Coast Guard Cutter Healy returns to Seattle from Arctic deployment

SEATTLE — The nation’s largest icebreaker, the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, will return to its homeport here Saturday after two months in the Bering Sea for its first Arctic West Summer 2008 Deployment.

During the deployment, the icebreaker traveled more than 8,000 nautical miles and conducted more than over 1,100 individual science evolutions in the course of completing two separate science missions. Healy will spend six weeks in Seattle conducting routine maintenance and training before departing on the second Arctic West Summer 2008 Deployment in late June.

Healy’s missions this spring were part of the National Science Foundation’s Bering Ecosystem Study (or BEST) and the North Pacific Research Board’s Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Research Program. They were timed to study ecological processes as sea ice retreated through the Bering Sea. The recent decline in the extent and duration of arctic sea ice has stimulated scientific as well as public interest in how the productive Bering Sea ecosystem will change if current warming trends continue. Scientists aboard Healy conducted a suite of studies to provide insights about how marine microorganisms, plants and animals, including fish, marine mammals, and birds, as well as local human communities, will be affected by the on-going changes in the region. The two chief scientists who coordinated the missions explain that their work at and near the ice edge used different sampling strategies, but focused on a common goal of improving the ecological understanding of the Bering Sea.

The cutter embarked the first team of scientists from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, in mid-March and proceeded into the central Bering Sea. The first two weeks mapped walrus foraging in relation to the supplies of the smaller seafloor animals that walruses eat. A team of walrus researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey successfully tagged 10 walruses with satellite radio tags. At the same time, several other groups of scientists led by chief scientist Dr. Lee Cooper of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science worked off Healy’s aft decks and on the ice near the cutter. Collections were made of water, sediment, sea ice and biological specimens at more than 30 stations just south of St. Lawrence Island. According to Cooper, “The cold conditions were brutal, and made the work challenging, but I think everyone got off the ship very pleased with getting so many samples during the late winter-early spring period that seeds the later plankton bloom. You really need a ship like Healy to get into the central Bering at that time of year.”

The second research mission, which ran from late March to early May, was one of the most ambitious scientific deployments Healy has ever undertaken, according to chief scientist Dr. Carin Ashjian of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The research program focused on the ice, water, and seafloor of the Bering Sea ecosystem and how these change as the ice melts. The cutter deployed sediment grabs, video plankton recorders, water samplers, ice corers and a wide variety of other equipment to study everything from tiny plankton and seabirds to the chemistry and physics of the Bering Sea. In addition to work done from the ship, the second mission also involved on-ice work where teams of five to 15 scientists escorted by Coast Guard safety personnel would collect cores, deploy a small, remotely operated vehicle to survey under the ice, and conduct a variety of other scientific procedures. During the five-week cruise, Healy sampled at almost 200 locations throughout the Bering Sea. Ashjian said the expectations and goals of the science party were met or exceeded. “Overall, we were impressed by the importance of ice algae as early spring food for the animals in the water and on the seafloor, as well as the animals that actually live on the bottom of the sea ice,” she said. “We have made a significant step toward understanding how the Bering Sea ecosystem relies on the presence and persistence of sea ice.”

Both chief scientists participated in sharing and exchanging information with local residents of the Bering Sea region, who are dependent upon subsistence hunting and fishing and are greatly concerned about the prospects for climate change. Perry Pungowiyi, a St. Lawrence Island Yupik from Savoonga, participated in the first mission as a member of the walrus tagging team, and Ashjian gave a presentation in Gambell, the other St. Lawrence Island community, during the second mission.

Anchorage, Alaska, middle school teacher Craig Kasemodel also participated in the first mission through an International Polar Year research immersion program for teachers called PolarTREC. For the second mission, Emily Davenport participated in PolarTREC as a graduate student. High school and middle school students across the U.S.A. participated through conference calls and interactive blogs while Healy was underway. Ann Fienup-Riordan, a participant on the second cruise and expert on Alaska’s native communities, also wrote a series of articles that were published in local coastal Alaskan community newspapers.

Commanded by Capt. Ted Lindström, 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 its 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 support, search and rescue, ship escort, environmental protection, and the enforcement of laws and treaties.

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