National Geographic Daily News
Polar Star, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, is seen in a handout photo taken in Antarctica April 4, 1999.

The U.S. Coast Guard's Polar Star, seen above in 1999, is still one of the most powerful icebreakers in the world.

PHOTOGRAPH BY U.S. COAST GUARD/REUTERS

Marianne Lavelle

National Geographic

Published January 6, 2014

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Polar Star, perhaps the most powerful non-nuclear icebreaker in the world, is steaming toward Antarctica to bring a key missing element—power—to the rescue effort around the icebound Russian vessel M.V. Akademik Shokalskiy.

Amid all of the misfortunes that have plagued rescuers, there's at least one bit of good luck: The Polar Star happened to be in port in Sydney, Australia, this week on its first deployment since a $90-million overhaul.

With engines that can deliver 75,000 horsepower, the Polar Star has 25 times the punch of the Shokalskiy and 5.5 times the horsepower of the Chinese rescue ship Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, which is itself now trapped in thick, frozen ice along with the Russian vessel.

On Saturday, the U.S. Coast Guard said it would respond to the call it received Thursday night from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), the organization coordinating the rescue of the trapped ships, to help break a navigable path through the ice. (Related: "Best Pictures From Dramatic Antarctic Ship Rescue.")

The Polar Star is expected to reach the vessels, about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart, Australia, by Sunday.

Although 52 of the passengers who were stranded in the ice since Christmas Eve were airlifted from the Shokalskiy by helicopter on January 2, the Russian crew remains with the immobilized ship.

"We are always ready and duty-bound to render assistance in one of the most remote and harsh environments on the face of the globe," said Vice Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, the Coast Guard's Pacific area commander. (Related: "Antarctic Ship Rescue: 5 Lessons From the Trapped-Vessel Drama.")

A Lot of Horsepower

But in fact, the Polar Star, the United States' only active heavy icebreaker, would not have been ready to assist before this season.

Built in 1976 with an anticipated life span of 30 years, the vessel had been placed in near-mothballed "caretaker status" in 2006.

Its twin sister ship, the Polar Sea, continued in service until engine failure in 2010 forced it into inactive status. That same year, the Coast Guard resolved to return the Polar Star to duty, and the vessel underwent a complete overhaul, including refurbishment of its engines, hydraulics, and electrical systems. (Related: "Antarctic Ship Drama: What Is an Icebreaker, Really?")

The Polar Star finished its ice tests in July and set out from its home port of Seattle in early December on its first major deployment and primary mission.

Nicknamed Operation Deep Freeze, that mission is to break a channel through the sea ice of McMurdo Sound to resupply and refuel the U.S. Antarctic Program's (USAP) McMurdo Station on Ross Island. The Polar Star happened to be on a stopover in Sydney when it received the call from Australian authorities to help free the Shokalskiy and the Snow Dragon.

"I would expect it could run circles around those other ships," said Lawson Brigham, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain who is now a professor at the  University of Alaska, Fairbanks. (See also: "Ship Stuck in Antarctica Raises Questions About Worth of Reenacting Expeditions.")

In a telephone interview before the announcement that the ship would be called in to assist, Brigham pointed out that the Snow Dragon is actually a bigger ship than the Polar Star: It's 150 feet (46 meters) longer and, at nearly 15,000 gross tons, is 2,000 gross tons heavier than the U.S. ship.

"But it doesn't have a whole lot of power for that gross tonnage," he said. Its engines can deliver 13,700 horsepower, certainly more than the Shokalskiy, at 3,000 horsepower, but not enough to ram through ice that has built up at that location following high winds and a blizzard.

Big Engine That Could

The Polar Star and now inactive Polar Sea were both built with a unique dual propulsion system, including both a diesel-electric system for steaming over long distances, and gas turbines, like those on a commercial jetliner, that can provide extra power for ramming through ice.

