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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