Breaking the Ice: Survival Lessons from a Changing Arctic

As temperatures rise and sea ice melts, our intrepid correspondent heads north to watch scientists test technologies to better understand the Arctic.

To make an expedition by icebreaker in the modern American Arctic, you fly to the gold-rush city of Nome, Alaska, our country’s former future Arctic port, in a commercial jet that is half taken up by cargo, half by passengers. In the gravel airport parking lot at 64.5 degrees north, you hail a cab—an old 4x4 van—for the $8 ride to town. Then you wait. If the weather is clear, you can see the Healy, America’s newest and sometimes only functional polar icebreaker, anchored at the horizon. If the waves are small, you can expect a phone call: Get to the dock. If the waves are small but a storm is coming, you can expect the tone to be urgent: Hurry. 

There are three main roads leaving this 3,800-person town, each winding its own path across the Seward Peninsula. One offers a good chance at seeing moose, musk oxen, and river otters. The second passes the turnoff for the Cold War-era White Alice radar station on Anvil Mountain. The third leads to the steam engines and flatcars of the so-called Last Train to Nowhere, which once carried miners to their claims and has now been rusting in place for more than a century. All three roads dead-end within a hundred miles of Nome.

This part of Alaska, where the Iditarod’s finish line lies, where the restaurants are run by enterprising Korean-Americans, and where a gallon of gas costs $5.46, is a gateway to the rapidly transforming Arctic because it is developed, but up here, “developed” is relative. Nome is not connected by road to the rest of the state, let alone to the rest of the continent—only by plane or boat. And the runways are short. And the harbor is shallow.

The melting Arctic, always an ecological hotspot and now a geopolitical prize, is still a logistical morass. Nome sits halfway between the Aleutian Islands and the top of Alaska and just below the Arctic Circle, the imaginary line that rings the globe at 66°32' north. Neither here nor anywhere else along the state’s northernmost 3,000 miles of coastline—twice as long as the run from Portland, Maine, to Miami, Florida—is there a deepwater port. Until a few months ago, Nome’s port was to be the first, but a $210 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to transform it has just been put on hold, leaving the entire region without a good base for staging oil-spill equipment, mounting search-and-rescue operations, or parking an icebreaker. There are no lighthouses in Arctic Alaska. There are few buoys to aid navigation. Charts are spotty and old. Satellite coverage—for communication, data, and GPS—gets worse with every jump in latitude. There are few American resources to enforce the upcoming International Maritime Organization shipping code for the Arctic Ocean, few to enforce a treaty banning commercial fishing as new species move into the ocean’s warming waters. In 2015, which saw the first visit to Arctic Alaska by a sitting U.S. president; the first entry of Chinese warships into the Bering Sea; and the sinking of the first deep exploratory oil well in a generation in the Chukchi Sea, the closest permanent Coast Guard base was more than a thousand nautical miles to the south.

On a Wednesday in July, an icebreaker expedition designed to expand the Coast Guard’s capabilities in the world’s newest blue-water ocean therefore began not with a show of force but an illustration of what the agency is up against. My phone had rung the night before: Be ready early. In the morning, the weather clear and seas moderate, I joined scientists and technicians and drone pilots at the Port of Nome, where we stacked our luggage next to a dumpster and a fetid outhouse. Then we waited.

The 420-foot Healy, too big for the shallow port, remained at anchor offshore. After a time—long enough for one of the scientists to walk the half-mile to town and back for a coffee—came another call: A boat is in the water. “Are they bringing trash bags?” asked the Coast Guard safety officer who took the call. The Healy could not confirm. I made the run to town to buy some at Nome’s supermarket—$15 a box at Arctic prices—and we stuffed backpacks and suitcases inside them in preparation for a wet ride.

After 30 minutes, an orange motorboat with inflatable walls and a rigid hull rounded a breakwater, weaving past a fish plant and the makeshift dredging barges that star in the Discovery Channel reality show Bering Sea Gold. Two helmeted Coast Guard sailors hopped out onto a dock and began handing out orange survival suits to the first round of passengers. Five climbed in; then the boat zipped back out to sea, bouncing so violently across the waves that one man threw out his back.

