This year, the US icebreaker “Polar Star” will not conduct any supply trip and will not head to the American McMurdo station in Antarctica. The waiver came after “Operation Deep Freeze” was cancelled due to COVID. Instead, the icebreaker will spend the winter of 2020/21 in the Arctic. According to a government spokesman, “the maritime sovereignty and security of the nation in the region needs to be protected.”
Usually, the “Polar Star” travels to Antarctica every year to supply the U.S. Antarctic stations and support the National Science Foundation. This year’s supply trip to McMurdo Station was cancelled due to COVID safety measures. Urgently needed goods are delivered by aircraft. Heavy icebreakers are required to fully supply the U.S. stations, and the Coast Guard expects to resume this delicate operation next year.
The “Polar Star” remains in US waters
Operating on America’s doorstep may be a safer option. The “Polar Star”, built in the 1970s, has slowly aged and shows some weaknesses due to its age in the meantime. On February 10, 2019, the 150 crew members of Polar Star fought a night-time fire for nearly two hours before it was extinguished. The fire broke out in the waste incinerator. At that time, the “Polar Star” was located about 1,050 km north of McMurdo.
Already during the Antarctic season 2017-2018, the “Polar Star” had serious technical problems. On January 11, 2018, one of the icebreaker’s three main gas turbines failed. Five days later, a shaft seal failed and flooded the engine room. The crew was able to carry out the repairs and empty the flooded room with pumps.
The “Polar Star” is the only ship in the US fleet strong enough to break heavy sea ice, which occasionally lies in the Ross Sea and blocks the way to the US research station McMurdo.
The U.S. Coast Guard currently maintains only two icebreakers, the Coast Guard Cutter “Healy” with an output of 30,456 hp and the “Polar Star”. With an output of 75,000 hp, the “Polar Star” is the strongest non-nuclear icebreaker. However, the “Healy” is currently not operational and is waiting in the port of Seattle for the delivery of a control drive motor.
Waiting for replacement
The U.S. Coast Guard has been the only organization in the country since 1965 with the ability to break ice to keep traffic routes open. Its aim is to expand its icebreaker fleet with new polar icebreakers to ensure a continuous national presence and access to the polar regions.
In contrast to Russia, which currently has more than 40 icebreakers in use, the operational capability of the US icebreakers makes a rather sluggish impression. Replacement with a newly constructed ship of the shipbuilder VT Halter Marine should not be available before 2024. The Coast Guard’s original schedule stipulates that an icebreaker will be delivered every two years. The Congressional Research Service team believes this schedule is too optimistic, but if the Coast Guard stays close to the plan, the first three icebreakers could be delivered by 2029.
As the country’s primary maritime presence in the polar regions, the Coast Guard promotes U.S. national interests through a unique blend of polar operational capabilities, regulators, and international leadership across the spectrum of maritime governance. In April 2019, the Coast Guard released the Arctic Strategic Outlook, which reaffirms the service’s commitment to the region. The strategy highlights the importance of partnerships in the region, including with the Arctic Council, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, Combatant Command and other organisations.
Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal
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