Kodiak is the ship’s final stop in Alaska before heading on this year’s final Arctic mission. The ship was in town to restock on supplies and give the crew a bit of time on land before they spend weeks at sea. The last time the Healy stopped in the archipelago was in 2019.
Michele Schallip, the Healy’s captain, said the hull is specially designed for getting through ice to access some of the most remote places in the world.
“Steaming at seven knots, we can break through up to four and a half feet (of ice),” she said. “If we get into eight feet, about three meters, then we need to do what we call ‘back and ram.’ So the ship is very powerful and very heavy – we’re 16,000 long tons so we’re able to use the ship’s momentum and weight to break through ice.”
The boat has two inches of steel on the bow and can even maneuver in ice fields, however the crew does their best to avoid large icebergs.
Schallip said while the Coast Guard operates the vessel and it’s capable of performing Arctic rescues, the vessel’s main purpose is research.
“The Healy was built in collaboration with the National Science Foundation so we have all the authorities that a Coast Guard vessel normally would have,” she said. “And we can conduct those in high latitudes, in addition to supporting the National Science Foundation and other organizations in conducting science.”
Igor Polyakov is a professor with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and one of the lead scientists aboard the icebreaker. He said the information scientists get from remote locations is crucial for climate research.
“We inform communities, stakeholders that changes are coming,” he said. “We may expect with a certain probability that this and that happens in certain periods of time – that’s our mission – and politicians take this information forward to make decisions.”
Polyakov said the information they find in the North Pole is direct proof that human-caused climate change is happening. One example they’re monitoring on this mission is a layer of freshwater under sea ice.
That layer usually acts as a buffer between warm salt water currents and sea ice, but Polyakov said it’s under threat from climate change.
“This fresh water is very cold and it prevents ice melt from below,” he said. “But what we observe now – thanks to our program and thanks to logistical support from Healy – now we see that this layer of fresh water is disappearing.”
He said cooperation between northern countries is key for this kind of Arctic research.
“There are so many international waters, there are so many international collaborations ongoing in the Arctic,” he said. “So without international collaboration, we cannot proceed.”
Russia, however, has been absent from these talks and research projects due to the war in Ukraine. Scientists have instead relied on satellite data for information in place of contact with their Russian counterparts.
The vessel’s next port call will be in Europe to connect with scientists there. After this mission, the ship will return to its home port in Seattle for winter.