U.S. Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy.

Icebreaker's Good Deed Creates Scheduling Headaches for Arctic Researchers

Carolyn is a staff writer for Science and is the editor of the In Brief section.

In November, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy helped deliver an emergency load of fuel oil to icebound Nome, Alaska. But the unplanned rescue is now wreaking havoc with scientists' plans to use the Healy for Arctic research this year—forcing some teams to consider other options.

The Healy was on its way home to Seattle from its final scientific cruise of 2011 when it was diverted to cut a path through the Bering Sea ice for a Russian fuel tanker. Healy helped guide the tanker to Nome in January and then headed to a Seattle drydock for annual maintenance, arriving later than originally planned.

Now, the diversion is making the usual summer scheduling puzzle for scientific teams even more complicated, says David Forcucci, the Healy's marine science coordinator. "We have another factor that we typically don't have to deal with -- fitting in the maintenance." The delay could mean that the Healy heads back to sea 4 to 8 weeks later than originally planned, scrambling plans for science teams that wanted to be in the Arctic at a particular time and possibly forcing some teams off the ship entirely. But nothing has been decided yet, Forcucci says. "The scientists need to plan - and we understand that," he says. "We're still looking at options," including possibly reordering when teams use the ship.

One project at risk involves biological oceanographer Jacqueline Grebmeier of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science in Solomons. She's the chief scientist on a Healy cruise that was slated to head to the Chukchi Sea in July. "Ours is the most impacted because it was the first one [scheduled] to go," Grebmeier says. The cruise is part of a research program funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to evaluate the ecosystem in the Chukchi Sea, which is slated for oil and gas development. The timing is critical to the research, she says: "We want to be there in July and August, because we're looking at biological activity, carbon cycling, the physics of the system as the ice pulls back."

Right now, Grebmeier says, her team is still hoping to use the Healy, while still considering all other options, such as squeezing on to other ships. But most research vessels already have full schedules. BOEMRE and the Coast Guard are also exploring another possibility: shortening the icebreaker's time in drydock by providing extra funds for faster work.

Meanwhile, Forcucci says the Coast Guard should have a new plan for the Healy's 2012 research schedule "within a week or two."

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