Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Piercing the Arctic's Icy Unknown U.S. Cutter Explores Northwest Passage, Polar Melting

Piercing the Arctic's Icy Unknown U.S. Cutter Explores Northwest Passage, Polar Melting

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Foreign Service

ABOARD THE U.S. COAST GUARD CUTTER HEALY -- The ship slams against the wicked ice of the Northwest Passage. From inside the vessel's belly, the ice seems to be fighting back, roaring, screaming, pounding against the steel hull. The ship is stopped cold in the frozen tracks of the passage. It pauses, backs up in black water, then rams the great white frozen ridges again.

The weakened ice finally bends and gives way.

The Healy, the newest icebreaker in the U.S. Coast Guard, moves slowly forward, as if putting a foot through the throat of the Arctic. But to either side of the ship, the ice is untouched, six feet thick, looking like a frozen extension of land.

Explorers have battled the passage's ice for hundreds of years, trying to find a northern shortcut to riches in Asia. The battle was fierce. Often it was the ice that killed, luring in ships and their woolen-covered crews, then without warning closing quickly behind them, trapping, deep-freezing and burying them.

Today, the once-unbreakable slabs of ice are melting, dripping more quickly than ever before. The passage may yet become navigable, opening a new trading route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But that accessibility may mean ecological disaster.

The world, it seems, is melting from the top.

The Healy has made it this far at a good pace in part because the polar cap is shrinking, thinning. Some scientists say it may disappear entirely, little by little each summer, in just 50 years. The coverage of Arctic Sea ice has shrunk by about 6 percent since 1978. The average thickness of the ice has gone from 10.2 feet in the 1950s to 5.9 feet this year, a loss of 42 percent, according to the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center in Norway.

While it is clear the ice is melting, scientists disagree as to why and what it means. The effect could be benign, or it could be the start of catastrophic climate change that would kill polar bears, whales, plankton and other life in the north and flood coastal cities in the south. It is here at the top of the world, where the environment is the most pure, most delicate, most serene, that scientists can draw conclusions.

"Clearly, the temperatures are getting warmer. Is this part of the natural process or is this due to things people have done, burning too much carbon dioxide?" asks Capt. Jeffrey M. Garrett, commanding officer of the Healy.

His ship's 26,000-nautical mile voyage began in January in the warm waters of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, where the ship was built. The Healy sailed to waters off northern Canada, crossed the Atlantic to call in Ireland and Greenland, then headed for the passage en route to Seattle.

The purpose was to let the Healy, a 420-foot, diesel-propelled floating science lab, test its icebreaking powers and begin scientific studies. On the voyage so far, scientists have used Doppler radar to make images of the ocean floor, finding previously unknown structures and contours. They have taken samples of water at different depths and readings on ice conditions.

"The effects will be seen in the polar regions first," Garrett says. "The ice is not as thick nor is it as extensive."

Still, as he talks, the Healy shakes and rolls as the ice continues to resist its advance.

It is July 21, and the ship is moving through Barrow Strait. It is making better speed here because the ice has diminished, floating in chunks. The water is a great dark abyss that looks inviting, even though it would kill any crew member who fell overboard in less than three minutes.

The ship combines its mass, 16,500 tons, the design of the hull and its diesel power to ride up on ice sheets that get in its way, then break them with its weight.

Capt. Garrett stands starboard in Coast Guard blue. He is trying to determine the lay of the ice, the thickness of its ridges. Looking for the path of least resistance. The midnight sun won't go away. It could be midnight; it could be 10 in the morning. Time doesn't matter here.

With so much ice and water, it is difficult to imagine that this is a desert in terms of precipitation. In the 24-hour daylight of summer, temperatures rise to 50 degrees. In the endless dark of winter, they drop to 60 degrees below zero, freezing any flesh left exposed. The wind is persistent. Magnetic compasses are not reliable so close to the North Pole. Here, one must rely on the human mind.

"For those of us who sail icebreakers and go to the polar regions," Garrett says, "the Northwest Passage has long had an almost mystical appeal. Many in the crew had read up on the centuries of exploration and searches for the passage, much of which ended in tragedy."

On his mind, he says, is the voyage led by Sir John Franklin in 1845. No one in that 129-man expedition returned. One theory is that they were poisoned by the lead that sealed the cans of beef they ate.

It was not until 1903 that explorers succeeded in completing the voyage the Healy is attempting. They were led by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and took three years. In 1940, the St. Roch, a schooner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, also succeeded. It took two years. By 1967, only seven ships had traveled the passage end to end.

Sarah Corteville, a 22-year-old ensign whose dream it was to travel the passage, is in her cabin listening to the words of Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers. From her computer in the cramped quarters comes the eerie song:

Ah, for just one time

I would take the Northwest Passage

To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea.

Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage

And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.

Earlier in the voyage, the song came spilling out of the public address system, scratchy and hesitant. But Sarah listened and, with a gifted ear, began singing it. "The Northwest passage, it's a romantic thing," she says. "So few people get to go through it. And this song was so cool."

Outside her porthole, the endless white dazzles.

It is late on July 21, and the Healy has entered Peel Sound. It is forcing itself through a five-foot-thick wall of ice. The deck of the ship sways. The stomach grows uneasy unless one has sea legs and Dramamine pills from the ship's medic. The ship shakes. It backs up and rams again. The questions arise only for a second: Will the ship make it? What is the way out?

As always, it does make it. The ocean and ice ahead look like a blue Slurpee from 7-Eleven. Snow piles up like whipped cream. The ship cuts the ice more easily now. The ice swirls and turns over. Behind the ship is a trail of crushed chunks.

With the naked eye, Dan Crosbie, an ice service specialist with the Canadian government's department of environment, sees a difference in the ice. "The melt is occurring earlier," Crosbie says. "What we used to face were drastic conditions. The ice itself is not as thick as normal."

He is one of three Canadians on board the Healy; the mission was an icebreaker of sorts between the United States and Canada.

For decades the waters of the Arctic have been the source of conflict between the two countries. Canada has asserted sovereignty over the passage, claiming it has a right to draw straight baselines around the perimeter of the archipelago, limit the territory of the sea and control who can and cannot go through.

The United States, contending that the passage is international water, presses for freedom of navigation. The last time it sent an icebreaker here, in 1985, it did not ask Canada for permission. But in 1988, the countries agreed that all navigation by U.S. icebreakers in waters claimed by Canada would be undertaken with consent from the Canadian government.

"As far as Canada is concerned, all Arctic islands [and waters] are national territory and fall under our jurisdiction," says Rene Turenne, captain of a Canadian coast guard icebreaker, who is along for the ride, both for his expertise and as a diplomatic courtesy to Canada.

He notes that not a few people in Canada believe that the passage should be closed to navigation. "It's a fragile environment. Unless you have serious reasons, you shouldn't disturb the ice. . . . Some environmentalists think just the noise the ship makes transmits through the waters for hundreds of miles, possibly 1,000 miles away, disrupting the migration of the bullhead whale. There is some speculation the whales can hear each other across the Arctic Ocean, but no whale has mentioned that."

He smiles.

Other environmentalists argue that simply breaking the ice causes damage, leaving behind more jumble. The breaking of ice may speed the melting of ice. A seal might be crushed.

Anything done by people has an impact on the Arctic, they say. One can map the evolution of poisons in the ecosystem: coal, oil, the toxin DDT, nuclear debris. The evolution of industry in the past 100 years can be tasted in the ice.

The Arctic is fragile. It doesn't have the biological activity to break down waste. "The biological systems here are more vulnerable because there is no one else here to share the pain," Turenne says. "There is no safe place. The Arctic knows no refuge from anyone."

It is Saturday, July 22. In Victoria Strait, the ice looks deceptively like solid land. Ahead, it specifically resembles a ridge. The Healy cuts cleanly through. Pieces of ice circle and swirl, turning over in the blue Kool-Aid water of the ship's wake.

From the second deck, the smell of steamed, frozen crab legs and lamb chops seeping from dinner in the mess hall mixes with the chill and stillness of the air.

Most of the crew has been on board six months, a long time from home. The time on board is marked by reveille, work, meals, movies, e-mail and sleep through daylight that never ends. Morale is high. The more progress the ship makes against the ice, the higher the hope that home will come sooner.

Frank Perniola, 38, a senior chief machinery technician, looks over the rails from two stories above the ice.

"It's clean," Perniola says of the vast expanse. He reflects on how few people have been here before. There is no visible evidence of pollution. He wonders what harm people will bring if the passage becomes more viable. "What more can we screw up? Some places were just meant to be left alone."

The sea is back to ice and water now. It looks like Aqua Velva. The ship is moving through Peel Sound.

It is 2300 hours, but the sun still shines. On the bridge, chief warrant officer Timothy Malcolm is on watch while most of the crew sleeps, the light slipping through their portholes, the ship rocking them in their bunks.

Faintly at first, there is a signal, a long jagged mark of neon green that blinks on the radar screen. It beeps again, this time more persistently. What could it be? The cutter is alone in the passage, except for the seals, the polar bears, the narwhals, the birds, the water and the ice. No other ships for hundreds of miles.

"Something is giving us this radar return. We are getting radar reflection," says Malcolm. "Why there would be one here I have no idea."

The ship is going 7.2 knots. Here, the water looks shallow.

The signal beeps again. Malcolm checks the binoculars. He sees nothing but great slabs of ice and cupcakes of snow. The cutter moves closer, closer. The signal continues its persistent call, clear as day.

When a crew has been too many days at sea, sometimes the horizon appears elevated. The light bends. Mariners call it a fata morgana, "a complex mirage, characterized by marked distortion, generally in the vertical. It may cause objects to appear towering, magnified and at times even multiplied," says the Glossary of Marine Navigation.

Malcolm changes course 3 degrees. Finally, the ship passes the location of the faint signal.


Perhaps it was a metal antenna left on an ice floe by someone. By whom? And why hasn't it fallen deep into the black water?

The signal disappears. "That was weird," Malcolm says.

Was it a whale with a tag?

"I don't think it would stay there in the same place," Malcolm says. "It must have been the ice giving that signal. But I've never seen ice give a signal."

The maritime log calls it a phantom signal, something that shows up on radar but doesn't have an actual presence.

A signal in the passage. A phantom echo.