The Russians are believed to have the only icebreakers in the world that are more powerful than the United States' Polar-class vessels, but those are powered by nuclear reactors and they have never been deployed in the Southern Hemisphere. (See "Arctic Shipping Soars, Led by Russia and Lured by Energy.")

Because icebreakers are so expensive and labor-intensive—they take about $1 billion and eight to ten years to build from scratch—the question of the condition of the Polar icebreakers and whether to invest in new capacity has been a subject of debate for years in Washington, D.C. The company that built both ships, Lockheed Shipbuilding of Seattle, exited the shipbuilding business in the late 1980s.

A Congressional Research Service report said that certain major equipment from the Sea was transferred to the Star to facilitate the vessel's return to service. But after a Coast Guard official said that the Sea might be scrapped, Congress barred any dismantling of the ship and ordered study of extending its life to 2022.

The thick steel hull is considered the costliest part of an icebreaker, and budget-conscious officials have tried to squeeze as much life as possible out of the vessels as long as they remain serviceable.

Despite the Polar Star overhaul meant to extend its life by seven to ten years, there have been questions about how long the ship can serve. The CRS report noted that an August 2010 press report quoted the commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Robert Papp, as saying, "We're getting her back into service, but it's a little uncertain to me how many more years we can get out of her in her current condition, even after we do the engine repairs."

New Icebreaker Needed

The Coast Guard has started the process of commissioning for design and building of a new polar icebreaker, but the project has been hit hard by budget cuts.

The United States has only one other icebreaking vessel, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy. Built in 2000, it has more modern systems than the Polar ships but has roughly half the horsepower, and it's considered a medium-size icebreaker.

For now, all eyes are on the Polar Star, which cut short its planned stop in Sydney to assist the icebound Russian and Chinese vessels.

The Coast Guard said its plan is to free the stranded ships and then resume its mission to resupply and refuel McMurdo Station, which is the logistics hub for the U.S. National Science Foundation's research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

But the Antarctic is unpredictable and its ice has ensnared far younger vessels than the Polar Star.

Follow Marianne Lavelle on Twitter.

30 comments
Kerry Fitzpatrick
Kerry Fitzpatrick

I was in the Antarctic at McMurdo in 1975. Two Ice Breakers, the Polar Star and the Polar Sea, took several days to clear the Ice from the McMurdo Harbor so that a Fuel Tanker and a Supply Ship could dock to deliver fuel, resupply, back load obsolete equipment, and provide passage to New Zealand for the last of the Summer work force.

A few days after they cleared the harbor, a large Ice Berg drifted in, and it took the two Ice Breakers some days to push it clear of the harbor.

So in deploying a single Ice Breaker to the Antartic, even one as powerful as the Polar Star, there is a risk that it will become entrapped, and Ice Bound over Winter.

Kerry Fitzpatrick
Kerry Fitzpatrick

I was in the Antarctic at McMurdo in 1975. Two Ice Breakers, the Polar Star and the Polar Sea, took several days to clear the Ice from the McMurdo Harbor so that a Fuel Tanker and a Supply Ship could dock to refuel, resupply, back load obsolete equipment, and provide passage to New Zealand for the last of the Summer work force.

A few days after they cleared the harbor, a large Ice Berg drifted in, and it took the two Ice Breakers some days to push it clear of the harbor.

So in deploying a single Ice Breaker to the Antartic, even one as powerful as the Polar Star, there is a risk that it will become entrapped, and Ice Bound over Winter.

bob paglee
bob paglee

Global cooling has ensnared the Russian adventurers, a Russian icebreaker and a Chinese icebreaker.  Maybe the same global cooling will ensnare those hot-air charlatans at  Britain's Univ. of E. Anglia and their brainwashed CRU -- the so-called Climate Research Unit.  Maybe even throw a bucket of  icewater on  Al Gore's  "Inconvenient Untruth".

mares cristian
mares cristian

when it is supossed to reach the stranded vessels?


