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Build new icebreakers or repair aging fleet?

Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard photo

The Seattle Times reports that just as the warming climate is freeing up the ice-locked Northwest Passage, the United States faces an icebreaker shortage.

Two of America’s three heavy-duty icebreakers – the 1970s-era Polar Sea and the Polar Star – are sidelined in Seattle after years of repairs to keep them going.

The 12-year-old Healy is the only working icebreaker in the U.S. Coast Guard fleet. While the Healy boasts first-rate on board scientific labs, it’s only able to negotiate through thin ice.

This week Congress should get an independent analysis of whether it should pay for new icebreakers or try to get a few more years of service from its veteran vessels.

Five years ago, a National Research Council panel concluded the nation's icebreaking capabilities were insufficient to support its polar missions and urged immediate construction of two ships. Another independent study by ABS Consulting in 2010 said the Coast Guard would need six icebreakers, three heavy duty and three medium duty.

A bill by Sen. Mark Begich would prevent the service from decommissioning the Polar Sea before the Polar Star returns to service in 2013. The latter ship is undergoing a four-year, $57 million overhaul at Vigor Industrial in Washington state. The work is expected to add seven to 10 years to the ship's service.