The small boat returned twice more for people and bags. The officers of the Healy began to worry that the process was taking too long, so they spent an hour preparing the launch of a second landing vessel, which then returned to the ship with a last batch of passengers. The vessel heaved in the swells, and the scientists tried to time its rise and fall as they clambered up a rope ladder, one by one, to the Healy’s gunwale. Survival suits were dumped in a pile and luggage was moved onto the ship by bucket brigade and the plastic bags were carefully refolded and the landing vessel was plucked out of the water by a crane.

No one was surprised that this was how we finally came to be standing aboard the Healy, which in its home port of Seattle is a walk-on; this is the reality of working in remote corners of the Earth. But it had taken most of a day for America’s Arctic flagship to simply load two dozen people and their bags—another reminder that for all the talk of an opening Arctic Ocean, we are little prepared for it to become a reality.

Aboard the Healy, scientists set up stations in the lab. Technicians assembled self-propelled wave gliders—floating sensors about seven feet long. Drone operators unpacked boxes in the hangar. The new arrivals wandered the icebreaker’s passageways and climbed up and down its internal circuits of stairs.

In a conference room in the middle of the ship, we got our stateroom assignments and collected pagers so we could be contacted no matter where on board we were holed up. The cruise’s chief scientist, Scot Tripp, a former Great Lakes icebreaker officer who now worked at the Coast Guard’s Research & Development Center in Connecticut, told us where to buy phone cards for satellite calls home—$18 for 100 minutes—and how to upload our photos to a shared hard drive aboard the ship, so all could enjoy them. He recommended that we leave our sheets unwashed at the end of the 10-day cruise—the crew would take care of them—and donate $5 to the ship’s morale fund. He gave a brief overview of our mission: “We need new technologies up here,” he said. “We’re exploring every avenue of everything.”

Most of the scientists and technicians aboard worked for other government agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or for private companies, such as oil supermajor ConocoPhillips and drone manufacturer AeroVironment, that had partnered with the Coast Guard for this cruise. If some of them finished their work early and just relaxed after that, Tripp didn’t mind. “Your time is your time,” he said. “We’re not gonna make you do anything more. Take pictures. We love that.”

Later, on an outer deck in the biting wind, wearing no hat and a thin fleece jacket, Tripp said more about our goals. The job of the R&D Center, or RDC, was to provide the Coast Guard with the right tools for its widely varied missions, which include everything from environmental protection to drug interdiction, coastal security, and search and rescue. For the RDC, “there was a lull in the Arctic after 2001 happened and our focus became homeland security,” he explained. “Now, because of increased focus on the Arctic, which is melting due to global warming, we’re getting back into it.”

The new demands on the agency had not translated to new funding, new ships, or new coastal infrastructure, however. So the Coast Guard’s stepped-up presence in the vast Arctic would have to be partly robotic, digital. “Anything we can do to multiply our reach,” Tripp said, “that’s what we’re going to focus on. And that’s where the unmanned systems come in.” In addition to drones and wave gliders that could be fitted with cameras and heat sensors, the Healy carried smart buoys and chemical sniffers and remote-operated submersibles as well as a giant balloon, an aerostat, that would float hundreds of feet above the ship to serve as a mobile lookout and communications tower.

