Heavy Icebreakers: An Asset to Scientific Research

For the past 40 years, the U.S. Coast Guard has resupplied the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole stations in Antarctica for Operation Deep Freeze. As you might imagine, getting to the edge of the earth is not a simple task. The Coast Guard deploys over 140 crew members to navigate frigid waters and safely supply the two stations using a heavy icebreaker. The ship navigates through 70 miles of ice, ranging in thickness from one to 10 feet, just to reach the McMurdo station. On Feb. 13th, as the icebreaking crew reached where few humans have been, senior Coast Guard leaders gathered in Washington D.C. to talk about the need for more U.S. icebreakers.

The Committee on Polar Icebreaker Cost Assessment was briefed by Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Michel, who shared how access to polar regions is important for our nation’s security and sovereign interests. Yet the Polar Star is currently the only operational icebreaker.

According to the Coast Guard’s blog, “…the Admiral spoke of the need for modern, capable icebreakers as a national security imperative. To that end, the Admiral shared key findings from a 2010 study that identified the need for three heavy and three medium icebreakers to provide sufficient capability to support U.S. national interests in the polar regions.”

Admiral Michel urged, “To be clear, our current fleet does not meet this need. We currently cannot guarantee year-round, assured access. If Polar Star were to suffer a casualty, we have zero self rescue capability.”

Directed by Congress, this committee formed to create a report that can be used for future operation and acquisition processes for one or more heavy icebreakers. This was the first meeting, but they plan to publish their findings in July 2017. Once the findings are published, an educated decision can be made on the next steps to continue providing safe access to Antarctica.

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