83rd Annual

Thursday, 13 February 2003: 2:30 PM
Why did the Pentagon Become Interested in Polar Warming?
Ronald E. Doel, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
As pundits and politicians argue about global warming today, it is easy to imagine that concern with increased polar temperatures rose only after the American environmental movement gained ground in the 1960s. It is also easy to imagine that those concerned with this warming trend were left-leaning environmentalists intent on highlighting ecological damage to the biosphere.

Neither assumption is correct. The first serious discussions about the consequences of polar melting in the United States took place neither at an academic conference nor at an environmental rally. Rather, melting of the Arctic Ocean became an issue at the Pentagon in the late 1940s, when military leaders viewed polar climate as a national security concern.

Why was the U.S. military concerned about the Arctic?

Understanding this issue requires us to recall the circumstances at the start of the Cold War. As escalating tensions strained relations between Moscow and Washington, Pentagon officials tried to anticipate fighting a hot war with the Soviet Union. Their attention quickly turned to the Arctic. Alaska shared a common border with Siberia, and the shortest route for Soviet bombers targeting U.S. cities lay across the Pole. By 1946 the Strategic Air Command's fleet of B-29s began maintaining an atomic deterrence above the polar ice. But while the Soviets were undisputed masters of the far north, the unending ice fields overflown by U.S. pilots were a frightening terra incognito.

Civilian scientists advising the Pentagon also knew of reports from the noted Swedish scientist Hans Ahlmann that glaciers in high northern latitudes were receding at a rapid clip. Already meteorologists were noticing that the world had been getting warmer since the turn of the century. Ahlmann believed polar warming was equally real. Addressing a closed-door Pentagon meeting in June 1947, Ahlmann insisted that studying arctic climate variation was in America's interest. American scientists had earlier pressed for new research on Arctic ice--pointing out its value for improving weather forecasts and military communications, rescuing stranded pilots, detecting (and hiding) proposed polar-crossing submarines, and predicting changes in Soviet fishing harvests and shipping routes. But Ahlmann's evidence made climate a strategic concern. Pentagon interest in the Arctic increased in 1953 when the respected polar scientist Paul A. Siple forcefully stated: "if the climatic trend continues as at the current rate, it is conceivable that the North Polar basin might be an ice free ocean in mid-summer within another fifty years... The significance of major climatic changes within the next few decades to our modern civilization is not to be taken lightly."

In this paper I address the question: how did military fascination over predicted Arctic warming influence climate studies and research programs involving the far north?

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