Something went wrong this year for the Coast Guard cutter/medium icebreaker, USCGC Healy on its annual mission to the Arctic waters above Alaska and Canada.
The annual marathon mission began when the USCG medium icebreaker, Healy, left its homeport in Seattle last July 10. She sailed up into the Arctic waters off of Alaska, then headed into the Northwest passage to make its way to the Atlantic The 420-foot ship, which includes some 4,200 sq. ft. of scientific laboratory space, electronic sensor systems, oceanographic winches and accommodations for scientific teams, is tasked with showing American presence and interest in the Arctic waters, and with carrying out various scientific studies each year. This year it found that its mission was very different from previous years.
What they found is that the usually vast ice caps in the Arctic waters have been severely reduced both in breadth and in depth.
The ship was also to be a training exercise for its crew of 85, many of whom were 18 year olds fresh out of USCG boot camp. One of the traditions that is looked forward to with great excitement on these Arctic missions is something called “Ice Liberty.” This event did not happen this year.
You see, “Ice Liberty” takes place out on the ice. When the icebreaker is in the thick ice, it stops for a few hours and the crew is given an opportunity to break the monotony of these annual marathon missions by getting off of the ship and spending time out on the ice. Some, in the past, have taken this opportunity to play a game of hockey, or to simply take a walk out onto that expansive, open, seemingly empty icescape. This traditional break in the monotony had to be cancelled this year due to the simple, and troubling, fact that they could not find enough ice, or ice that was thick and stable enough, to be able to enjoy this tradition.
Clearly, the conditions that the USCG has been accustomed to finding in the Arctic each year are changing. This implies many things, from climate change to the potential of changing the annual Coast Guard missions in the Arctic. Open waters need to be patrolled more, as they give access to more free navigation through the Arctic that both the United States and Canada have interests in for both economic and military reasons.
Unfortunately, for those fresh out of boot camp and on their first sea duties, and on this annual mission to the Arctic, it must have been disappointing not to be able to participate in the Ice Liberty traditions. But we can be sure that their training mission was both intense and full of great learning opportunities for those new Coasties.
The USCGC Healy has made it through the Northwest Passage to the Atlantic, and has visited Baffin Bay off of Umanak, Greenland and is presently in Boston, MA. We wish the USCGC Healy and its crew fair winds and following seas as they continue their mission back to their homeport in Seattle, WA.
The Healy is currently the only medium icebreaker in the Coast Guard fleet, but it will be joined by three new icebreakers by the end of this decade and they will be homeported in Seattle as well.
Semper Paratus, Coasties!Whizzco