The "aerostat" balloon goes airborne. Designed to fly several hundred feet about the Healy as it moves through the sea, the aerostate serves as a mobile lookout and communications tower—a low-cost force multiplier at a time of tight Coast Guard budgets. Chukchi Sea, USA, 07.12.2015, Esther Horvath

Temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as quickly as the global average. Open water has led to greater erosion and bigger storms. Diminished ice may be changing the polar vortex and other large-scale weather patterns. The region is a global bellwether, and while scientists on the Healy were focused on the practicality of operating in the new north, their instruments would also track planetary change. The buoys and gliders thrown overboard by NOAA would take long-term measurements of wind speed, air temperature, humidity, cloud coverage, solar radiation, water temperature, acidity, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and many other environmental conditions—key baseline data with global repercussions from a little-studied part of the Arctic. The chemical sniffers, run by Dr. Jeffrey Welker, a Fulbright U.S. Arctic Chair at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, would sample isotopes from the air, drawing baselines of their own while detecting spikes of carbon dioxide and another important greenhouse gas, methane. Welker had previously used chemical isotopes to document polar bears’ changing diets—a likely result of a changing environment; his UAA colleague aboard the Healy, research scientist Eric Klein, meanwhile, has used isotopes recorded in the Greenland ice sheet to empirically link reduced Arctic sea ice cover to greater precipitation and bigger cyclones.

The RDC’s Healy cruise was one part of a now annual Coast Guard operation called Arctic Shield. The agency’s official presence in the far north dates to soon after the Alaska Purchase of 1867, when its predecessor, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, was dispatched to the newly purchased territory to stop the uncontrolled slaughter of northern fur seals. But the first Arctic Shield, in 2012—coming on the heels of the second-biggest melt off in the recorded history of the polar ice cap and just as Royal Dutch Shell sent a controversial fleet of two dozen drill rigs and support ships to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas—marked its reentry into the modern Arctic. Activity in the high north had reached a tipping point, and that year four Coast Guard cutters and buoy tenders, four rescue helicopters, and hundreds of personnel set out for the top of North America for the ice-free summer and fall. On land, officers went from tribal village to village, trying to form relationships with the Iñupiat people, who have kept watch over the Arctic year-round for millennia. In the air, they practiced helicopter sorties and surveyed the region on “domain awareness” flights. In the ice-laden waters north of Barrow, a team from the RDC deployed oil skimmers, weirs, and booms for the Coast Guard’s first-ever spill-recovery test above the Arctic Circle. Chemical dispersants fail in cold water, and oil stays hidden under floating ice floes—and, the test showed, sea ice can damage booms and rip recovery bladders. It didn’t go well.

The helicopters used in Arctic Shield, like the cutters, were not new. They and their crews were pulled from other parts of Alaska and the Lower 48. While the Coast Guard is expected to manage a new ocean, its annual budget, adjusted for inflation, has largely held steady since 2001. President Obama has endorsed new heavy polar icebreakers; the Congressional Research Service estimates the price tag for one at a billion dollars. So far there is only about $10 million in federal money—one percent of the cost—set aside.

Late in the evening on our first night aboard the Healy, many of us were on the bridge. Junior officers talked quietly over a bank of computer monitors; wraparound windows afforded a 180- degree view of the surrounding ocean. We were approaching the Bering Strait, where the Coast Guard now tracks the number of ship transits like a patient’s pulse and has proposed a new, four-mile-wide commercial shipping lane to manage traffic flows. A hundred nautical miles from Nome, the strait separates the Bering and Chukchi seas and the Pacific and Arctic oceans, and serves as the choke point for the whole of the melting Arctic. It is the gateway to both the once-elusive (and now seasonally ice-free) Northwest Passage shipping route atop North America and its already busier counterpart across the top of Russia, the Northern Sea Route. Bulk carriers, oil explorers, cruise ships, coast guards, research vessels, and military fleets all must pass through the strait—and increasingly do. In 2015, counting the Healy, there would be nearly 500 transits, most of them by foreign-flagged vessels, more than double the traffic of a decade ago. In 2016 the Crystal Serenity, an 820-foot cruise ship with 13 decks, a casino, and space for 655 crew members and 1,070 passengers, will cross the strait on its way to becoming the first luxury liner to navigate the Northwest Passage. Tickets start at $21,755, and the cruise is already sold out.

