A century after Roald Amundsen's 1903-06 voyage across the ice-packed top of the world completed the last link in the search for a Northwest Passage to the Orient, the Coast Guard icebreaker and research vessel Healy traveled the same route in 12 days.
Amundsen headed into the forbidding world of ice to pin down the location of the North Magnetic Pole (actually it shifts, we know now), but even as a youth he'd hankered to find the Northwest Passage. His search for the pole "was kind of a ruse to get up there," said Alvo Martin '51, who last August made his second Arctic cruise with the Healy in two years and his third to polar regions.
In the 21st century, almost 400 years after the first expeditions began the quest for a Northwest Passage, the thrill of adventure doesn't top the list of expedition goals. Four Northwest Passages have been charted, and most voyages of discovery these days conduct studies of subjects like seafloor biology, climate and ocean currents. Since the Healy's maiden scientific voyage in 2001, the ship, able to carry oceanographers, geologists, marine biologists and meteorologists supported by the National Science Foundation, among others, has played a key role in helping the U.S. Global Change program answer primary questions about Arctic ice melt and global warming.
Currently, the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate is reporting that NASA's satellite images show dramatic shrinking of the perennial Arctic ice pack. Scientists don't know whether this shrinkage is caused by natural climate change, by human activity or by some combination of the two.
Put simply, scientists aboard the Healy are studying global warming by studying ice. They want to discover what is going on in the Arctic climate, ocean currents and ocean bottoms.
Media people are eager to learn what the scientists discover, and cruises like Healy's occasionally carry journalists, on a space-available basis, from The New York Times and other front-line publications. "I don't have that kind of clout," said Martin, a retired Atlanta public relations consultant who produced a documentary on The Weather Channel Network following his first voyage on the icebreaker in 2001, "but I had a deep interest in what they were doing. Amundsen's big thing was finding the North Magnetic Pole. Ours was mapping the seafloor."