National Academy of Sciences
National Academy of Engineering
Institute of Medicine
National Research Council
Office of News and Public Information
National Academy of Engineering
Back | Home
News from the National Academies

Read Full Report

Date:  Sept. 26, 2006
Contacts:  Bill Kearney, Director of Media Relations
Chris Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

TWO NEW POLAR ICEBREAKERS NEEDED TO PROJECT U.S. PRESENCE
AND PROTECT INTERESTS IN ARCTIC AND ANTARCTICA

WASHINGTON -- The United States should build two new polar icebreakers to protect its ongoing and emerging interests in the Arctic and the Antarctic, says a congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council.  The ships would replace the Polar Sea and the Polar Star, the two oldest of the nation's four polar icebreakers.  In the meantime, the Polar Sea should remain active and mission-capable, while the Polar Star should remain available for reactivation until the new ships enter service.

At 30 years old, the Polar Sea and Polar Star -- the only two icebreakers in the U.S. fleet built to handle heavy ice -- are near the end of the service lives for which they were designed, and both have experienced mechanical problems requiring extensive repair.   Routine maintenance of the Polar Sea and Polar Star has been deferred due to a lack of funds, and no major program to extend the life of the icebreakers has been planned.  As a consequence, U.S. icebreaking capability is now at risk of being unable to support national interests in the Arctic and the Antarctic, the report says.  A Russian icebreaker, for example, had to be hired to clear a channel in Antarctica the last two years so that supply ships could reach U.S. research stations there.

New and upgraded icebreakers are needed for the United States to "project an active and influential presence" in support of its interests in the Arctic and the Antarctic, said the committee that wrote the report.  To achieve national purposes in both polar regions, the United States needs to be able to access many sites throughout these regions at various times of the year, reliably and at will.  Assured access requires icebreaking ships capable of operating in a variety of challenging conditions. 

Melting sea ice in the Arctic is opening new shipping routes and sparking economic activity, such as exploration for natural resources.  This increased activity will raise demands for the United States to assert a more active and influential presence in the region, and adequate icebreaking capability is needed to do so, the committee said.  The federal government has an obligation not only to protect the Alaskan citizens and U.S. territory in the Arctic, but also to protect national interests.  There are security, economic, and sovereignty interests to protect, search-and-rescue missions to perform, and critical research expeditions to support -- including those studying the causes of the melting ice. 

In Antarctica, sufficient icebreaking capability must be under U.S. control to assure that McMurdo Sound is cleared of ice each year so ships carrying 8.4 million gallons of fuel and 14.2 million pounds of cargo can supply U.S. research stations, including one at the South Pole, the report says.  Clearing the McMurdo channel has been more difficult in recent years as huge breakaway icebergs have disrupted wind and water currents, leading to thicker ice in the sound.

The year-round presence of U.S. researchers in Antarctica helps ensure that one of the most pristine environments on Earth is preserved and used for peaceful purposes, the report says.  In fact, many view the permanent presence of the researchers as a deterrent to countries that might otherwise exercise territorial claims on the continent.  This makes U.S. scientific activity in Antarctica an instrument of foreign policy, the committee noted.  And it explains why a strong strategic presence there has been reaffirmed by a succession of national policy statements and Presidential Decision Directives.

The committee said that its conclusions about the need for two new icebreakers concur with prior studies and policy statements.  In 1984, for example, a study by the Coast Guard and other federal agencies found that four icebreakers were needed to meet national goals.  And in 1990 a presidential report determined that three multi-mission polar icebreakers along with one dedicated to science were necessary to meet the defense, security, sovereignty, economic, and research needs of the nation. 

Only one of the three polar icebreakers operated by the Coast Guard, the Healy, is able to routinely fulfill its missions.  Designed for lighter-duty icebreaking than the Polar Sea and Polar Star, the Healy is primarily assigned to support Arctic research.  However, it has performed better than expected in thick ice, enough so that it has been deployed to Antarctica at times to assist with clearing the McMurdo channel, although that leaves little or no U.S. icebreaking capability in the Arctic.  The U.S. polar icebreaking fleet also includes an "ice-strengthened" ship, the Palmer, which the National Science Foundation leases for research in light ice near Antarctica.