At the top of the globe, the distance between east and west is small, making neighbors of countries—the United States and Norway, for instance, or Russia and Denmark’s Greenland—that seem far from each other in a Mercator view of the world. The region is a globally significant convergence zone for wildlife, too. Of the seabirds that breed in the United States, 80 to 85 percent breed in Alaska, many of them on islands in the nutrient-rich Bering Sea. Upwards of 4.5 million seabirds, including Thick-billed Murres, Parakeet Auklets, and Horned Puffins, nest on the Diomede Islands in the middle of the Bering Strait, and millions more are funneled through every year on their way to and from the North Slope. In the water, seals and walruses regularly pass through, and so, twice annually, do the western Arctic’s bowhead whales, some 15,000 of them per season.

The region’s rich biology, already stressed by spiking temperatures, would make any shipwreck or oil spill especially devastating. In addition to a 2015 return to the Chukchi by Shell, there was an ongoing Chinese–Russian scheme to use the Northern Sea Route to transport liquefied natural gas from a $27 billion project on northern Russia’s Yamal Peninsula almost 7,000 miles through the strait to Japan and eastern China. Cosco, China’s government-owned shipping giant, announced in October 2015 that it was starting up regularly scheduled container voyages—a first for the Arctic Ocean—via the same route, which it has called “the golden waterway.” The presidents of Iceland and South Korea then announced plans for the two countries to develop trans-Arctic shipping, using the Northern Sea Route through the strait. Russia, which in 2007 famously declared ownership of the North Pole with a titanium flag planted by submarine on the ocean floor, submitted a formal 2015 claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea treaty to 463,000 square miles of Arctic Ocean seabed, including the North Pole. Soon after Chinese warships were detected in the Bering Sea, a Russian intelligence vessel, the Kurily, was spotted in the Chukchi. It appeared to be shadowing one of Shell’s drill ships.

Deploying a CTD sensor, which detects how conductivity and temperature of the water column changes relative to depth. Chukchi Sea, USA, 07.18.2015, Esther Horvath


The world’s fever dreams for Arctic resources seemed to break with 2015’s plunging oil prices—but they did not go away. Russia built a massive military base in Franz Josef Land at 80° north and held Arctic military exercises involving 38,000 troops, 41 ships, and 15 submarines. The drills, explained a naval commander, were aimed in part at “ensuring our state’s economic freedom in this region.” In the United States, most of the 16 federal intelligence agencies had appointed full-time Arctic analysts by the end of 2015, and data flowed in from spy satellites and a refurbished Canadian listening post near the North Pole. In November the U.S. Army deployed its Stryker vehicles north of the Arctic Circle for the first time.

That night on the Healy, the water was flat and the sun wouldn’t set, and at 2 a.m. a group of us remained on the bridge for a glimpse of America’s Little Diomede Island and, two miles farther west across the International Date Line, Russia’s Big Diomede. Nome’s then-mayor, Denise Michels, was also on board, and she told us she had heard from Facebook friends on Little Diomede—the island has about a hundred residents—that the Russians were doing something on their side of the water. Helicopters, the rumor went, had been hovering over a small military base on the north side of Big Diomede, apparently ferrying building supplies. But from the bridge that night, we saw nothing unusual. The Diomedes were too far away, and the Russian island was cloaked in a beautiful ring of fog. Entering the Arctic Ocean, the Healy was entirely on its own.

We flew the first drone almost as soon as we had passed through the Bering Strait. It was a Puma, a 4.6-foot, 13.5-pound model favored by special-operations forces and first used by the U.S. Army in Iraq. As we cut north through the green water of the Chukchi, the sea free of ice, an operator launched the drone by hand off the icebreaker’s bow, tossing it into the air like an oversize paper airplane. It began drawing big, counterclockwise circles around the ship, and a few dozen scientists and sailors stood on the outer decks to watch. To land it some 30 minutes later, the drone crew hung a triangular net off the starboard of the Healy, and the Puma, guided by differential GPS, came streaking in like a missile. It crumpled—by design—upon impact, and they carried it back to the hangar to be snapped back together. The successful landing, in a net on a moving Coast Guard ship, was an Arctic first.

