Ocean Currents

U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Begins Arctic Journey

Healy will travel the fabled Northwest Passage this summer

Coast Guard Cutter Healy conducts Arctic patrol in support of the Office of Naval Research
© NyxoLyno Cangemi/U.S. Coast Guard

Over the next few weeks, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy will travel from the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska through Arctic waters to the northern Atlantic Ocean. In making the trip, Healy will transit the fabled Northwest Passage, a route that winds among islands north of mainland Canada.

In the past, the Arctic Ocean–and the Northwest Passage in particular—was often choked with thick sea ice that made maritime voyages risky and arduous, even at the most favorable times of the year. But a warming climate has reduced the extent and thickness of summertime sea, making it easier for vessels to travel through Arctic waters.

Healy will pass through portions of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas before entering the archipelagic waters of the Northwest Passage and on to Baffin Bay off the coast of Greenland.

Healy route on a map
© Ocean Conservancy

Along the way, the Coast Guard icebreaker will travel past northern coastal communities whose Indigenous residents engage in traditional subsistence hunting practices that date back thousands of years. Changing conditions can make the sea ice less predictable and more dangerous for hunters, compromise ice cellars that are used for food storage, and accelerate damaging coastal erosion.

Climate change is also affecting the Arctic Ocean ecosystem, including its marine mammals, sea birds, fish and other marine species.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) 2020 Arctic Report Card, “. . . the story is unambiguous. The transformation of the Arctic to a warmer, less frozen and biologically changed region is well underway.”

To better understand these changes, Healy hosts research scientists who monitor conditions and perform experiments while the vessel travels in Arctic waters. Coupled with knowledge from Arctic Indigenous peoples, this work can tell us a great deal about the pace and trajectory of ecosystem change in Arctic waters.

One Arctic trend that’s already well underway is increasing vessel traffic in the region. According to a 2019 government report, “In the last decade, the number of vessels operating in waters north of the Bering Strait around the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas has increased by 128% and is now 2.3 times larger than the number of ships passing through the region in 2008.” This growth in includes tankers coming from Russia’s Northern Sea Route carrying Liquified Natural Gas and oil, cruise ships bringing tourists to the region, vessels delivering cargo to onshore oil and gas or mining operations, research vessels supporting scientific operations and even private adventure cruisers.

All this additional traffic increases the risk of vessel strikes on marine mammals, creates more subsea noise, adds pollution to the water and the atmosphere and elevates the threat of a major oil spill.

Because of these risks, it’s vital to put in place management measures to maximize safety and minimize adverse impacts to the environment and coastal communities. These management measures will become even more important as vessel traffic increases even more in coming years.

To that end, the Coast Guard is conducting a study—called a Port Access Route Study or PARS—to assess whether and how to implement vessel traffic safeguards in U.S. Arctic waters. Safeguards include things like the creation of offshore vessel traffic lanes, designation of areas to be avoided, vessel speed limits, among others.

Join with Ocean Conservancy and urge the U.S. Coast Guard to recommend effective vessel traffic safeguards for U.S. Arctic waters.

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