Early last month the news media were widely reporting the Russian research cruise vessel carrying 74 scientists, tourists and crew, that became lodged in the ice off the coast of Antarctica on Christmas Eve. On January 2n d, the vessel’s passengers were evacuated via helicopter to an Australian vessel by a helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, which had been on its way to help but itself became stuck in the thick ice.
The US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star was then asked to divert from its mission to resupply the McMurdo Antarctic base to assist, but the American vessel was stood down after both the trapped ships finally escaped the ice.
Much hay was made of the irony that the 1,764-gt, 230-foot Akademik Shokalskiy was crowded with researchers seeking to document the theoretical disappearance of Antarctic ice, but little was said of the most important aspect of the story: our crying need for more icebreakers.
The US only has 3 icebreakers. The youngest, Healy, a medium-duty ship best suited for first-year ice, is 17 years old. The other two are heavier-duty ships, but they’re both more than 30 years old, and one, the Polar Sea, has been out of service since 2010. The Polar Star only recently returned to service after a comprehensive overhaul that cost nearly $60 million, which prolonged the service life of the vessel for another seven to 10 years.
A fourth icebreaker, the Mackinaw, is a light-duty vessel built for the great lakes in 2006, and wouldn’t be of much use in the arctic or Antarctic oceans.
The rest of the developed countries are way ahead of the United States in icebreaker and ice-class capacity, and are upgrading their current icebreaker fleets. Canada has six active icebreakers and one on the way, Denmark, has five active vessels, Finland has eight, and Russia has 40-plus, with another two under construction.
Even China has an icebreaker, mentioned earlier, with another expected to be delivered this year, and they don’t even have a port on the arctic. Other countries with icebreakers include Japan, South Africa and Spain.
The US has more than 1,000 miles of arctic coastline, accessible only by water, and the waterway of the Northern Sea Route becomes more navigable every summer. The Chinese, Russians, Finns, Danes and others all understand this and are building ice-strengthened cargo vessels and icebreakers at a tremendous rate- the US is woefully behind.
The Jones Act has kept the country’s shipbuilding capacity strong enough to produce a fleet of excellent ships. Now the US needs to make an icebreaker program a priority. The country’s lack of icebreaking capacity will soon become more evident as other nations develop their own vessels, then it will become embarrassing, and a threat to the security of