In mid-July the United States Coast Guard Cutter Healy departed for a four-month deployment in the Arctic. Based in Seattle, Washington, Healy is the most advanced icebreaker operated by the USCG and the only U.S. icebreaker to currently operate in the Arctic. She is also the largest vessel operated by the USCG, measuring 420 feet. Built in New Orleans, Healy was commissioned in 2000 after transiting the Northwest Passage to her Pacific Northwest home port.
Each year the Healy performs an Arctic deployment to bring scientists to the Arctic Ocean. This year scientists from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) will be joining Healy to conduct three major studies in the region.
Healy’s first mission is a NOAA-sponsored mission to increase understanding of biological processes along Alaska’s Continental Shelf. This mission is comprised of three mission subsets: Distributed Biological Observatory; Northern Chukchi Integrated Study; and the Ecosystems and Fisheries-Oceanography Coordinated Investigations.
The second mission of Healy’s Arctic deployment is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and is focused on understanding how upper level ocean stratification and sea ice in the Beaufort Sea is responding to inflow and surface forcing changes. The Stratified Ocean Dynamics of the Arctic project aims to increase understanding by deploying subsurface moorings and specialized on-ice instruments to observe the fluctuations across an annual cycle.
Healy’s final mission is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and will examine the effects of the Pacific water inflow into the Arctic and its associated boundary current on the ecosystem. This study is part of a multi-year endeavor that combines shipboard measurements taken in the spring and fall, with measurements from a subsea mooring deployed in the center of the boundary current.
On the day of their departure for their 2018 deployment, media was invited aboard the Healy to get a sense of the year's scientific purpose. With only a few hours left before departure, the core science crew that serves aboard the boat was installing software, setting up servers and crossing last minute items off their to-do list. USCG crew were removing lines, stowing last minute science gear on the aft operations deck, and hauling shoreside connections back on board.
It was all hustle and bustle in the engine control room as they brought the power plants online. Healy has four diesel generators that can be combined in any order to provide power to her two electric drives that turn two shafts. The engine control room itself was nearly the size of the bridge.
On the bridge we met with Healy’s captain, Greg Tlapa. Tlapa loves his job. “This is the best job in the Coast Guard,” he boasts, “Commanding Officer of the polar icebreaker that goes to the Arctic. I’m privileged to do it with men and women who are very professional and as passionate about their jobs as I am.” His admiration for his crew shows as he walks around the bridge; people are at ease as they discuss their plans to leave the dock and get underway.
For Captain Tlapa, the scientific mission is exciting as well. “It’s not necessarily uncommon to have new discoveries. There have been missions where we [the Healy] have discovered new life. A lot of our missions involve mapping the sea floor since it is an area that is hugely uncharted… Some of those [mapping] features get named after the Healy. In fact, there is an underwater seamount up [in the Arctic] called the Healy Seamount.” One of the operations he is looking forward to the most is how far north the Healy will travel, getting into multi-year ice that can be a challenge to break. Healy is celebrated for becoming the first unaccompanied U.S. surface vessel to reach the North Pole during a summer 2015 deployment. And like every year, he notes, he is always excited to see the wildlife in the region.
But Captain Tlapa explains that Healy’s mission isn’t just about science. As the only polar icebreaker the U.S. has operating in the Arctic, part of vessel's mission is also the projection on power in the area. As the Northwest Passage and other routes open up to recreational and commercial traffic, the U.S. has an interest in being a player, protecting its interests, and providing service to ships in need.
In 2012, Healy helped break ice to escort a critical load of fuel to Nome, Alaska, during a fierce winter storm. Healy delayed a return home during a six-month deployment to help escort a Russian-flagged fuel tanker, MT Renda, through 300 miles of difficult ice to the stranded city. It marked the first ever winter fuel delivery to Alaska by ship.
Captain Tlapa explains: “The paradox that the Healy is a scientific research platform is contrasted by the fact that it is an area of hyper interest internationally. We bring a lot to the fight in terms of power projection for protecting American interests. So, on the surface, while it is all about the science, [the deployment] has a broader impact. If we are not up there, somebody else will be.”
As the Arctic becomes more and more open, bringing both commercial and recreational traffic to the Northwest Passage, the USCG also plays its classic lifesaving roll. In 2014, Healy rescued a man 40 miles north of Barrows, Alaska, after his sailboat, Altan Girl, was blocked in ice. Due to weather conditions, search and rescue aircraft were unable to rescue the owner, Erkan Gursoy, who was planning on sailing his boat from Canada to Turkey. Gursoy contacted the Coast Guard after polar bears started sniffing around his boat as he waited for the ice to recede. Healy was able to break a path to his vessel, take him in tow, and break out a path to Barrows where he intended to wait for the ice to melt further.
And while Healy is important for science, power projection, and lifesaving services in the Arctic, the USCG also sees a need for additional vessels in the area. The Coast Guard currently has three large icebreakers in service for polar duty, however the Polar Sea is no longer operational and is utilized for parts to keep the USCG Polar Star operational. Polar Star operates in the Southern Ocean, providing summer supply runs to the Antarctic McMurdo Research Station. She also serves as a scientific platform in the Antarctic region.
The USCG has plans to begin production of a new icebreaker to serve in the polar Arctic as U.S. interests, services, and power projection increase in the area. However, the new icebreaker project has hit a roadblock in recent days that may doom the project forever if not the foreseeable future. According to Navy Times, 750 million dollars in the Coast Guard’s 2019 budget for a new icebreaker are potentially being stripped from the USCG to fund the Homeland Security's border wall along the U.S. and Mexico.
The bickering over the long-delayed construction of a new heavy icebreaker has led some lawmakers like Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), to call for the removal of the USCG from DHS and return it to the Pentagon. Navy Times quotes Hunter, who says, “Right now, we can’t really do anything substantial in the Arctic. Our icebreaker is in dry dock for months out of the year. If it breaks down and gets stuck up there, we’ll have to ask the Russians for help.”
Partisan bickering in Washington has little impact on the duties of Healy as she heads out on this year's Arctic deployment. Healy is headed to the Arctic to do what she was designed to do: provide a platform for science, project U.S. power in the region, and be on hand for needed rescue and icebreaking services.