Gordon Osborne
Gordon Osborne

What happened to summer in the southern hemisphere?

Sol Ngawi
Sol Ngawi

Is it because of CAGW that the US sees no need to build new heavy duty ice breakers?


Russia has several huge nuclear powered ice breakers and has just laid down the keel for the world's largest. I guess they take a different view on CAGW?


Given the severity of the current winter, what happens if there is an event requiring a heavy duty US ice breaker in the Northern Hemisphere? Among other things, this whole Shokalskiy episode has pointed up the need for new US ice breakers.

Reuben Boarman
Reuben Boarman

This is the best reporting I have read about these events.


The freeing of the smaller Russian ship should be somewhat delicate, even the Chinese Snow Dragon will need considerable caution.


I am sure we will see a well planned method to break them free without damaging either ship.


I am counting on the USCGC  Polar Star Icebreaker

Dan Carr
Dan Carr

"In a telephone interview before the announcement that the ship would be called in to assist, Brigham pointed out that the Snow Dragon is actually a bigger ship than the Polar Star: It's 150 feet (46 meters) longer and, at nearly 15,000 gross tons, is 2,000 gross tons heavier than the U.S. ship."

Nat Geo needs to get a Maritime Consultant on Staff!!

A Gross Ton is NOT a unit of Mass or Weight.

It's a measurement of size, as in cubic capacity of non-exempt spaces, performed in accordance with the International Tonnage Convention, and is used for tax and canal toll calculations ONLY. C'mon, guys.....................

Cyrus Manz
Cyrus Manz

The global warming alarmist cruise rescue is leaving an ever expanding Carbon Footprint .

How many thousands of gallons of Diesel fuel has been burnt for these geniuses already?

Bryan Simpson
Bryan Simpson

My son is currently aboard the Polar Star.

Just received and email last night.

 They are in the south pacific with waves crashing up over the bow. He has mess cook duty all month...(dads happy he is not on deck)....and says the kitchen is a war zone. With the boat rolling up to 60 degrees pots, pans, food and people are flying every where. He says he is having a great time!

The boy has sailing in his blood and this is just one of many adventures.

Jeff Hertrick
Jeff Hertrick

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow just spent 10 minutes reporting this story. Fascinating background...  the $90 million refurbishing was just recently completed.  If this predicament had occurred in previous winters, the U.S. would have had no ability to offer any assistance.

Chris Ortigoza
Chris Ortigoza

Thanks for this article.  I've been searching for updates on CNN and the web, I can't wait to see how this story unfolds.

Myron Mesecke
Myron Mesecke

Pacific Decadal Oscillation has gone negative (cooling phase). The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation is soon to go into negative (cooling phase). Add in the weakest solar cycle in 200 years. The US better get busy building some more icebreakers.


Sadly, it was the arrogance of some of the 52 passengers that were "rescued" that caused the need for the rescue in the first place. Word is that the Russian captain knew of the winds that were pushing the ice toward them but he was delayed from leaving on time because some of the "scientists" were sightseeing and hadn't returned to the ship on time.


Rather sad that we have to delay a resupply mission to our research station to help ships stranded by the ignorance and idiocy of so called scientists that were more interested in tourism and vacation than truth.

George Hernandez
George Hernandez

A heat pump circulation system using the engine exhaust as a source, should be routed through the hull of the ship, to melt the ice in front of the ship.

bob paglee
bob paglee

@Gordon Osborne Gloobal cooling has exposed the mendacity about the highly touted AGW -- Anthropogenic blah.. blah

Joe m.
Joe m.

Sir, you are grossly in error. In British maritime circles, a "gross ton," a.k.a. "long ton," is a unit of weight equivalent to 2240 lbs and commonly used when indicating displacement. What you are referring to is "gross tonnage."

