border, one can find a small group of scientists that study the Arctic at the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). Housed within the John C. Stennis Space Center (SSC), the Oceanography Division of the NRL is responsible for planning and executing research, development, testing and evaluation of programs in biological, chemical, dynamical, and physical processes of the deep ocean and coastal areas, including the Arctic Ocean.

From the Stennis Space Center, MS campus (left) to the Arctic (right), NRL researchers study sea ice and ocean conditions in high northern latitudes. (Photos courtesy of the authors.)

The United States Department of Defense conducts various missions, exercises, and training in the Arctic. These operations can require resources including icebreakers, Navy or Coast Guard ships, unmanned aerial or underwater vehicles, or even submarines. Such operations can be challenging and hazardous due to the harsh Arctic environment. Winter air temperatures can plummet to -40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, high winds and breaking waves occur, and a continuously changing ice cover can make previously open water regions impassable. Conditions in the Arctic can change rapidly as well as unexpectedly, and keeping track of conditions is critical to mission success.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy (shown on the right) escorts the Russian ice-breaking oil tanker, Renda, delivering over 100 million gallons of fuel after an early October 2011 storm caused an unexpected freezing of the coastal waters prematurely closing the port at Nome, Alaska. (Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis)

In 2014, a joint military training exercise in the Arctic called Ice Exercise, or ICEX, was brought to an unexpected early end because of a rapid change in sea ice conditions. The ICEX began on March 17 and was scheduled to continue through March 30 with an ice camp, called Nautilus, set up on a large ice floe north of the Alaskan coast near Barrow, Alaska.

Ice Camp Nautilus, located on a sheet of ice adrift on the Arctic Ocean, during Ice Exercise (ICEX) on March 18, 2014. ICEX is a U.S. Navy exercise held regularly highlighting submarine capabilities in an Arctic environment. Due to rapidly changing ice conditions, the ice camp was closed three days earlier than expected, which illustrates the difficulty of operating in the Arctic's unpredictable weather conditions. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin by Dr. Amy Sun/Released)

Large shifts in wind direction and speed, however, created instabilities in the movement of the ice flows near the camp leading to multiple fractures in the ice. These cracks prevented the use of several airfields used for transporting personnel and equipment to the ice camp. The rapidly changing conditions of the ice, along with extremely low temperatures and poor visibility, hampered operations. On March 27, the ice camp completely disbanded in a controlled fashion without loss of equipment or personnel.

Knowing Arctic environmental conditions is of great importance to the success and safety for humans operating in the Arctic. Predicting conditions a few days to weeks in advance could help mitigate environmental risks during military, scientific, humanitarian and other missions. NRL has developed Arctic ice and ocean forecast systems based on numerical models, similar to the type of models that the National Weather Service uses for their daily weather forecasts. NRL’s Arctic models currently provide a 7-day forecast each day of sea ice movement as well as the growth and decay of the ice cover.

Example products of ice concentration (left) and ice thickness (right) for November 30, 2016 from the Navy’s operational Arctic Cap Nowcast/Forecast System (ACNFS) developed by the Naval Research Lab. Ice concentration is the percentage of an area covered by ice. Ice thickness (in meters) varies throughout the Arctic with the thickest ice in November of 2016 found along the northern Greenland and Canadian coasts. November represents a period of ice growth after the summer melt season.(Image credits: Naval Research Laboratory, HYCOM Consortium for Data-Assimilative Ocean Modeling)

These daily sea ice forecasts are sent to the National Ice Center (NIC) in Suitland, Maryland — a U.S. government center whose mission is “to provide worldwide operational sea ice analyses and forecasts for government agencies worldwide and the civil sector”— for further distribution to their users, both military and civilian.

One might ask, “How can ice conditions be forecast from southern Mississippi?” It does seem a little bit out of place, but the NRL Oceanography Division has been predicting ice conditions in the Arctic for the Navy since the 1990s.

The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) monitors meteorological, oceanographic and solar-terrestrial physics for the US Department of Defense (Image credit: Wikipedia public domain). Near real-time DMSP Special Sensor Microwave Imager/Sounder (SSMIS) sea ice concentration (November 30, 2016) for both the northern and southern hemispheres. (Image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder)

NRL scientists develop and validate the Navy’s ice forecast systems that use satellite observations of ice cover to initialize each day’s forecast.These forecast systems are transitioned from NRL into Navy operations at the Naval Oceanographic Office (NAVOCEANO), also located at the SSC, and are run on Department of Defense supercomputers, also located at SSC. Having the researchers co-located with the operational Navy facilitates the seamless transition from research to operations — and this all happens in southern Mississippi!

Examples of sea ice shapes and sizes from an aircraft (top left and right) and from the ground north of Barrow Alaska. (Photos courtesy of the authors)

Arctic sea ice can be found in many shapes and sizes, from large ridged “hills” of ice to multi-size ice floes to very thin ice. The NRL researchers in southern Mississippi intend to continue to observe, model and predict the ever changing ice cover in the coming years. They are expanding their efforts to forecast polar sea ice by extending their models to include the southern hemisphere for the ice covered waters around the Antarctic. As new data sources providing more detail of the current ice conditions (such as satellite derived products and field measurements) become available, the NRL researchers will be working to include them as part of their prediction systems so they can provide those adventurous enough to work in the Arctic, the best possible information to conduct that work safely.

Dr. Ruth Preller (top) and Pamela Posey. (Photos courtesy of the authors)

About the Authors:

Dr. Ruth Preller is the Superintendent of the Oceanography Division at the Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) site, located at Stennis Space Center, Mississippi. NRL’s Oceanography Division is the major center for in-house Navy research and development in oceanography. Dr. Preller’s research has ranged from modeling and understanding the circulation of the Mediterranean Sea to sea ice modeling and forecasting. She lead the research team that transitioned the first sea ice forecasting systems, Polar Ice Prediction Systems (PIPS 1.0/2.0), for operational use by the Navy. Dr. Preller received her B.S. degree from Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in meteorology from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. Dr. Preller was the recipient of the Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Executive in the Senior Executive Service, 2009.

Pamela Posey has 30+ years of experience working at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Arctic sea ice prediction. She was a key member of the research team that transitioned the Polar Ice Prediction Systems (PIPS 1.0/2.0), used for Navy Arctic forecasting. In 2013, she led the transition of the Arctic Cap Nowcast/Forecast System, the Navy’s current operational ice forecasting system. She assisted in the development of the Global Ocean Prediction System (GOFS 3.1), a fully coupled ocean-ice system that predicts ice conditions in both the Arctic and Antarctic. She also leads the 6.4 satellite data assimilation ice project and contributes in developing NRL’s relocatable Arctic regional ice-ocean-atmosphere system. She was awarded the Dr. Delores Etter Top Navy Scientist and Engineering of the Year (2013) for her contributions to Navy sea ice modeling.

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