It was only the second time that Carpenter, 23, had driven the 16.4-ton USCGC Healy, one of the U.S. military's two working polar icebreakers. He turned the ship slightly to the left in the sapphire-blue water, and a few seconds later, the ship's bow rumbled through the crusty white ice floe at about 10 mph. Metallic shudders rippled throughout the vessel, a feeling that Arctic rookies often find unnerving.
Carpenter is part of an increasingly pointed U.S. strategy to prepare for competition - and possible conflict - in what was once a frosty no man's land. The warming climate has created Arctic waterways that are growing freer of ice, and with China and Russia increasingly looking toward the region for resources, the United States is studying how many new icebreakers to build, whether to arm them with cruise missiles, and how to deal with more commercial traffic in an area that is still unpredictable and deadly.
Zukunft said last month in Washington that the situation in the Arctic could someday resemble the contentious disputes in the South China Sea, where China has built man-made islands and military installations over the objections of its neighbors. Russia already has made contested claims that stretch to the North Pole and possesses more than 25 icebreakers, with more on the way.
The next generations of Russian icebreakers aren't being built just to transit polar ice but to fight in it. One kind of ship in the works, the 374-foot Project 23550-class, is designed to be nimble in this environment while carrying naval guns and cruise missiles. The Kremlin also has disclosed plans to build or expand numerous bases along the northeastern Russian coastline, north of the Arctic Circle, including on Wrangel Island, Kotelny Island and at Cape Schmidt.
The Obama administration proposed building new icebreakers in 2015, citing the warming seas and concerns about Russia's intentions. But the effort to do so has gained new attention in recent months. Despite President Donald Trump's skepticism of climate change, he marveled at the power of polar icebreakers during a May 17 commencement speech at the Coast Guard Academy, and promised his administration will build "many of them."
Zukunft said that a fleet comprising three new medium icebreakers and three heavy icebreakers would allow the service to retire its older ships and keep one icebreaker perpetually patrolling in both the Arctic and Antarctic.
The cost of the new icebreakers is uncertain at this point. Estimates are often reported to be about $1 billion each because of the reinforced hull and robust engines needed to operate in ice, but Zukunft said he thinks it will be less. A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published in July recommended that a single class of four heavy icebreakers be purchased in one block buy to save money and suggested that time is running out to do so.
"The nation is ill-equipped to protect its interests and maintain leadership in these regions and has fallen behind other Arctic nations, which have mobilized to expand their access to ice-covered regions," the report said.
A Washington Post reporter and photographer sailed on the Healy from July 28 through Aug. 6, arriving on a Coast Guard helicopter off Alaska's Cape Lisburne and departing on a small seacraft in the port of Nome, Alaska. In between, the ship meandered at least 230 miles northeast of Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States, before turning back.
Missions on the Healy vary, based on what the scientists aboard need. On this trip, the ship carried members of the Coast Guard Research and Development Center as they tested unmanned boat systems among the ice floes, including an oil skimmer, a quadcopter and a 10-foot yellow vessel that was named the "Minion," after the popular cartoon characters.
Scot Tripp, the chief civilian scientist on the mission, said that when he started coming to the Arctic in 2012, there was ice nearly all the way south to Alaska's northern shores until June or July. That is no longer the case, prompting the service to evaluate what kind of new equipment it might need if a crisis emerges.
Officers piloting the Healy said that they do their best to avoid ice, but in areas where it is inevitable, it is considered safer for the ship to use the reinforced front of the ship to punch straight through it, rather than "shouldering it" and taking a glancing blow. Even then, sticky situations still emerge.
Ensign Taylor Peace, 23, who is on her second Arctic tour, said that last summer, the Healy spent four days wiggling out of an ice floe that wouldn't let go of the ship, Peace said.
"No one flipped out," said Peace, of Fairfax, Virginia. "You just keep trying. All you're doing is waiting for the wind to change direction so it can relieve the pressure, or so you can at least make five inches in an hour."
"This is a good chance to try it in a harsh environment, coming out here to work these vehicles," said Jason Story, a Coast Guard naval architect who designed the Minion.
Winds picked up and fog thickened during the second mission of the day as divers marked a return to something that had not occurred in the Arctic since Aug. 17, 2006: Coast Guard ice diving. The long hiatus followed the deaths of two Healy crew members - Lt. Jessica Hill, 31, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Steven Duque, 26, - during an ice dive that a service investigation found was poorly supervised.
"When we deploy to the Arctic, there is no bench strength nearby," said Capt. Greg Tlapa, the Healy's commanding officer. "No one is coming to save us. So, the more self-sufficient you are in terms of underwater inspection and hull repair, the less risk there is to a deployment."
On a bone-chilling afternoon, teams of two divers dove among the floes while a third diver sat ready in case his help was required. The sea craft was anchored to a hulking piece of ice on the ocean's surface.
The divers marveled at the clearness of the water and the crystallized ice - about 85 percent of the sea ice floating in the Arctic is beneath the surface.
"It's like diving in outer space," said one of the divers, Chief Petty Officer Chuck Ashmore. "I think that's the closest comparison I could make. You're seeing some just incredible structures down there."
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)
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