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caption: Scientists and crew prepping the Healy for a voyage to the North Pole. 
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Scientists and crew prepping the Healy for a voyage to the North Pole.
Credit: KUOW Photo/John Ryan

Seattle Icebreaker Heads For North Pole

The Shell Oil rig that left Elliott Bay last week isn't the only big vessel heading to the Arctic from Seattle. A Coast Guard icebreaker heads to Alaska on Wednesday. The Seattle-based ship will help a multinational team of scientists explore pollution at the North Pole.

Climate change has fueled competition at the top of the world, where shipping and resource extraction are becoming feasible for the first time. With a tiny fleet of icebreakers (the Coast Guard has just two in operation), the U.S. lags behind other nations. At last count, Russia has 41 icebreakers.

KUOW's John Ryan reports.


It's a beehive of activity on the docks at the Coast Guard station in South Seattle. Crew members and scientists are loading crate after crate on board the Healy. It's a 420-foot long ice breaker.

Hamilton: "We are the largest vessel in the Coast Guard."

Jason Hamilton is the captain of the Healy. The bow of the Healy has steel plates close to two inches thick, so it can plow through much thicker ice.

Hamilton: "Backing and ramming, we can handle up to eight feet of ice."

Backing and ramming: In the thickest ice, the big ship will back up, then ram ahead.

Hamilton: " about six knots. Get on top of the ice with all our weight and power, and break down, kind of like a hammer."

The Healy's main mission on this trip is to support a group of 50 international scientists who will study the rapidly changing chemistry throughout the icy ocean.

Burning of fossil fuels around the world has made even the remotest parts of the Arctic warmer and more acidic.

Scientists expect increasing development in the Arctic will change the polar waters' chemistry even more.

David Kadko is the chief scientist on board the Healy. He's with Florida International University.

Kadko: "This is historic, the fact that all these nations are working together. It's historic just from that point of view. They will be getting a pan-arctic picture of the chemistry of the Arctic Ocean. This will generate data that will be used for decades to come."

It's historic in part because cooperation isn't the norm in the far North.

Climate change has been shrinking the northern ice cap about 10 percent each decade. Polar shipping and mining are becoming feasible where they never were before.

Nations have been jockeying for territory and resources at the top of the planet.

The Healy is one of just two Coast Guard icebreakers; the National Science Foundation has another.

Russia has more than 40 icebreakers.

Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell and Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski have introduced legislation to add as many six ice breakers to the U.S. fleet.

Cantwell spoke at a Senate hearing in March.

Cantwell: "The Chinese, the Russians are already aggressive in their resource development in the Arctic. I found out this morning even India is building an icebreaker."

The Coast Guard says new ice breakers could cost nearly a billion dollars each.

Cantwell says it'll be worth it as shrinking ice makes the Arctic grow in economic importance, if not ecological health, in the years ahead.

U.S. Coast Guard's 2015 list of major icebreakers: