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Arctic

Coast Guard icebreaker reaches North Pole unaccompanied, a US first

  • Author: Kamala Kelkar
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 8, 2015

At 7:47 a.m. Saturday, after 28 days at sea, a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker reached the North Pole, making it the first U.S. surface ship to traverse it on a solo exhibition.

It was 21 degrees outside and the crew on the bridge started cheering. The Healy, a medium-duty icebreaker, was there on a National Science Foundation-funded research expedition to document trace elements in every ocean on Earth as part of an international series called GEOTRACES. The ship left Dutch Harbor on Aug. 9 with about 145 people on board, including about 50 scientists from all over the world sampling the Arctic Ocean for the first time.

"You literally feel like you're on a different planet with 24-7 sun and ice all around you," said Captain Jason Hamilton. "It's really a sense of accomplishment and pride."

The crew even had a rendezvous with the German icebreaker Polarstern, which was also on a GEOTRACES mission at 90 degrees N and parked about a half-mile away from the Healy. Scientists and shipmates walked across the ice to compare notes and ships on top of the world.

"It was great to see our colleagues," he said.

The seawater, sediment and air samples from the Arctic Ocean will help scientists piece together marine ecosystem cycles and their relationships to climate. Even though it only constitutes 3 percent of the world's ocean coverage, GEOTRACES scientists consider it to be the epicenter of climate change. Sampling the North Pole was part of its initial plan from 2006, so it's an accomplishment shared by the researchers and the U.S. government.

Bill Schmoker, a teacher aboard, wrote on a blog while aboard the ship, "We squeezed in what seems like a week's worth of work and excitement in the last three days at the pole."

The Healy is a 420-foot, 16,000-ton, 30,000-horsepower icebreaker, capable of breaking more than 10 feet of ice, according to the Coast Guard. It uses as much as 22,000 gallons of diesel a day when it has to back up and ram into the densest pieces.

The last time it or any U.S. surface ship was at the North Pole was almost exactly a decade ago, on Sept. 12, 2005. The scientific voyage was in collaboration with a Swedish icebreaker and its purpose was to survey marine life under the Arctic ice cap.

"Scientific research and operations didn't require us to make the dangerous trek to the North Pole after the Healy's 2005 voyage," said Coast Guard spokesperson Lt. Donnie Brzuska. "This year, (GEOTRACES is) sampling in the Arctic for the first time, which required the cutter crew to sail to the North Pole."

The North Pole was the Healy's second mission of the season. It sailed hundreds of miles north of Barrow earlier this summer on a science mission to that primarily benefited the Coast Guard's operations. From bettering communication with iridium satellite walkie-talkies to testing the landing capabilities of an unmanned aircraft that delivers live video feed, it was bustling with different types of research onboard.

This trip to the pole was primarily a scientific mission and a lot of research was performed on ice, instead of from the boat, as with earlier research. But the Hamilton said the new challenges were just a testament to the Coast Guard's capabilities.

"The Coast Guard has been operating here off Alaska since the 1860s," Hamilton said. "Healy continues that proud tradition and we clearly demonstrated the capability to provide access to the furthest regions of the planet."

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