Trouble at the Ends of the Earth

America needs a new icebreaker to serve its interests in both polar regions.

U.S. Coast Guard vessel Polar Star in McMurdo.Earlier this month, a giant U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo jet touched down near McMurdo station in Antarctica, landing on a runway made entirely of ice. Thus began this season’s Operation Deep Freeze, the U.S. military’s annual mission to support American activities on the continent.

McMurdo is the largest American outpost in Antarctica. As many as 1,100 scientists and support personnel live and work at the sprawling facility during the austral summer season. The station also serves as the hub for onward travel to the South Pole and other remote research sites.

Supplying food, fuel and equipment to McMurdo is essential to maintaining America’s presence and protecting its interests in the region. As every logistician knows, “getting there” is a prerequisite to “being there.” And getting to Antarctica requires the carefully coordinated use of aircraft, ships and icebreakers.

Last season, C-17s staging out of Christchurch, New Zealand, flew more than five thousand passengers and six million pounds of cargo to and from McMurdo. This season’s effort will be comparable in size and scale. Yet, aerial resupply by itself is not sufficient to meet American logistical needs in Antarctica. Aircraft are not particularly well suited for carrying the kind of outsized cargo used in major construction projects, nor are they the most cost-effective means for hauling massive quantities of fuel.

These tasks are best handled by ships. Each year, a freighter and a tanker chartered by the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command also participate in Operation Deep Freeze. Last season, nearly seven million pounds of cargo and more than six million gallons of fuel were delivered to McMurdo by sea.

For the logistics ships to get there, however, an icebreaker must first open a channel through the ice blocking the approaches to the station. For years, the United States relied primarily upon its only two U.S. Coast Guard heavy icebreakers—the Polar Sea and the Polar Star—to perform this “break-in” operation.

Unfortunately, America’s comparatively small icebreaker fleet has fallen on very hard times. Both heavy icebreakers have surpassed their original thirty-year design life and are currently in lamentable states of disrepair.

The Polar Sea’s diesel engines broke down in 2010, and the vessel was subsequently scheduled to be scrapped starting this past summer. After Senator Cantwell of Washington and Senators Begich and Murkowski of Alaska personally intervened, the Polar Sea won a last-minute reprieve—ostensibly to allow more time to assess the feasibility of returning it to service. Even so, the Polar Sea’s long-term future remains doubtful.

The other heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, entered caretaker status in 2006 and is now undergoing overhaul in Seattle. It reportedly will not return to service until late next year at the earliest. Even then, it may have only seven to ten years of life left.

The only other U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, the Healy, is a “medium” icebreaker. Though routinely used as a polar research vessel, mainly in the Arctic, it is not considered suitable for dealing with the heavy ice conditions often encountered in the vicinity of McMurdo.

With the two American heavy icebreakers out of action, the National Science Foundation—which has principal responsibility for managing the U.S. Antarctic Program—has turned to foreign-owned icebreakers to assist the McMurdo resupply effort. Starting in the 2006–2007 season, the NSF chartered the Swedish icebreaker Oden for five consecutive years. During the 2011–2012 season, it contracted with Russia’s Murmansk Shipping Company for the Vladimir Ignatyuk.

The practice of relying upon foreign-owned icebreakers to support the principal U.S. station in Antarctica is fraught with risks. Because of competing demands for their services, the vessels simply might not be available when needed. In 2011, the Swedish government abruptly halted the NSF’s long-standing arrangement for leasing the Oden, citing the need to support commercial shipping closer to home in the Baltic. According to published accounts, the Russian Ignatyuk’s availability for the upcoming 2012–2013 season was initially in doubt, though the contract ultimately was renewed.

Needless to say, the U.S. Antarctic program would be in dire straits if the NSF were unable to arrange for icebreaking services with overseas providers. Yet, efforts to restore an American heavy-icebreaker capability have been beset by bureaucratic and congressional inaction and years of chronic underfunding.