Under sunny skies and in quickening winds, another crew readied the aerostat balloon on the helicopter deck near the icebreaker’s stern. It had the approximate size and futuristic look of an Airstream camping trailer. Secured by a tether, it shot backward rather than upward when the men unspooled the line, swaying side to side in the wind and briefly dipping down in the Arctic Ocean. They swiftly reeled it in. On the next launch, with better weighting and better geometry in lighter winds, the aerostat flew straight up and stayed there, the Healy’s new eye in the sky. As the expedition went on, it and a Puma would be in the air whenever the weather allowed. They could stream video wirelessly back to the ship, and we could monitor the vast empty around us. 

We were at 71° north the next day, still shy of the ice edge and now in a rolling fog, when the Healy approached the Arctic’s most contentious patch of ocean. The science team from NOAA had chosen this Chukchi Sea location to deploy its primary buoys and wave gliders. Shell had chosen this same spot to stake its claim on Arctic oil. Known as the Burger Prospect, it was the key prize when the company paid $2.1 billion for Chukchi oil leases in a 2008 federal auction. Shell’s 2015 exploration plan called for drilling at a particular patch called Burger J, which the company believed held a multibillion-barrel oil field. At our closest, the Healy was a mile away from it.

Up on the bridge, I scanned the radar monitors for signs of Shell’s drill rigs. The company’s 31-vessel fleet also included icebreakers, heavy tugs, anchor handlers, and spill barges—a full array of safety and cleanup equipment, as mandated by federal regulators and motivated by Shell’s own concerns about operating in a remote sea with very little infrastructure. But Shell had yet to arrive, and the sea around us was empty of ships. I descended to the helicopter deck to watch NOAA scientists and Healy deckhands lift the biggest buoy, attach it to a crane, and heave it into the Chukchi.

Two months later, when Shell came up dry at Burger J, even its own executives would seem shocked. Amid slumping oil prices, the company put its Arctic dreams on hold, writing down $2.6 billion in losses. Its rival Statoil soon announced that it, too, would abandon its leases in the Chukchi. The Obama administration, citing lack of interest from industry, canceled two upcoming Arctic petroleum-lease sales. The Army Corps of Engineers shelved its port-expansion project in Nome. A deepwater port didn’t necessarily pencil out, the Corps explained, if Shell couldn’t be counted on to use it.

Environmental groups have hailed Shell’s pullback from the Arctic as an unalloyed victory, but in Alaska, some locals, including Iñupiat leaders, see a perversely complicated picture. The danger of an oil spill from Shell’s operations is now gone—but the danger from other maritime incidents in the Arctic may have just gone up. After all, with or without a strong presence on the American side, Russia is still developing its slice of the Arctic—it’s not waiting for the United States to keep up. Likewise, shipping in the Arctic Ocean and through the Bering Strait is still set to boom. Shell’s mostly self-sufficient fleet had been a kind of pop-up infrastructure for the Chukchi Sea. “With Shell out of there, the Coast Guard doesn’t have anyone to call on for help,” explained Reggie Joule, a longtime state legislator from the Arctic hub of Kotzebue. “If there’s any type of boating accident, marine accident,” Shell’s boats were “effectively the only ones who would have been able to help.”

When President Obama visited Kotzebue last summer, Joule was at his side, arguing the need for marine infrastructure and an Alaskan Arctic port. “South Korea and Iceland have signed something to utilize the Northern Sea Route,” Joule told me. “I just read about that today. It says it will happen ‘in the future.’ But the future has a habit of catching up on you.”

The first chunks of sea ice announced themselves late one night with a faint knocking sound, a slight arrhythmia to break up the Healy’s gently rocking advance. By breakfast there were floes as big as the ship itself, and the world outside was becoming white and gray. The icebreaker pressed forward, its path now a jagged line as our pilots followed leads through the sea ice, and the drones and aerostat still flew, and we tested wave gliders and submersibles at the ice edge before open water largely disappeared.

