America‘s only operational heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, reached McMurdo Station in Antarctica earlier this week, breaking through ice as thick as 21 feet along the way to clear a path for a cargo vessel to resupply America‘s Antarctic operations. This marks the sixth such voyage in as many years for the Polar Star, but the voyage wasn’t without some serious setbacks for the aging ship.
The 150 Coast Guardsmen aboard the Polar Star may have had concerns about their missed paychecks during the voyage, but there was hardly time to lament personal financial concerns amid a number of serious issues plaguing the vessel. At one point, the ship’s 1970s-era electrical system began to smoke, which caused damage to other wiring and one of the ship’s electrical switchboards. Soon, one of the two evaporators used to produce potable water for the crew failed. Then, a leak around the icebreaker’s propeller shaft stopped the ship in its tracks, forcing the vessel to deploy scuba divers to repair the seal as it took on water.
Problems didn’t stop there. Soon, ship-wide power outages began tormenting the vessel’s crew, forcing them to stop ice-breaking operations and conduct a nine-hour reboot of all systems in hopes it might get the vessel operating again. Things were so difficult that even in the Coast Guard’s own press release, which is notably upbeat about the troubled view, includes a mention that if the Polar Star hadn’t been able to right itself, America would have no means of sending a ship to its aid.
If a catastrophic event, such as getting stuck in the ice, were to happen to the Healy in the Arctic or to the Polar Star near Antarctica, the U.S. Coast Guard is left without a self-rescue capability. By contrast, Russia currently operates more than 40 icebreakers–several of which are nuclear-powered,” the Coast Guard’s statement reads.
Troubled as the Polar Star may be, plans for a replacement vessel are now on hold thanks to elements of the partial government shutdown that persist despite the three-week agreement reached to get Coast Guardsmen and other government employees paid and bring the government back into working order (at least temporarily). The program’s future was already in question, however, as it was one of the potential cuts eyed by the Trump administration to fund construction of the border wall instead.
The Coast Guard has not been shy about the dire need for ice-breaking capabilities, particularly in the face of rapid Russian expansion throughout the Arctic.
While we focus our efforts on creating a peaceful and collaborative environment in the Arctic, we’re also responding to the impacts of increased competition in this strategically-important region,” said Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. “Our continued presence will enable us to reinforce positive opportunities and mitigate negative consequences today and tomorrow.”
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