By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Lockwood, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
The maritime environment is constantly changing. With it, security concerns are presented and new opportunities for exploration open.
The Arctic is experiencing a trend of diminishing sea ice extent and thickness creating the likelihood of increased maritime activity in the region, including trans-oceanic shipping and resource extraction.
“But one does not simply cruise under ice — you have to work up to it.”
Today, vessels are starting to transit the Northwest Passage for more and more of the year. In this isolated environment, the U.S. Navy is conducting its Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2016. But the Navy has been eying the Arctic for decades. In 1960, the Navy sent the USS Sargo (SSN 583) through the Bering Strait to explore the icy north.
So how did all this ice exploration begin?
“Prior to completion,” relates the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, “Sargo was designated for an arctic cruise.” Her sail was strengthened, and much later, scientific instruments were added specifically for her future voyage. Many scientific specialists would later embark as well.
Leaving her warm homeport of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Sargo sailed north to explore the Arctic Basin and gather scientific data. But one does not simply cruise under ice — you have to work up to it. While much of the sea ice today is only a few meters, parts can run up to 20 meters thick. At the time of Sargo’s exploration, it was probably a bit thicker.
After reaching St. Matthews Island, about 60 degrees north of the equator, Sargo vertically dove down amid ice, block and brash. Everything went smoothly thanks much in part to the assistance from the Coast Guard icebreaker Staten Island. After ensuring hull integrity, Sargo continued even farther north.
On the morning of Feb. 9, 1960, the boat’s log states she surfaced 25 feet from the pole, 90 degrees north of the equator. With the boat in a freezer-like environment, I can only imagine her crew was probably huddling together for warmth.
But later that same day, they raised the Hawaiian flag at the pole — surely the furthest north a tropical flag has ever travelled. The next day, she dove again and headed for Fletcher’s Ice Island, which was literally a floating island of ice drifting around the Arctic. More tests were conducted, this time with the island’s scientists (who just got to live on floating island!).
11,000 miles after starting, many of them under ice, Sargo returned to Pearl Harbor on March 3. The Navy now had new data on arctic ice, water and the oceanography of the Arctic Basin.
ICEX 2016 owes much to Sargo’s groundwork. Not least of all, the name of U.S. Navy Ice Camp SARGO. The camp will serve as a temporary command center for conducting operations in the Arctic region.
As we watch the exercise develop, we will see how today’s Navy is following Sargo’s lead by leveraging exploration at sea to maintain maritime superiority.