As we neared Point Barrow, the highest latitude point in the United States at 71.38° north, the ice became dirty brown, suggesting that winds from the North Slope had layered it with dust. We saw bearded seals resting on floes off the bow. They dove into the water as we drew near. When we rounded the corner at Point Barrow, officially entering the Beaufort Sea from the Chukchi, we ran into multiyear ice so thick that we had to stop and change course. Only by hugging the coastline, where the ice had largely pulled back from shore, could we reach our destination, near Prudhoe Bay, in good time.

In the waters off Oliktok Point, the site of an old radar station that was once part of the Distant Early Warning Line built to warn of a Soviet missile attack over the top of the world, we had a date with two rescue helicopters and a large Scan-Eagle drone. Together with the Healy and Puma, these aircraft would be part of the most complex stage of the cruise, a search-and-rescue exercise. Past RDC cruises had focused on oil-spill response; ours, in light of increased ship traffic, would game out a maritime disaster. An RDC invention known as Thermal Oscar, a dummy wearing a lifejacket and warmed with a battery to mimic the heat signature of a human body, would be tossed overboard. The ScanEagle, first controlled from shore, then passed off to pilots aboard the Healy—a “pitch and catch”—would begin searching with an infrared camera. When Thermal Oscar was spotted, then confirmed via one of the video streams piping to the ship from the ScanEagle or Puma, the helicopters would fly in and save him. The exercise, military in its precision and scope, was planned in partnership with ConocoPhillips, which is ramping up production onshore in Alaska; the company, which still holds leases in the same Arctic waters Shell just abandoned, covered much of the operation’s cost. And indeed Oscar was duly dropped into the ice-clogged water without complaint; almost eight hours later, after drone sorties and a dramatic frogman dive from a hovering Coast Guard helicopter—followed by a dramatic frogman dive from a hovering helicopter hired by ConocoPhillips—he was saved.

Heroic as Oscar’s rescue may have been, a more noteworthy moment, at least from a scientific perspective, came during an official “photo op” listed in the exercise plan. As the two helicopters hovered in tandem alongside the Healy, slowly circling it, scientists and crew members stood on the decks and took photos of them; personnel inside the helicopters, in turn, stuck lenses out of open hatches and took pictures of the icebreaker and us. Unbeknownst to the pilots, when they flew by the Healy’s bow, they passed over two short PVC pipes lashed inelegantly to the hull and attached to two small tubes that ran out of sight down into the hold—and into Jeff Welker and Eric Klein’s isotope sniffer.

“That’s it! Ha!” Welker exclaimed soon afterward, grinning wildly while staring at a computer monitor in a storage room below decks. “That is exciting! That is a discovery literally right before our eyes!”

Here, where the ship’s sailors kept their foosball table and hung old survival suits, he and Klein had set up two laser-based instruments called Picarros, which sucked air samples from the tubes on the bow, one continuously measuring the isotopic properties of water vapor, the other of carbon dioxide and methane. On the screen a line graph tracking carbon concentration in the atmosphere showed two clear spikes 15 seconds apart, from roughly 380 to 430 parts per million. “The carbon-13 value got depleted, too!” Welker continued. “That’s a helicopter! That’s the exhaust plume of a helicopter! I’ve got the helicopter flying right in front of the mast! The Coast Guard helicopter flew by, then I waved the other helicopter to fly by, too. Two peaks! That is a graph made in heaven!”

The two University of Alaska scientists were on the icebreaker on behalf of the school’s Arctic Domain Awareness Center, established in August 2014 with a $17 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security and with a mission complementary to that of Scot Tripp’s RDC: better Arctic protection through technology. The new center had already begun working on Arctic sea-ice and storm-surge modeling and a design for an Arctic-specific drone. On St. Lawrence Island, just south of the Bering Strait, it had outfitted two dozen native Alaskan observers with GPS units and satellite phones and asked them to report back on vessel traffic and sea-ice conditions. In Anchorage, it later unveiled a futuristic data-visualization program called the Integrated Intelligent System of Systems, which ran on two widescreen television screens in a small room on the UAA campus. The program could layer maritime traffic, sea-ice, and weather data on maps of the Bering Strait and Arctic Ocean, pull up real-time satellite images, and play live drone-video feeds.

