Melting ice in the Arctic is creating opportunities for access to oil and gas, and shipping lanes. But the area is still mostly frozen and navigating the inhospitable region on top of the world still requires an icebreaker, the heavy duty ships that are able to crash through massive layers of ice.
(From NPR / By Jackie Northam)– The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for search-and-rescue missions, as well as protecting the environment and defending U.S. sovereignty. The U.S. is one of five countries with territorial claims to the land and waters of the Arctic (The others are Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark.).
The problem is, the Coast Guard doesn’t have enough icebreakers, says Shiva Polefka, an Arctic specialist at the Center for American Progress.
“At present, we have one heavy icebreaker that’s capable of accessing all corners of the Arctic year-round,” he says.
That vessel, the Polar Star, was built in the 1970s and was designed to last three decades. It’s now in its 40th year and showing its age.
But at least it’s still operational, Polefka says, unlike its sister icebreaker, the Polar Sea.
“The Polar Sea had a major engine breakdown in 2010, had to be towed into its home port of Seattle, and it’s basically been … just rusting in the docks in Seattle,” he says.
There is another, smaller icebreaker used for scientific research, but it doesn’t have the capabilities of the Polar Star.
Having just a single, old heavy icebreaker at a time when other countries are jockeying for position in the Arctic weighs heavily on Adm. Paul Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.