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When the Navy Operated in the Arctic

By Rear Adm. Jonathan White
Oceanographer of the Navy and Director Task Force Climate Change

Sixty years ago this day, the U.S. Navy icebreaker USS Burton Island (AGB 1) and the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker USCGC Northwind (WAGB 282) became the first two ships to transit the fabled Northwest Passage through the ice-choked M’Clure Strait.


USS Burton Island
USS Burton Island


For centuries, European explorers had searched for a northern sea passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, a direct route to the rich markets of Asia.  When Columbus sailed across the Atlantic, he thought he had discovered a shorter, westerly route to the East Indies, the center of the extremely valuable spice trade.  Instead, he ran into a huge impediment to reaching Asia – North and South America.  This was, of course, before the Panama Canal, and the only way to get to Asia was to go around Cape Horn on the tip of South America, an extremely long and perilous voyage.

European explorers immediately began looking for a northern passage that would take them west to Asia via a sea route.  Such well-known explorers as Drake, Cabot, Verrazano, Cartier, Frobisher, Hudson, and Baffin were all looking for the Northwest Passage when they performed their seminal explorations of North America.

NWP Transit of USS Burton Island
NWP Transit of USS Burton Island


During the 1840-50s, Superintendent of the Naval Observatory Cmdr. Matthew Fontaine Maury made great progress in understanding ocean currents, which led him to believe a Northwest Passage must exist and that it must be occasionally ice free.  By reviewing log books of whaling ships, Maury noticed references to designs and markings on harpoons found on captured whales in the Atlantic that indicated they were from Pacific Ocean whalers.  Maury correctly surmised that the whales must be using the Arctic as a transit between oceans.  Since whales must come up to breath, there had to be a passage through the Arctic that was occasionally ice-free.

As it turns out, there are at least five Northwest Passages because the route transits through an archipelago of distinct islands, providing various options for how to get through.  Once through these islands, an explorer would enter the Arctic Ocean and could proceed via the Bering Strait to the Pacific Ocean.  Unfortunately, this passage was generally frozen over, and tricky to navigate even when there were breaks in the ice.  But that did not stop intrepid explorers from trying to navigate through it, despite some tragic results.

Obviously, the U.S. Navy is not new to Arctic operations.  During World War II, Navy ships went into Arctic waters to resupply the Soviet Union, our ally against the Axis powers.  During the Cold War, Navy ships helped support the effort to construct the Distant Early Warning system of radar installations, known as the DEW Line.

USS Burton Island using explosives to break ice in Antarctica 1964
USS Burton Island using explosives to break ice in Antarctica 1964

Burton Island was the sixth of seven Wind-class heavy icebreakers built by the Navy in the 1940s.  Christened in 1946, she immediately made trips to both Antarctica and the Arctic coast of Alaska.  After 1947, she made 19 trips to the Arctic Ocean, providing ice breaking services, helicopter support, supply delivery, ice reconnaissance, survey operations, and other scientific research.

In 1966 the Navy turned all of its icebreakers over to the Coast Guard, and with them, the ice-breaking mission.

Sixty years after Burton Island steamed through the Northwest Passage, the Arctic is a very different place.  It has witnessed the greatest loss of summer sea ice in recorded history and many nations are anticipating commercial benefits from a seasonally-navigable Arctic Ocean.  In 2007 and 2008, the Northwest Passage was ice-free for the first time in history.

The commercial shipping, oil and gas, mineral, fishing, and tourism industries have already started to operate in the Arctic Ocean there during the short polar summer.  The Arctic nation governments are watching developments with interest and making plans, as are other nations who may stand to benefit from an accessible Arctic.

Navies from the various Arctic states, including the United States, are assessing their capabilities and preparing for future mission requirements.  The U.S. Navy released its Arctic Roadmap 2014-2030 last February and the Coast Guard released an Arctic Strategy in May, 2013.  Currently the Navy and Coast Guard have limited Arctic experience in their surface fleets.  The Arctic remains a harsh and unforgiving environment, and it’s much more challenging to operate there than in most oceans.  It’s also more expensive.  Our task will be to build our expertise and capabilities through methodical training and exercises.  As the Arctic evolves to support increased maritime activity in the years and decades ahead, we must be ready to answer any mission demand, and we must be able to do it safely.

The Coast Guard’s mission-set in coastal and territorial waters is unique but complementary to the Navy’s open ocean mission.  In the decades ahead, we will work together as partners, and we’ll maintain partnerships with our Arctic neighbors to ensure a secure, stable, and prosperous Arctic Region in the future.