The Polar Starbreaks a path for ships that supply McMurdo Station.
The Polar Star breaks a path through the ice for ships that supply McMurdo Station, a site of the U.S. Antarctic Program where scientists conduct field research and geophysical observations. The Polar Star is the only operational heavy polar icebreaker owned by the U.S. government. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters

Deeming the United States “ill-equipped to protect its interest and maintain leadership” in the polar regions, a national science advisory committee has issued a report calling for construction of four new ships with heavy icebreaking capability.

The United States currently owns just one operational, heavy polar icebreaker, the Polar Star, which was built in 1976 and is long past its 30-year design life. The Polar Star and one medium polar icebreaker, the Healy, constitute the entire U.S.-owned operational polar icebreaker fleet, whereas Russia has 16 polar icebreakers with 4 more under construction, Finland has 7, Sweden 4, and Canada 3.

Heavy icebreakers come with high price tags. To hold down costs, which nonetheless would average nearly $800 million per ship, the report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) recommends using essentially the same design for all the ships and buying them all through a block purchase.

The document, entitled “Acquisition and Operation of Polar Icebreakers: Fulfilling the Nation’s Needs,” also recommends assigning the U.S. Coast Guard to own and operate the vessels, three of which would serve in the Arctic and one in the Antarctic.

To support future scientific use of the ships, the NASEM committee encourages spending extra initially on the vessels to make it easier and more cost-effective to later equip them for science missions. All of the ships should be built to a standard of “science ready,” at a cost of about $10–$20 million extra per ship, the report recommends. For yet another $20–$30 million, one of the four ships should begin its career as fully “science capable.”

“If you’re going to build a ship that goes to places where no other ship can go, to oceans that we don’t know a hell of a lot about, then you ought to have some ability to do a little science while you’re there,” said Rear Adm. Richard West (retired), who chaired the NASEM committee that wrote the report.

Elements of a science-ready design, the report notes, could include structural supports, flexible accommodations for up to 50 science personnel, and the means to avoid interference with sonar transducers. Full science capability could include carrying oceanographic equipment, instrumentation, and facilities “comparable with those of modern oceanographic research vessels,” according to the report.

West added that with science-ready designs, “you don’t have to go back and retrofit that capability at probably a tenfold more expense.”

Failure to Respond to the Need

“The nation is in extremis. If you don’t do something now, you will be without icebreaking capability very, very quickly.”

There’s no time to lose, according to West and his committee. “For more than 30 years, studies have emphasized the need for U.S. icebreakers to maintain presence, sovereignty, leadership, and research capacity—but the nation has failed to respond,” they state in the document.

West told Eos that he hopes that this study will make a difference. “We’ve been procrastinating on investing in polar icebreakers for a long time, and so this is a crucial report,” he said. “The nation is in extremis. If you don’t do something now, you will be without icebreaking capability very, very quickly.”

The admiral, who from 2002 to 2008 served as president and CEO of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education, which was renamed the Consortium for Ocean Leadership during that period, noted that both the Obama and Trump administrations have expressed support for polar icebreakers.

Funding Prospects

A government project to acquire a new polar icebreaker received about $221 million between fiscal year (FY) 2013 and FY 2017, according to a June 2017 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. The CRS report also summarizes some of the Coast Guard’s long-standing efforts to beef up its icebreaking capability, including $20 million in contracts awarded to companies in February 2017 for heavy polar icebreaker design studies and analysis.

The Coast Guard’s proposed FY 2018 budget requests $19 million in acquisition funding for a polar icebreaker. U.S. president Donald Trump said in a 17 May speech at the Coast Guard Academy that during his administration, “we will be building the first new heavy icebreakers the United States has seen in over 40 years.”

On Capitol Hill, the Senate Armed Services Committee last month unanimously approved a provision of the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that calls for procurement of up to six Coast Guard polar-class icebreakers.

How Best to Accommodate Science

The report “is a measured, realistic assessment.”

Carin Ashjian, a biological oceanographer who is a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a member of the NASEM committee, said she would prefer that all four ships be made science capable.

However, she said the report “is a measured, realistic assessment. Given the present levels of funding available to the nation, we could not support [full science capability] on four of those ships. We simply do not have the research funds, nor do funding agencies have funds to maintain the operations of the science portions of a ship.” She said the report builds in flexibility by recommending science-ready and science-capable icebreaker designs.

Kelly Falkner, director of the Office of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation, said that she appreciates the efforts by the committee to take a pragmatic approach to building polar icebreakers. However, she told Eos that she has concerns about how thoroughly the new icebreakers would meet science needs.

This report “is very important in reinforcing that we do need to immediately get going on construction of our [ice]breaker fleet. But I’m hoping we can continue the conversation on how best to accommodate science.”

“In an ideal world, you’d have an asset that is controlled and scheduled completely by the science community and operated in the most efficient and effective way for science,” she said, noting that the Coast Guard has many other important priorities, including national security and search and rescue missions. “When it comes to being at the forefront of marine science in the polar regions, you really want to dedicate a vessel to that and optimize a vessel for that.”

Some people think that if the science community doesn’t throw its hat in with the Coast Guard, it will never get a science-suitable icebreaker, Falkner said. However, “I would argue that we’re not at the point where you take what you get,” she said.

This report “is very good from the standpoint of reinforcing that we do need immediately to get going on construction of our [ice]breaker fleet. And I’m hoping we can continue the conversation on exactly how best to accommodate science.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2017), Build four new U.S. polar icebreakers, report urges, Eos, 98, Published on 14 July 2017.

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