For the first time in more than four years, the U.S. Coast Guard has a heavy-duty icebreaker in Arctic waters. The Polar Star, which has been out of commission for several years, is now looking for some ice in which to test its newly overhauled system, not to mention train personnel who may have little experience on a ship like this.
"It was just put back in the water in December, said Chief Warrant Officer Allyson Conroy with the Coast Guard.
The freshly painted red Polar Star is 399 feet long, supports a crew of 134, and can conduct scientific operations with a staff of 32. Unlike the Coast Guard's medium-class icebreaker, the Healy -- a 420-foot vessel -- the Polar Star is equipped to smash through up to 6 feet of ice at 3 knots and 21 feet if backing and ramming. The Healy, which helped the Russian ship the Renda make its fuel delivery to Nome last winter, can break through 4.5 feet of ice at 3 knots, but only 8 feet when backing and ramming.
With increased interest in the Arctic, traffic through the region from Russia has increased exponentially. That, combined with oil development interests in the Arctic, led to a call for more icebreakers to serve U.S. waters. Unfortunately, at the time, two of the nation's three ice breakers, both heavy class, were high and dry. A call for refurbishing the Polar Star was made and with political backing, the ship received an overhaul that was estimated to have cost more than $55 million. The coast guard reportedly hopes to get a decade's use out of the aging ship thanks to the makeover.
"Every year we have more Coast Guard assets going up north," Conroy said. "We realized we really needed to have these heavy ice breakers up there and it would be beneficial to retrofit one."
The Polar Star is not new to the icebreaking world by any stretch. It was commissioned in 1976, and refurbishing the ship meant an entire system overhaul, Conroy said, from its engines to its hydraulics, electrical systems and beyond. While everything seems to be working fine, some testing of its capacity is in order, she said.
"We have to make sure that it is all in working order," she said.
It left Unalaska in late June, headed for the Arctic in search of ice in which to test its systems. The Polar Star is expected to be in the Arctic for the next month and a half, she said.
Once any kinks are worked out, the ship's mission is to break ice and maintain waterways. It is also likely to be used as a platform for scientific research, Conroy said.
While a good bit of the pressure that led to funding for its overhaul came from the effort to get icebreakers into the Arctic, part of its mission will actually be in Antarctic waters, according to a report in the Navy Times. The Polar Star will break ice into the U.S. science station, McMurdo Station, in Ross Island, Antarctica. That task has been outsourced to foreign icebreakers since the Polar Sea's engines failed in 2010, the publication said.
In addition, there are no plans to home-port the icebreaker in Alaska. It will be home-ported in Seattle.
The fate of the Polar Star's sister ship, the Polar Sea, is unknown. Last winter, Coast Guard officials announced their intent to scrap the vessel, but elected officials prohibited the agency from doing so when it passed a Coast Guard authorization bill in December.
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder.