Whoever thinks that the Wild West is a thing of the past, doesn’t know about the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaker Polar Star and its extreme mission and adventure into the Arctic.
The Polar Star departed from Seattle on December 7, 2020 and headed north. This was the first trip that the Coast Guard has taken to the Arctic, during winter, since 1982.
If the Arctic itself wasn’t cold and daunting enough, just getting there would prove a challenge.
The Polar Star’s commanding officer, Capt. William Woityra said, “The North Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska [and] the Bering Sea in the winter are absolutely treacherous.”
Woityra explained that they encountered steady 15-foot seas in the Gulf of Alaska.
“Anything more than about 10 feet and the crew is basically incapacitated with seasickness because of how much the ship is rolling and rocking and bouncing. So that was just a heck of a start.” Woityra said.
During the beginning of the trip, the Polar Star spent several days monitoring the maritime boundary south of the Bering Strait. Their main goal was to provide “an overt presence, monitoring the Russian fishing fleet, making sure there was no illegal fishing going on in U.S. waters” said Woityra.
Typically, the Polar Star goes to Antarctica in January to cut a shipping channel into the ice thus allowing ships to deliver supplies to the McMurdo Sound Research Station. (For Antarctica, January is during the summer season, which is why the Coast Guard chooses that time of year to send the Polar Star.) Nevertheless, because of Covid-19, Polar Star’s Antarctic trip was canceled this year.
Initially, the Coast Guard had sent the service’s only other ice breaker, the Healy, to the Arctic, in August. The Healy suffered an engine failure, which resulted in the Polar Star being volunteered for the job.
The Polar Star is larger than the Healy and is capable of breaking ice up to 21 feet thick. Nonetheless, Woityra pointed out that operating in the Arctic during the winter is no easy task.
“In the summer, the ice is a little bit softer and the ship moves through it and there’s like a shushing sound, like walking through tall grass, where it rubs down the side of the ship. This year [the ice] was hard and crunchy. It sounded like a perpetual car crash, just twisting metal screeching and shattering going, all just dragging down the whole of the ship, absolutely terrifying.” Woityra accounted.
According to Woityra, the Arctic ice fills in quickly behind the ship, unlike Antarctic ice. “In the Arctic, you can go a few miles and look behind you, and there’s nothing that even resembles a channel or any evidence that you were there.”
On Christmas Day, the Polar Star reached a point slightly north of 72 degrees latitude, the farthest north a Coast Guard cutter has ever gone during the Winter.
Being so far north, Woityra said that they were in “perpetual darkness” with only “about an hour of like pre-dawn [light] every day.”
The Arctic is becoming an area of increased interest due to the expected climate changes which will make the region more accessible for military and commercial purposes. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have both published Arctic strategies. In 2019, the Coast Guard stated that “the renewal of global strategic competition has coincided with dramatic changes in the physical environment of the Arctic.”
Woityra said that the trip was a great opportunity for training and is necessary “so that we are ready to operate in the Arctic year-round, not just now, but next year and in the decades to come.”
This trip also allowed the Polar Star to conduct technology tests and scientific research studies.
“We’ve got some remotely operated vehicles on board. We’re deploying some buoys and taking water samples for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute so that they can better understand the physical properties of the ocean up here at this time of year.” Woityra added.
The military is working to produce and improve communication and navigation technologies when operating so far north.
According to Woityra, they “were testing a new satellite constellation that [the Defense Department] has in service on this mission, but, again, once we went north of the Arctic circle, the satellite was only over the horizon for a couple [of] hours a day, so it really limited our ability to take advantage of that.”
Nonetheless, even while being at a point north of the 72-degree latitude line, the Polar Star was able to maintain its satellite communication data downlink.
As the Coast Guard shifts its focus to the northernmost point on Earth, it plans to build three more icebreakers.
These icebreakers are going to be quite the upgrade, Woityra said. They are “going to have a climate-controlled bay with an overhead door that’s going to keep the small boats out of the weather and the environmental conditions, and that’s going to be a huge upgrade and an operational multiplier that’s going to make us more effective in these really cold environments.”
Woityra summarized the Polar Star’s deployment and the Coast Guard’s future mission by saying, “We’re going to head out there and just continue to present an overt presence and let the possible bad actors know that the Coast Guard is on scene. We’re also really representing the United States and defending our sovereign interests and our resources throughout the region.”