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December 16, 2005

U.S. needs more icebreaking capability

The age and condition of the U.S. Coast Guard's two polar icebreakers are jeopardizing national security and scientific research in the Arctic and Antarctic, according to an interim report by a committee of the National Academies' National Research Council.

The congressionally-mandated report says the U.S. should maintain year-round icebreaking capability in the Arctic to support defense, search-and-rescue, and research activities, as well as economic interests that are expanding there because shrinking ice is allowing greater access to natural resources and new shipping routes.

And at least one heavy icebreaker should be under U.S. control to clear a channel in Antarctica so that supplies can be brought to American research stations there, including one at the South Pole.

The Coast Guard's icebreaking fleet includes two old, polar-class heavy icebreakers -- ships capable of breaking through ice 6 feet thick at a speed of 3 knots -- the Polar Sea and the Polar Star-- and a newer ship, the Healy, designed for both clearing ice and conducting research. The Healy is primarily dedicated to supporting Arctic science. It is not classified as a heavy icebreaker but has performed heavy icebreaking duties.

Because of a shortfall in funding, long-term maintenance on the Polar Sea and Polar Star -- both of which have been in operation for nearly three decades -- has been deferred over the past several years. These ships are inefficient to operate and technologically outdated.

The committee agreed with plans by USCG and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to restore the Polar Sea to "interim operational capability" by next fall, but says enough maintenance must be performed to ensure that the ship remains "mission capable" for the next four to eight years -- the minimum amount of time it will take to build a new ship or significantly extend the service life of an existing one.

Interim restoration of ships is not an appropriate long-term solution, however, the committee said.

Having an icebreaker that can deal with ice conditions in Antarctica's McMurdo Sound is critical in the short term, the committee said. The Healy has supported the McMurdo "break-in," but when it is diverted to the Antarctic, U.S. icebreaking presence in the Arctic is greatly reduced, jeopardizing research there.

NSF also has contracted with a private company to hire a Russian icebreaker to clear the McMurdo channel, but the committee said that contracting ships on a year-by-year basis is not a dependable long-term solution. Although signing a longer contract with an operator other than the Coast Guard may be a viable option, doing so will have long-term implications for U.S. control of icebreaking capabilities.

The committee also said that budgetary authority for the polar icebreakers, which was recently assigned to NSF, should be returned to the Coast Guard, at least for the short term. Although a majority of icebreaker operations support research, USCG still needs to support its other missions, which are likely to increase alongside the dramatic environmental changes taking place in the Arctic.

USCG should have the operational and maintenance budget necessary to fulfill its required icebreaking services, while NSF should revert to being a paying user of those services to support its research missions, the committee concluded.

The committee's final report, expected to be released next summer, will examine the type and number of icebreaking ships that the United States requires in the long term. The study is sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Copies of Polar Icebreaker Roles and U.S. Future Needs: A Preliminary Assessment are available at http://www.nap.edu.

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