Blogen Geezer
Blogen Geezer

@Bryan SimpsonFrom what little I know technically of the engineered hull design of Ice Breakers, they ride like rubber duckies in heavy seas. Designed to ride up over and crush ice by their weight, they do not 'cut' through waves. Even with that purpose built design, to have waves over the bow, I can imagine exactly what fun he is enjoying :>)

bob paglee
bob paglee

@Bryan Simpson  A very interesting experience in a kitchen with all those loose things crashing around!  At least it must be warm in there, expecially with the exercise gained from dodging all those flying saucers!  I wish him well, and hope the wind subsides when approaching the vicinity of the stuck ships. 


Many years ago I spent a few weeks in winter studying Arctic Ice near the coast north and west of  Point Barrow.  I observed many huge ice pressure-ridges -- rising ten feet or more above the surrounding rough surface of the sea ice.  


These ridges form along flaws in the ice when the wind blows over the surface causing the ice to crush against itself  forcing some of it up in a big pile of large broken chunks weighing perhaps thousands of tons.  A ship stuck in the ice can be crushed by those enormous forces if the wind pushes the floating ice against the side of the ship.  Let us hope for little wind in their vicinity until those stuck ships are freed.

Blogen Geezer
Blogen Geezer

@Myron Mesecke


The M/V Akademic Shokalskiy was originally built as an icebreaker for the Baltic Sea and after refitting achieved "Polar Class" ratings. The expedition was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of a 1913 expedition made via sailing vessel which landed its members on Antarctic the same time of year.

1913 Expedition sailing vessel with small steam engine
2013 Expedition icebreaker 1900 HP
Chinese rescue icebreaker 13,000 HP
USCG rescue icebreaker 75,000 HP

______________________________________

"I once knew a lady who swallowed a fly " 

then a Spider to catch the fly.

then a bird to catch the Spider

that wiggled and jiggled inside her ..etc etc 

I don't know why she swallowed the fly:>)


Ray Mather
Ray Mather

@Myron MeseckeWhat a bizarre view! Is not a ship's crew responsible for the safe operation of the ship? What difference does it make if the passengers were 'arrogant, ignorant or idiots'?

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

Try this little experiment. Take an ice cube and place it on a plate, then take a hair blow drier and put it on high and see how long it takes to melt that one little ice cube. Now multiply that by about two million and you an idea how inefficient it would be. I know that it seems like there would be a way to melt it out of the way, however that is why they build Ice Breakers and not Ice Melters.

Katie ---
Katie ---

@Ray Mather@Myron Mesecke 

What he said was, the passengers did not return as scheduled. Was the captain to leave them?

bob paglee
bob paglee

@Ray Mather @Katie --- For the Captain to have departed  would surely have condemned those foolish stragglers to death.  Not to have departed may have condemned his ship to a possible death, but not necessarily a sure one.  His choce was correct.  But did he forget to warn the stragglers that they should return to the ship immediately if they heard four long blasts from his fog horn? 


If he has any inflatable life rafts on his ship, it would be prudent to deploy them onto the surface of the ice (even if uninflated).  Considering the posssibility of strong winds that may force the ice to crush and sink his ship, it would be prudent to tie the rafts to the ship so they won't blow away, but with ropes at least as long as the depth of the sea water below.

Ray Mather
Ray Mather

@Katie --- I'm not sure that I follow you. Are you saying that the crew/captain are not responsible for the safe operation of the ship because the passengers did not return as scheduled?

It makes sense for passengers to have a great responsibility for their own and others' safety, especially in a harsh and unforgiving environment like Antarctica. But surely ultimate responsibility must rest with the crew and, more specifically, with the captain. The captain is the person in charge. The captain is the person who takes the blame for things that go wrong at sea. Blaming passengers (which I hasten to add included journalists and tourists) for being tardy is like blaming children for being naughty. The reasonable person takes this into account.

'Was the captain to leave them?' Assuming that to be the scenario, of course not. 

A poor workman blames his tools. A poor captain blames his charges.

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