Welker and Klein, who had boarded the Healy in Kodiak, well south of Nome, eventually collected 13 million data points in 18 days cruising to the Beaufort and back—an air sample every half-second. With baseline data from this first cruise and further calibration, sniffers could theoretically discern sea ice from open water, smell oil spills or other environmental hazards before they were visible, or even detect smugglers in small aircraft, as proved by the photo op. Welker envisioned miniaturized sniffers that could be mounted on a buoy or drone, allowing real-time remote monitoring. He even envisioned using isotopes to enforce the new Arctic Ocean fishing ban: “Map ocean water isotopes and begin to identify food webs,” he said, “and you could fingerprint where a trawler’s fish came from.” Welker envisioned a great many technologies that could make a real difference in the Arctic, provided the future doesn’t catch up to us before they’re ready.

We spent the night 30 miles off Oliktok Point, bobbing there amid loose chunks of sea ice. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. The Healy’s engine was shut off, and there was no wind—no noise at all. Thanks to the ice, there were no waves, either. The bigger floes were pocked with blue meltwater ponds, and in the sky above them hung a single wispy cloud. The sun bathed the ice and seawater in orange light. It moved along the horizon as the night went on, slowly circling us, and sunset bled straight into dawn.

The next afternoon it was gray again, and the ship began cutting back west along the top of Alaska. Our major goal for the return trip, aside from continued aerostat, wave glider, and Puma testing, was to find a floe big enough to moor the Healy. Scientists from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, onboard to work with the ship’s new ice-radar system, wanted to take a core sample of multiyear ice. The rest of us, for perhaps less professional reasons, wanted to partake in what the officers called “ice liberty,” when a ladder goes down from the ship to the floe, a small team of sailors descends with ice augers to make sure it’s thick enough, and the rest of the passengers follow for a fleeting chance to walk atop the Arctic Ocean.

But in mid-July in the warming Beaufort, all this was easier said than done. The ice cap was in full retreat. Near Point Barrow, having failed to encounter any of the thick ice that had slowed us before, the Healy veered northward. The ice remained spotty and sickly, much of it brown with dust. As we cruised on, it was just absent—melted, drifted, gone. We got to 74°, 200 miles north of any land, then turned around, out of time.

Back in the Chukchi, we headed south in open water, our pace quickening, the icebreaker again rolling in ocean waves. We had seen little wildlife on the cruise—a few seals, a single polar bear viewable only with good binoculars or a long telephoto lens—but now our course was leading us past Hanna Shoal, a biological hotspot the Obama administration put mostly off-limits to oil leasing in January 2015. The shallow region stays ice-covered long after the surrounding sea has melted, which attracts seals and polar bears and makes it the last summertime haul-out for Pacific walruses before they are forced to forage from shore, as the Chukchi’s walrus population increasingly must do. A dozen sailors and scientists stayed awake on the bridge to watch Hanna Shoal go by, and just before 2 a.m. we saw them: piles of walruses on small floes of ice, then more in the water, then bigger groups on bigger floes—eventually more than 150 animals. For an hour we saw the Arctic we had thought we would see.

The Bering Strait was socked in when we crossed, and we stuck to the newly drawn shipping lanes on the American side. News reports said that Shell’s drill ships were underway in the Bering Sea, moving north just as we moved south. I imagined we might see its Arctic fleet ghosting out of the gray, and I again stayed up late into the night on the bridge, hoping that we would. But out the windows were nothing but waves and fog. The Healy was—for now—all alone up here.

Video Credit: All videos by Esther Horvath