If new icebreakers are built to replace the Polar Sea and Polar Star, there will be four active polar icebreakers total, including the Healy and Palmer, in the U.S. fleet.  But even under the best conditions, the new icebreakers will not enter service for another eight to ten years, the committee estimated.

To provide continuity until then, the Polar Sea will need ongoing maintenance to keep it mission-capable until at least the first new ship is launched.  The Polar Sea recently underwent $30 million in maintenance work, but these repairs will not sustain the ship in reliable condition long enough for a replacement to be built, according to the committee.  Nevertheless, the Polar Sea should be ready for the McMurdo break-in next year, although it will probably need the assistance of a second ship.  If so, a ship will most likely be leased from another country so that the Healy can maintain U.S. icebreaking presence in the Arctic.

The Polar Star should remain in caretaker status with a small crew in Seattle; if catastrophe strikes the Polar Sea, the Polar Star could be reactivated and brought back into service within a year or so, the committee added.

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget recently transferred budget authority for the icebreaking fleet to the National Science Foundation, leaving the Coast Guard without full budget and management control of the ships it operates.  The nation's polar icebreaking program is supposed to support many national missions beyond scientific ones, the committee noted.  If the multi-mission ships are to be used effectively as a national asset, the Coast Guard should have the funds and authority to perform its full range of mission responsibilities in ice-covered waters.

The report was requested by Congress and sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  A committee roster follows.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
Copies of POLAR ICEBREAKERS IN A CHANGING WORLD: AN ASSESSMENT OF U.S. NEEDS will be available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at HTTP://WWW.NAP.EDU.  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

[ This news release and report are available at HTTP://NATIONAL-ACADEMIES.ORG ]

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Earth and Life Studies
Polar Research Board
and
TRANSPORTATION RESEARCH BOARD
Marine Board

COMMITTEE ON ASSESSMENT OF U.S. COAST GUARD POLAR ICEBREAKER ROLES AND FUTURE NEEDS

ANITA K. JONES1 (CHAIR)
Lawrence R. Quarles Professor of Engineering and Applied Science
School of Engineering and Applied Science
University of Virginia
Charlottesville

ALBERT J. BACIOCCO JR.
Vice Admiral
U.S. Navy (retired), and
Independent Consultant
Baciocco Group Inc.
Mt. Pleasant, S.C.

JULIE BRIGHAM-GRETTE
Professor
Department of Geosciences
University of Massachusetts
Amherst

RITA R. COLWELL2
Chair
Canon U.S. Life Sciences Inc., and
Distinguished University Professor
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and
University of Maryland
College Park

HAJO EICKEN
Associate Professor
Geophysical Institute and Department of Geology and Geophysics
University of Alaska
Fairbanks

JEFFREY M. GARRETT
Commander, 13th District
U.S. Coast Guard (retired)
Mercer Island, Wash.

JACQUELINE M. GREBMEIER
Research Professor and Project Director
Marine Biogeochemistry and Ecology Group
University of Tennessee
Knoxville

MAHLON C. KENNICUTT II
Team Leader
Sustainable Coastal Margins Program, and
Director of Sustainable Development
Office of the Vice President for Research
Texas A&M University
College Station

RONALD K. KISS
President Emeritus
Webb Institute
Glen Cove, N.Y.

DOUGLAS R. MACAYEAL
Professor
Department of Geophysical Sciences
University of Chicago
Chicago

ROBERT C. NORTH
Rear Admiral
U.S. Coast Guard (retired), and
President
North Star Maritime Inc.
Queenstown, Md.

RAYMOND J. PIERCE
Former Captain, and
Executive Director of Departmental Renewal
Canadian Coast Guard
Ontario

STEVEN T. SCALZO
Chief Operating Officer
Marine Resources Group Inc.
Seattle

DAVID G. ST. AMAND
President
Navigistics Consulting
Boxborough, Mass.

JAMES H. SWIFT
Research Oceanographer and Academic Administrator
Physical Oceanography Research Division
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
La Jolla, Calif.

STAFF

MARIA E. UHLE
Study Director

BEVERLY HUEY
Study Director

1 Member, National Academy of Engineering
2 Member, National Academy of Sciences