America’s only active heavy-duty icebreaker, the Polar Star, is mission-ready once more. The problem: The elderly vessel should have been decommissioned in 2006, and even with its current repairs, its life has only been extended 5 to 20 years.
Of the top five ice-breaking nations, Russia has more icebreakers — 18 in all — than Finland, Sweden, Canada and the U.S. combined. The U.S. has only two active icebreakers: the medium icebreaker Healy and the Polar Star. The Polar Star’s sister ship, the Polar Sea, needs $100 million in repairs before it can leave dock, and building another heavy icebreaker would take about 10 years and cost more than $850 million. The problem is there aren’t any plans to finance or build another one, which according to the Department of Homeland Security is a big problem.
A report commissioned by the Coast Guard in 2010 found that the service needs six heavy and four medium icebreakers to operate effectively. The cost of adding those vessels to the existing fleet is about $3.2 billion, a Congressional Research Service report found.
The Coast Guard needs to add to its icebreaking fleet or else it will be “unable to accomplish its Arctic missions,” says a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general. The U.S. is the least-prepared of all Arctic nations despite having so much to gain and lose in terms of resources, logistics and scientific discovery. Today’s problems will only be exacerbated in future years as our existing ships age.
Why do icebreakers matter? Look to the Healy’s actions in 2011 when it escorted an oil tanker to Nome as that town was running short on oil. Look to the annual scientific and mapping missions in the Arctic, where the Coast Guard is America’s leading service in scientific research afloat. Look to the south, where private and foreign icebreakers now escort supply ships to Antarctica, a role American icebreakers once played.
We’re not interested in an icebreaker race with Russia — they’ve clearly won. Russia has six nuclear-powered icebreakers and is building another nuclear heavy icebreaker (at a cost of $1.1 billion) that is expected to be the world’s biggest.
Our point is this: Every other Arctic nation sees the benefit of investing in the Arctic. We wonder if those serving in Washington D.C. — Alaska delegation not included — are even aware the U.S. is an Arctic nation. Their priorities don’t convince us they are. This is a mistake that needs rectifying.
The U.S. will take over chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015. Sitting at the big chair at the table means little if our country limps when it comes to securing the resources necessary to navigate its ice-encrusted borders.
The Polar Star is on borrowed time, and the icebreaker Healy, launched in 1997, won’t last forever. Now is the time for leaders in Washington to step up and provide funding so the U.S. can catch up in the Arctic. Our nation’s fleet of icebreakers have been given the cold shoulder for too long.
— Juneau Empire, Nov. 18