Two Icebreakers, One Port, Two Very Different Missions

The Fennica heads north. Photo: John Ryan/KUCB.
The Fennica heads north. Photo: John Ryan/KUCB.

Shell Oil’s Fennica icebreaker departed Dutch Harbor for the Chukchi Sea on Thursday afternoon. That’s a day and a half after it arrived from Oregon.

The Fennica’s now headed north, on the 1,100 mile voyage to Shell’s drill site.

Download Audio

The Fennica’s arrival in the Chukchi Sea has been delayed by about a month, after it ran aground in Dutch Harbor on July 3. It then went through repairs and protests in Portland.

The Fennica has to be in place in the Chukchi Sea before the Interior Department will let Shell drill into oil-bearing rocks beneath the sea floor.

Interior Department officials said they expect to quickly approve the deeper drilling once the Fennica and its safety equipment are on site.

But there’s another icebreaker sitting in Dutch Harbor.

The Coast Guard vessel Healy readies itself for a northward trip in the name of science. Photo: John Ryan/KUCB.
The Coast Guard vessel Healy readies itself for a northward trip in the name of science. Photo: John Ryan/KUCB.

It’s the Healy, the Coast Guard’s largest ship. It’s scheduled to depart on Sunday on its way to the North Pole. It’s helping an international team of scientists study the rapidly changing chemistry of the Arctic Ocean.

Phoebe Lam is part of that team. She’s a geochemist from the University of California at Santa Cruz. The scientists will bring up water samples from the depths to see just what the Arctic Ocean is made of.

“I’m measuring particles and the chemical composition of particles. A biologist would call them plankton, a geochemist calls them particles. It’s the same thing — it’s just stuff in the ocean.”

….So is a whale just a really big particle?

“Yes. I hope not to get them because they’re hard to process.”

Lam says studying chemistry is like doing forensics. It helps you understand what happened when you weren’t there to see it yourself.

Sceintists can use obscure elements and isotopes to figure out questions like how fast the Arctic Ocean is taking up industrial greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

This is the Healy’s second Arctic mission this year.

The first mission focused on testing equipment practicing search and rescue in polar conditions.

The Coast Guard only has two icebreakers in working condition. But it’s trying to expand its capabilities in the Arctic.

Captain Jason Hamilton says the mission in July encountered more sea ice than they were expecting, so the Healy detoured to the west.

“One of first rules of icebreaking is if you can avoid it, avoid it. When you break ice, it’s more fuel. It is harder on the hull; it’s slower. So if you can take the path of least resistance, you take the path of least resistance.”

This week, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that the overall area of Arctic sea ice for July was below average. The center says the Northern sea route across the Arctic is now open.
The Healy is one of three icebreakers cruising the Arctic for science this summer. The international collaboration also includes scientists on board Canadian and German icebreakers.
They aim to get a baseline of conditions in the Arctic before the expected increase in shipping and resource extraction brings more pollution to the relatively pristine region.