Two New Polar Icebreakers Needed to Protect U.S. Scientific, Other Interests, U.Va. Professor Tells Congress

Fundamental advances resulting from polar research have directly benefited society.  Polar research led to the identification of the presence and cause of the “ozone hole,” and has resulted in coordinated worldwide actions to discontinue the use of chloroflurocarbons. Understanding how the polar regions affect ocean circulation is leading to a better understanding of global climate. The study of Weddell seals, which dive to great depths and cease breathing for long periods, led to better understanding of how such mammals handle gas dissolved in blood during and after deep diving events. This contributed to advances in understanding Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The study of mammals, insects, and plants that endure freezing temperatures, yet prevent the formation of ice crystals in their internal fluids, is aiding in the design of freeze-resistant crops and improved biomedical cryo-preservation techniques.

Excerpt from “Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs,” 2006

Sept. 28, 2006 -- The United States has vital strategic, scientific and economic interests in keeping maritime channels open to Antarctica and Alaska year round. But unless Congress appropriates funds to build two new polar icebreakers for the U.S. Coast Guard, these national interests will be placed at risk, according to congressional testimony presented Tuesday in Washington.

Anita K. Jones, a University of Virginia professor and chairman of the National Academies’ Committee on the Assessment of U.S. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Roles and Future Needs, presented her committee’s congressionally mandated report to the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

“Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs” was the third report since 1990 to stress the importance of maintaining a polar icebreaking capability. And it reiterated that the current situation is less than ideal.

“Both icebreaker operations and maintenance of the polar icebreaker fleet have been underfunded for many years,” the report said.  “Deferring long-term maintenance and failing to execute a plan for replacement or refurbishment of the nation’s icebreaking ships have placed national interests in the polar regions at risk.”

In the Arctic, the United States must protect national strategic, military and economic interests, such as the regional petroleum industry, fishing fleets, mining operations and population centers. The United States also needs to project strength “as a world power concerned with the security, economic, scientific and international political issues of the region,” the report said. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard must be able to respond to maritime emergencies, such as rescue missions, oil spills and ships endangered by ice. Icebreakers are required to ensure access to U.S. interests above the Arctic Circle and along much of the Alaskan coast year-round.
In the Antarctic, the United States has important national scientific interests, such as the Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center at McMurdo Station, which supports research in biology, earth science, atmospheric sciences and marine science. The year-round U.S. presence at three scientific research stations — McMurdo, Palmer and the South Pole — also demonstrates global leadership in managing the Antarctic Treaty, which governs the continent, and acts as a deterrent to nations interested in pressing conflicting territorial claims. To ensure the survival of scientists living and working at American research sites (the population stands at about 200 in the wintertime and 1,200 in the summertime), the United States must have polar icebreakers that can clear channels year round. Studies have shown that ships offer the least expensive and most dependable means of resupplying McMurdo Station, the largest of the three stations.

In recent decades, the U.S. government has operated a fleet of four polar icebreakers.  The U.S. Coast Guard operates three ships with multiple missions — the Polar Sea, the Polar Star and Healy — and the National Science Foundation operates one ship — the Palmer — with scientific research as its sole mission. The Healy was built to support research in the Arctic, but cannot operate independently under the ice conditions of either the Central Arctic or McMurdo Sound.
Due to a decade of deferred maintenance, the Polar Star and the Polar Sea are nearing the end of their 30-year service lives. Without new funding to replace these vessels, the U.S. government risks losing its ability to protect its interests in the polar regions, both north and south, the report said.

For those who work in these harsh regions, a working fleet of icebreakers can literally be a matter of life or death.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure noted in a recent report that the National Science Foundation had contracted with a Russian ship, the Krasin, to provide icebreaking services in Antarctica. But, earlier this year the Krasin broke a propeller while leading a tanker into McMurdo Station. By the time the ships made it through the ice to refuel the station, only five days of fuel remained in the tanks at the research station where the average winter temperature ranges from -40 to -94 Fahrenheit.

Both economic and scientific activity are expected to increase in the polar regions in the years ahead. Therefore, the need for polar icebreakers is expected to increase as well, the report said.
Among the committee’s seven recommendations was a call to fund two new icebreakers to protect U.S. national and international interests. Because of the long lead time needed to approve funding, design and build a new ship — estimated at eight to 10 years — the committee urged Congress to act quickly to appropriate money for new ships so they will be ready by the time the old ships must be pulled out of service.

The report also called for added funding to ensure the success of the icebreakers’ many missions: “It is not sufficient to provide funds to only maintain the fleet; it is necessary to provide funds to effectively operate it.”

Anita Jones

Anita Jones is the Lawrence R. Quarles Professor of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia. She received her doctorate in computer science from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1973. She joined U.Va. in 1988 as a professor and chairman of the Computer Science Department. From 1993 to 1997 she took a leave to serve at the U.S. Department of Defense where, as director of defense research and engineering, she oversaw DOD's science and technology program, research laboratories and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. She has served as vice chairman of the National Science Board, as a member of the Defense Science Board and as co-chairman of the Virginia Research and Technology Advisory Commission. She is a member of the National Research Council Advisory Council for Policy and Global Affairs.

For more information on the report, contact Anita Jones by phone at (434) 982-2224 or by email at