Submarines: May 18, 2003

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: During the ICEX 2003 naval exercises near the North Pole, the American submarine Connecticut (SSN 22) poked it's sail and rudder through the ice. When an officer looked around outside via the periscope, he noted that his sub was being stalked by a hostile polar bear. The periscope cam was turned on, and these photos of a polar bear chewing on the subs rear rudder resulted. The damage was said to be minor. The SSN 22 is a Seawolf class boat, one of the navy's newest submarines. It wasn't designed as a polar bear snack, but that's how life is sometimes. 

There are over 20,000 polar bears living in Arctic waters (although some live in Hudson's bay and down the Pacific coast of Alaska.) The bears normally live on pack ice or ice flows and prey on seals. Some come ashore during July and August, when offshore ice melts. There they live off their fat, or dead sea life that washes ashore. Some have been seen as far north as the North Pole, but there's little food for them up there.

American submarines have been operating under the Arctic ice for over half a century. In August, 1958, the American nuclear submarine USS Nautilus, passed under the ice at the North Pole for the first time. In the Summer of 1962, two U.S. nuclear subs surfaced at the north pole. All of this arctic activity was to prove that nuclear subs could operate up there, and that ballistic missile subs could launch their missiles there as well. American, and Russian, subs have been operating up there ever since. They have also used their sonar to measure the ice thickness and report that the ice has lost 40 percent of its thickness in the last 20 years. This has caused problems for the polar bears, who feed on seals that surface near offshore ice flows or through breathing holes in pack ice. Some bears are forced to come ashore earlier because of the longer warm season. This is caused by a combination of global warming and the normal fluctuation of Arctic ice thickness.

Submariners have seen polar bears in the past, but this is one of the few times that the bear saw the sub first, and apparently mistook it for the world's largest chunk of bear food. However, this could cause legal problems for the captain of the USS Connecticut. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 makes it illegal for "any person or vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States . . . to take any marine mammal on the high seas." "Take" is defined to include "harass," and "harassment" means, among other things, "any act of . . . annoyance which has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering . . ." The polar bear in this situation was "disturbed" and "annoyed" to discover that what appeared to be a huge meal from under the ice turned out to be an inedible U.S. submarine. This can be construed as "disruption" of the bear's normal feeding pattern, thus making the U.S. Navy liable to legal action.


 


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