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Coast Guard Prepares a New Generation of Icebreakers

US Coast Guard Ice Breaker Healy.
US Coast Guard Ice Breaker Healy.

Global warming is opening up Arctic shipping lanes and the United States trails in ice breaker numbers.

Captain Kenneth Boda does not have a typical job in the armed forces. He is the commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy- the U.S. Coast Guard’s largest vessel, as well as the U.S. armed forces’ only medium icebreaker. He addressed the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in late January.

“What we’re going to talk about today is our North American circumnavigation trip, and we split this into four legs to talk about it. The whole trip was four and a half months long, a pretty long trip for the Coast Guard,” Boda said.

Icebreakers are a special type of vessel; They rely on a heavy reinforced hull and tremendous horsepower to break apart ice thick enough to drive a tank over. Often they have tremendous fuel reserves to keep them operating for long stretches in remote areas, and Russia even has some nuclear-powered icebreakers.

Captain Boda spoke about the scientific work happening aboard the Healy when he addressed the symposium. With over 4,000 square feet of lab space aboard the Healy, the vessel supports a large complement of scientists of a variety of disciplines.

He also spoke about the Healy’s recent encirclement of the entirety of the North American continent last year, traveling coast to coast through the Arctic and back to Seattle through the Panama Canal over a multi-month voyage.

Much of the scientific research done during that trip examined how climate change is affecting the arctic. Doug Russell is the executive secretary for the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System- or UNOLS in Seattle.

“As we’ve seen in the Arctic, it’s warmed up. Permafrost is melting, sea levels rising, they’re seeing a lot more erosion along the Alaska coastlines,” Russell said. “So I think there’s a lot of aspects of oceanographic science, whether it’s physical oceanography, chemical, oceanography, biological oceanography, or the geophysical part that tells us what’s changing.”

UNOLS serves as the intermediary between civilian researchers and the Coast Guard’s icebreakers.

“It’s the most beautiful place in the world to go to, is of course the Arctic or the Antarctic where very few people have gone. The challenge of driving the ship in the ice, weather conditions that change quickly. You’re in areas that aren’t very well charted sometimes, and you have to carefully navigate through that. Trying to do science when you’re dealing with a moving ice field and dealing with winds that can blow your ship around,” Russell said.

Russell would know. Before this job, he served as a commanding officer on the Healy.

Arctic research being done today by American scientists would be nearly impossible without the Healy- waterways in the far north would be perilous in the best conditions for a ship that couldn’t break through ice. That’s not the only way the Healy helps scientists; it also regularly resupplies the research outpost McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

The world’s rival powers are all vying for access to the Arctic. Russia is rolling out a new nuclear-powered icebreaker every few years, and China is planning on shattering size records with a 33,000-ton nuclear icebreaker. Right now, the U.S. has two icebreakers, the youngest of which is over two decades old.

Construction is soon to begin on the first of six new heavy icebreakers; the Coast Guard’s newly designed polar security cutters. The first three are to be homeported in Seattle, explains Coast Guard Captain Boda.

“A big focus in the Coast Guard has been kind of, you know, consolidating our ports, you know, so the consolidation in Seattle, which is always the home of the polar ice breakers, is the direction we’re going there,” Boda said.

That’s where the Healy is, at its homeport of Seattle.