Coast Guard issues warning as breakdowns hobble icebreaker in Antarctic

    The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star is seen during Operation Deep Freeze. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

    MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica - The sole operational heavy icebreaker in the U.S. fleet suffered multiple breakdowns this month on its yearly replenishing mission to the U.S. station in Antarctica, sparking a warning from the Coast Guard that the vessel could easily become stranded in the ice with no self-rescue capability if something isn't done.

    The 42-year-old U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star, based in Seattle, is "showing its age," Coast Guard officials said, and must spend much of the year undergoing repairs and maintenance so that it can make it yearly voyage to Antarctica during Operation Deep Freeze. Despite all the maintenance work, it still keeps breaking down.

    It is the nation's only heavy icebreaker still in operation, and if it were to permanently break down the U.S. would be left with only one medium icebreaker - the 20-year-old U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy, which makes a yearly voyage to the Arctic. Both icebreakers are based in Seattle.

    "If a catastrophic event, such as getting stuck in the ice, were to happen to the Healy in the Arctic or to the Polar Star near Antarctica, the U.S. Coast Guard is left without a self-rescue capability," the Coast Guard said in a prepared statement. "By contrast, Russia currently operates more than 40 icebreakers – several of which are nuclear powered."

    During this month's icebreaking mission to McMurdo Station, Antarctica - which includes burrowing through miles of thick ice - the Polar Star suffered multiple breakdowns:

    - On the way to Antarctica, one of the ship’s electrical systems began to spew smoke, damaging the wiring in a crucial switchboard.

    - One of the ship’s two evaporators used to make drinkable water failed.

    - The ship experienced a leak from the shaft that drives the ship’s propeller, which halted icebreaking operations in order to send scuba divers in the water to repair the seal around the shaft.

    - The Polar Star also experienced multiple ship-wide power outages while breaking ice. Crew members spent hours shutting down the ship’s power plant and rebooting the electrical system in order to remedy the outages.

    The Coast Guard has been the sole provider of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability since 1965, and is seeking to increase its icebreaking fleet with six new Polar Security Cutters in order to ensure continued national presence and access to the polar regions. But it needs funding to do so.

    "Protecting national interests in the polar regions is essential to ensure the Coast Guard’s national defense strategy and search-and-rescue capabilities are ready for action, but in order to do so, the icebreaker fleet requires modernization," Coast Guard officials said.

    “While we focus our efforts on creating a peaceful and collaborative environment in the Arctic, we’re also responding to the impacts of increased competition in this strategically important region,” said Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. “Our continued presence will enable us to reinforce positive opportunities and mitigate negative consequences today and tomorrow.”

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