POLITICS

Coast Guard cutter Healy heads out on Arctic expedition

06/20/2015 06:23 EDT | Updated 06/20/2016 05:59 EDT
BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. - U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jason Hamilton, of Bainbridge Island, will lead a crew of 150 on an unprecedented expedition to study the Arctic Ocean.

About 50 of those aboard will be scientists who will be collecting data on the Arctic Ocean, said Hamilton, who has been with the Coast Guard for 26 years and captain of the Healy for two weeks.

What makes Hamilton's first expedition with the Healy unlike any other Arctic study is the international partnership to create a baseline for the area's biogeochemical cycles — the cycles of chemical elements and compounds in the ecosystem. The study is part of the U.S. Geotraces project, an international study of the marine biogeochemical cycles.

The National Science Foundation is the Coast Guard's primary partner, providing grants to organizations and scientists, while the Coast Guard gives scientists access to the Arctic and Antarctic with icebreakers.

Three countries — the United States, Canada and Germany — have agreed on what sections of the Arctic scientists will study and made arrangements to test one another's results.

"The amount of international collaboration is very impressive," said Dr. David Kadko with Florida International University. "It's probably unprecedented."

Kadko is an oceanographer who specializes in geochemistry with 40 years of experience and will be aboard the Healy.

Data that Kadko and other scientists collect during the four-month expedition will be used to compare future collections or changes in the Arctic Ocean's ecosystem.

The Healy is the Coast Guard's largest icebreaker at 16,000 tons and 420-feet long. It is designed to break 4.5 feet of ice continuously at 3 knots, according to the U.S. Coast Guard website.

The Coast Guard's other icebreaker, Polar Star, is smaller, although more powerful, Hamilton said.

The Healy's primary mission is assisting scientific studies with more than 4,200-square-feet of scientific laboratory space and equipment.

Besides a massive data collection on biogeochemical cycles, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be testing equipment in cold conditions, Hamilton said.

NOAA will test a 6-foot, unmanned aircraft called Puma that can provide ice conditions, observe marine mammals or check on potential oil spills.

They also will test a NOAA Wave Glider to study water below the ocean's surface.

It is the third year the Coast Guard has assisted with equipment testing through its research and development centre, Hamilton said.

Hamilton has multiple roles with the Coast Guard beyond being a commander on the Healy.

He serves as captain on the water and an attorney on land, helping shape law and policy.

Hamilton earned his law degree from the University of Washington in 2000, and has served as a prosecutor and judge as well as being on defence counsels. He has helped negotiate maritime treaties, including preparing for oil spills.

Hamilton entered the Coast Guard Academy directly after high school, graduating in 1993 from the academy. His first polar expedition was in 2004 to the Antarctic.

It was during his time at the academy he realized his passion for maritime life and environmental response, Hamilton said.

"Going forward, I've always looked for opportunities to be on the water," he said. "And if not on the water, working policy and legal aspects of it to protect the oceans and make them safe."