In 2012, the tiny Alaskan town of Nome experienced an uncharacteristically cold winter. Temperatures plummeted below negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit and blanketed the sea in a dangerously thick ice sheet that prevented vessels from delivering fuel and other needed supplies.
Nome was rescued from its isolation by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Healey, the smallest of three icebreakers in the U.S. fleet. The powerful ship carved a path through 300 miles of ice up to four feet thick to escort the Russian tanker Renda and her valuable cargo of fuel to the Arctic town.
The actions of the USCGC Healey in Nome demonstrate the need for new icebreakers to meet the demands of a changing climate. As large ships designed to carve a path through sea ice, icebreakers play an integral role in Arctic exploration and management. They have historically been deployed in scientific research expeditions, oil and gas exploration on the Arctic sea floor, relief missions such as the one in Nome, and the maintenance of shipping lanes.
In 1965, the U.S. Coast Guard had eight icebreakers in its fleet. Today, only three ships remain: two heavy duty icebreakers and the USCGC Healey, which is now largely used for research. One of the icebreakers, the USCGC Mackinaw, is stationed in the Great Lakes, leaving only two icebreakers to patrol and explore the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Although they are relatively small vessels, one icebreaker costs over $1 billion and takes ten years to construct. In addition, current law requires that ships be built in U.S. shipyards.
In stark contrast, across the Arctic Ocean, Russia plans to add twelve new ships to its existing fleet of 42 icebreakers. This presents national security concerns and illuminates the urgent need for the U.S. to meet its icebreaker shortage.
Fortunately, the U.S. Coast Guard has committed to construct a new icebreaker, though progress has been slow due to budget constraints. Senior government leaders have testified before Congress about the need for more icebreakers in order to meet the demands of global shipping, a changing climate, interest in oil and gas exploration and extraction, and the need for more knowledge about this critical region.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.