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Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs
dential Decision Directives, which assert that the United States has strategic interests in the Antarctic related to foreign policy and security, environmental protection and scientific research. The United States asserts strategic interests in Antarctica through the year-round residence of American researchers at three permanent scientific stations. The presence of the South Pole Station, in particular, helps protect the U.S. position on sovereignty in Antarctica, providing for a unique research platform at a location that assures U.S. participation in the Antarctic Treaty system.
Despite some missions of opportunity, the primary use of U.S. heavy icebreakers (POLAR STAR and POLAR SEA), at present, is to break a channel into McMurdo Station to aid the resupply that is critical to the continued functioning of both the McMurdo and South Pole Stations. By using an altered logistics strategy, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has determined that it may be possible to maintain operations at the McMurdo and South Pole Stations while occasionally skipping annual channel break-in and ship-borne portion of the McMurdo resupply to avoid a break-in under extraordinarily heavy ice conditions. Nevertheless icebreaker support of the break-in to McMurdo Station is required for the foreseeable future. Based on these findings, the committee recommends:
Recommendation #1: The United States should reliably control (by ownership or other means) at least one heavy icebreaker that is available and capable of breaking a channel into McMurdo Station.
The committee will investigate in the next several months how the icebreaker assets should be controlled to meet the nation’s icebreaking needs, and recommendations will be provided in the final report.
ICEBREAKING NEEDS IN THE ARCTIC
Because of the geographic location of Alaska, the United States is an Arctic nation with significant geopolitical, security, economic, and scientific interests in the Arctic, and U.S. interests must be protected in this region. The U.S. Coast Guard has the overarching missions of maritime safety, maritime security, national defense, and protection of natural resources in this region where icebreaking capabilities are sometimes required. Although the HEALY is primarily devoted to fulfilling the U.S. Coast Guard mission to support scientific research, this ship is also available to support the overarching U.S. Coast Guard missions in the Arctic. If this ship is tasked to the Antarctic, as it was in 2002-2003, the federal icebreaker presence in arctic waters is reduced significantly.
In the winter, the entire Alaskan northern coast and a substantial portion of the Alaskan western coast is ice-covered. In the summer months, the Arctic sea ice margin retreats northward creating open waters around the entire Alaskan coastline for several weeks to several months. Arctic sea ice extent over the next several decades in early spring and late summer (shoulder seasons) is expected to be even further reduced, creating more broken ice along the Alaskan coastline. Greater spatial and temporal variability in sea ice extent and thickness throughout the Arctic is expected, which may influence the capability needed to break ice of differing thicknesses in certain regions of the Arctic.
Economic activity appears to be increasing and moving northward as a result of dramatic ice margin retreat over recent years. These economic activities involve fishing fleets, native Alaskan hunting and fishing expeditions, cruise ships, and increased interests in more northerly natural resource exploitation. Increased activity would imply a greater human presence in these regions, where risks are increasing due to changing ice edge environments and more broken ice in open waters. In addition, possible ratification of Article 76 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea would require extensive mapping of the U.S. continental shelf off the coast of Alaska, if the United States wishes to use the treaty to extend its economic zones and counter claims by other Arctic nations.
The potential increase in human activity in northern latitudes will likely increase the demand on the U.S. Coast Guard to have a greater presence in and around the ice margin to perform its security and law enforcement missions. Assuming that the U.S. Coast Guard is to continue to support scientific research in the Arctic as well, icebreaking capability is required, including occasional heavy icebreaking. The committee recommends:
Recommendation #2: The United States should maintain dedicated, year-round icebreaker capability for the Arctic to support national security interests as well as science.
CURRENT STATUS OF THE U.S. POLAR CLASSICEBREAKERS
Ships with icebreaking capabilities are currently required for multiple missions in the Arctic and the Antarctic and likely in the future. The two existing heavy icebreakers, POLAR STAR and POLAR SEA, have operated in both polar regions for 29 and 28 years, respectively, and are near the ends of their design service lives. Both ships are inefficient to operate because they now require substantial and increasing maintenance efforts to keep vital ship systems operating, and their technological systems are becoming increasingly obsolete. These conditions are increasing the risk of operational failure and are placing national programs and missions at risk.
Currently, only one U.S. Coast Guard heavy icebreaker, the POLAR STAR, is capable of supporting the resupply operation in Antarctica. The NSF and U.S. Coast Guard have identified funds for restoring POLAR SEA to interim operational capability by the fall of 2006. However, this is not a