U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy prepares for departure from Seward

Published: Jun. 30, 2016 at 10:00 PM AKDT
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The crew of the Coast Guard cutter Healy, one of only two American icebreakers, has begun its four-month journey to the Arctic Ocean to carry out three different scientific research projects.

The Healy is the nation’s newest and largest high-latitude polar icebreaker, designed to break through ice sheets up to 10 feet thick - 4.5-foot-thick ice continuously - and operate in conditions at -50º Fahrenheit.

"We go on expeditions to places that no one else has been before," said William Woityra, Commander of the C.G.C. Healy. "We're taking scientists up there because we're the only ship that can get them to the places that they need to go to collect this data."

By the time of departure for the next leg of its Arctic journey from Seward, Alaska, on Saturday, the ship will have all of its 89 crew members plus dozens of researchers on board, along with gear for each of them.

"There will be microscopes, personal workstations, all sorts of equipment," said Healy's Public Affairs Officer Brian Hagerty, "so that the scientists are embarked during the summer can execute their research."

A 4,200 sq. ft. vessel, Healy has a rich history, and maybe even a richer future when it comes to the project payoff of research findings.

The C.G.C. Healy was named after Capt. Mike Healy, who lived in the 1800s before the U.S. Coast Guard became what it is today. Healy was in the revenue cutter service, which preceded the current federal presence in Alaska. He was the son of a slave and worked with Alaska natives, even bringing caribou from Russia to Alaska.

"We take great pride in being on a ship named after such a historic figure, someone who did amazing things for the country," said Capt. Jason Hamilton. "The crew we have on this ship is the best in the Coast Guard and I think, the best in the world. And that crew enables that access and enables us to work with world-class scientists."

While the ship can support other missions, such as search and rescue, law enforcement and environmental protection, this trip is all about the pursuit of science: From the 420-foot vessel, the research team will primarily be conducting a series of specific missions, each focusing on the biology, chemistry geology and physics of the Arctic Ocean and its ecosystems.

"The U.S. is an Arctic nation because of Alaska," Woityra said. "So we're exploring, taking scientists up there and getting data that's helping us learn all sorts of things.

"This is one of the least explored and least understood ecosystems on the planet," he said.

For the first mission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Alaska-Anchorage will assess the biological diversity of the Chukchi Sea, very near to where Shell had been exploring for oil.

"It's from sea ice down to sea floor," Woityra said. "We'll have a baseline of that information, so years from now, we'll know what it looked like before the ice went away."

Up next will be supporting researchers deploying acoustic bottom moorings. Those will collect data on how climate change and decreased ice coverage is affecting the Arctic Ocean.

The final mission will be to use sonar mapping and bottom dredging for data collection on the Extended Continental Shelf, in order to support the United States’ claim for natural resources found on and beneath the ocean floor. As with the former missions, this will allow the collection of data that's necessary to understand what's going on in the Arctic right now, as well as help support the extension of United States borders.

Put simply, empirical data from the last mission will help show that the United States' Extended Continental Shelf goes beyond the exclusive economical zone, or EEZ, which is set to 200 nautical miles. The EEZ is where the U.S. and other coastal nations have jurisdiction over natural resources.

"This will help the U.S. establish the fact that we have an Extended Continental Shelf that extends beyond the 200 nautical miles," Hamilton said, and in turn give America sovereignty for the purpose of exploring, conserving and managing natural resources, such as oil and natural gas.

The Healy and its crew will return to their home port in Seattle this coming October.