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Fall 2006 Vol. 6 No. 3

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Polar Changes Heighten Need for New Icebreakers

Scientists from U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea taking ice core samples in the Arctic, photo by Andy Devilbiss, U.S. Coast Guard

Operation Deep Freeze is launched every summer in Antarctica. The mission is to clear McMurdo Sound of ice so cargo ships can resupply U.S. scientists, including those stationed at the South Pole. For 50 years, the U.S. Coast Guard has cleared McMurdo channel, but its two most powerful -- and oldest -- icebreakers, the Polar Sea and Polar Star, have been beset by mechanical problems recently. This forced the National Science Foundation to hire a Russian icebreaker for the McMurdo break-in the last two years.

The lack of U.S. icebreaking capability comes at a time when the nation's interests at both poles are more important than ever, according to a congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council. The Arctic and Antarctic are real-world laboratories for observing the effects of global climate change, one of which appears to be melting sea ice in the Arctic, which is opening up new shipping routes and sparking economic activity such as exploration for natural resources and eco-tourism. In Antarctica, huge breakaway icebergs have disrupted wind and water currents, leading to thicker ice than usual in McMurdo Sound.

The report recommends that two new icebreakers be built to replace the Polar Sea and Polar Star so that the United States can "project an active and influential presence" in the regions. The Polar Sea and Polar Star are the Coast Guard's only icebreakers designed for heavy ice. But, at 30 years old, they are near the end of their expected service lives, and a lack of funding has led to delays in routine maintenance. A third polar icebreaker, the Healy, is in better shape. Although the Healy has performed well in thick ice and has been dispatched to assist at McMurdo, it is assigned primarily to support Arctic research. The report warns that when the Healy is sent to Antarctica, it leaves little or no U.S. icebreaking capability in the Arctic.

It will be at least eight years before a new icebreaker is ready for duty, the report estimates. In the meantime, the Polar Sea should be kept mission capable. The ship recently underwent a $30 million upgrade, so it should be ready for the upcoming McMurdo break-in, but the repairs will not keep the ship in reliable condition long enough for a replacement to be built. The Polar Star should remain on standby, ready to be activated if catastrophe strikes the Polar Sea, the report adds.   -- Bill Kearney

Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs. Committee on the Assessment of U.S. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Roles and Future Needs, Polar Research Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies, and Marine Board, Transportation Research Board (2006, approx. 250 pp.; ISBN 0-309-10321-5; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $50.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Anita K. Jones, Lawrence R. Quarles Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia, Charlottesville. The study was funded by the U.S. Coast Guard.

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Copyright 2006 by the National Academy of Sciences