CASTINE, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — The first training program in the United States for navigating Arctic ice has been developed by Maine Maritime Academy.

Students at MMA just completed the first semester-long class, developed by Capt. Ralph Pundt, a retired merchant marine tanker captain and professor at MMA.

The new program was created at the request of the U.S. Coast Guard as part of a Dept. of Homeland Security grant to the University of Alaska and Maine Maritime.

"The ice is disappearing quickly," says Pundt about Arctic ice that has been steadily retreating as temperatures in that region become warmer.

He says the fabled Northwest Passage, a shortcut from Atlantic to Pacific that was once impossible to navigate, has now become a summer reality. Because sailing that route could dramatically shorten the time for ships to cross from Europe or the east coast of the U.S. to Asia, Pundt and the students say the Coast Guard wants officers in the merchant marine to be trained to handle the Arctic ice.

The actual training program uses classroom work plus hands-on time in ship simulators. The simulators resemble the bridge of a ship, with all the controls and navigation gear, and a large array of video screens showing computer images of the ship moving through ice fields. MMA hired a consulting firm to design the elaborate software, which mimics various aspects of the ice and sea, to make the training as real as possible.

Capt. Pundt says Mariners around the country will be able to take much of the class online and go to several designated centers, with simulators, for some of the hands-on training and final exams.

He is now developing an advanced ice course, which the Coast Guard will require for captains and chief mates.