Healy Sails to Begin Arctic Science Cruises Studying Walruses and the Bering Sea Ecosystem

Healy in the ice

U.S. Coast Guard


The nation’s largest icebreaker, USCGC Healy,  left her home port of Seattle on March 6 to begin the Arctic West Summer 2008 Deployment that will have the cutter conducting science missions in the northern polar regions for more than six months.

During the deployment, Healy, commanded by Capt. Ted Lindström, will travel more than 25,000 nautical miles and conduct more than 2,000 individual science evolutions in the course of completing seven separate science missions Healy will spend six weeks between the second and third missions in conducting scheduled maintenance and training

Healy’s two science missions this spring are part of the National Science Foundation’s Bering Ecosystem Study (BEST) and the North Pacific Research Board’s Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Research Program.

They are timed to study ecological processes as sea ice retreats through the Bering Sea. A recent decline in the extent and duration of arctic sea ice has stimulated scientific as well as publiccuriosity about how the productive Bering Sea ecosystem will change if current warming trends continue.

Science teams will launch a comprehensive suite of studies to provide insights about how marine microorganisms, plants and animals, including fish, marine mammals, and birds, as well as local communities, will be affected by the on-going changes in the region.

The two chief scientists coordinating the scientific missions explain that this work at the ice edge will use different sampling strategies, but focus on a common goal of improving ecological understanding of the Bering Sea.

Healy will pick up the first team of scientists from Dutch Harbor, Alaska in mid-March and proceed into the central Bering Sea. The mission will focus on determining how the dynamics of walrus movement related to the supplies of small seafloor animals that walruses eat.

According to chief scientist Lee Cooper of the University of Maryland, “walruses are thought to become more vulnerable as the arctic sea ice disappears. The recent observations of stranded calves and the congregations of thousands of these animals along Arctic Ocean beaches last summer, when they historically used to feed from ice, seem consistent with that view.”

Declining sources of winter food on the sea floor in the Bering Sea were documented in a study published in 2006 in Science Magazine and may be a result of competing fish moving north. These concerns, among others, led to a recent petition to formally list walruses as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

According to Cooper, in addition to the walrus work, the cruise plan includes efforts to study other important arctic species as well as the chemical and physical conditions they live in.

The second research mission, which runs from early April to mid May, is arguably the most ambitious scientific deployment Healy has ever undertaken, according to chief scientist Carin Ashjian of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

"Scientific berth space is entirely spoken for by scientists from universities, institutions and agencies across the United States and the rest of the world. We are adding to the extensive lab space already on Healy by seeking out temporary science vans that are essentially modified shipping containers for some of the scientists to work in."

The research program will focus on the entire Bering ecosystem and how it changes as the ice melts. Scientists will use sediment grabs, video plankton recorders, ice corers and a wide variety of other equipment to study everything from big seals and tiny plankton to the chemistry and physics of the Bering Sea.

 "I expect the overall study to pay great scientific dividends with all of the new scientific tools and approaches being used,"  Ashjian said. "We are also sharing and exchanging information with local residents of the region, who are dependent upon subsistence hunting and fishing and are greatly concerned about the prospects for climate change."

Also joining the mission is middle-school teacher, Craig Kasemodel, who is participating in the mission through an IPY research immersion program for teachers called PolarTREC. Students across the nation will participate in the research through conference calls and interactive blogs while Healy is underway.

Healy is the newest and largest of the nation’s three heavy icebreakers and the only one with extensive scientific capabilities. The 420-foot cutter was commissioned in 2000 and has a permanent crew of 80 Scientific support is her primary mission, but as a Coast Guard Cutter, Healy is also a capable platform for supporting other potential missions in the Polar Regions, including logistics, search and rescue, ship escort, environmental protection, and the enforcement of laws and treaties.

Many people have begun to speculate what will happen in the if the less ice leads to more shipping and human activity in the region. When speaking of the future, Adm. Thad Allen, the current Commandant of the Coast Guard, has said that "Icebreakers will have an important role to play."

Web Links

Capt. Michael Healy: An Arctic Scientific Legacy Lives On in a Namesake ship

On this site:

Following a Warming Trend to Its Possible Conclusions: Agencies Discuss Ramifications of an Ice-Free Arctic

Sea Ice Resources Available on this Portal

Updated 2006 State of the Arctic Report: Report Card Finds Warming Continues But Climate-Change Signals Mixed