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No ice to break

Dispatches from the Arctic

Editor’s note: This is the second dispatch from Jeremy Mathis, director of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program, who is leading a team of NOAA scientists on a research cruise in the Arctic.

Our research cruise is being conducted this year from the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the newest and most technologically advanced icebreaker in the U.S. fleet.  The Healy was built down around the humid bayous of New Orleans, but was designed to conquer Arctic sea ice.  The boat is a behemoth at 420 feet long and has made its way to the North Pole on several occasions, taking thousands of scientists into the Arctic to collect data that has transformed our understanding of the region.

Something has changed though in the last few years.  The Healy has been having a hard time finding any ice to break. The average sea-ice extent in June 2017 was 350,000 square miles smaller than the long-term historical average. That represents a loss of sea ice almost twice the size of Texas.

The opening of the Arctic is allowing increased commercial ship traffic and in 2016, for the first time, more than 1,000 passengers sailed on the Crystal Serenity from Anchorage to New York through once ice-choked waters. The cruise ship is making the same voyage this year. While the Healy has been responsible for patrolling the Arctic, its mission is expanding as fast as the ice is disappearing. The ship and its more than 80 crewmembers will be the first responders to any disaster in the Arctic, from vessel emergencies to oil spills.

I asked US Coast Guard Captain Greg Tlapa, Healy commanding officer, about working in the Arctic now that the ice is melting so quickly and he said, “Our main challenge remains the limited number of Coast Guard icebreakers we have, while at the same time our national security requirements for access and presence are growing along with increased scientific interest.  With increased ice-free periods comes an increase in human activity, which brings with it a higher demand for missions like search and rescue, law enforcement, maritime border security, and protection of our maritime economy.”

In fact, while we’ve been up here on this mission, the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ has become nearly ice free. This would have been unheard of a decade ago.  If this trend continues, the Healy is going to be very busy for the foreseeable future. 

 For more information, please contact Monica Allen, director of public affairs for NOAA Research, at 301-734-1123 or

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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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