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Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs
assert a more active and influential presence in the Arctic not only to protect its territorial interests, but also to project its presence as a world power concerned with the security, economic, scientific, and international political issues of the region.
Possible ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea implies that the United States would require extensive mapping of the U.S. continental shelf off Alaska, should the United States wish to use Article 76 in the Convention to extend its continental shelf beyond the 200 nautical mile economic zone and/or to counter territorial claims by other Arctic nations.
More variable and less predictable weather and sea-ice conditions now occur in the Arctic. Both have made it more difficult for indigenous populations to predict when to initiate and terminate the culturally important, annual whale hunt, as well as when it is safe to travel over coastal ice or hunt further from shore.
Over the past decades the U.S. Coast Guard has not conducted routine patrols in ice-covered waters due to a lack of funding. The growing human presence and increased economic activity in the Arctic will be best served by reinstating patrols in U.S. coastal waters and increasing U.S. presence in international waters of the north. To assert U.S. interests in the Arctic, the nation needs to be able to access various sites throughout the region at various times of the year, reliably and at will. While the southern extent of the Arctic ice pack is thinning and becoming less extensive during the summer, there is no question that polar icebreakers will be required for many decades for egress to much of the Arctic Basin. Ice conditions in the U.S. Arctic are among the most variable and occasionally challenging through the circum-Arctic. National interests require icebreakers that can navigate the most formidable ice conditions encountered in the Arctic.
Recommendation 1: The United States should continue to project an active and influential presence in theArctic to support its interests. This requires U.S. government polar icebreaking capability to ensure year-roundaccess throughout the region.
ICEBREAKING NEEDS IN THE ANTARCTIC
Multiple national policy statements and Presidential Decision Directives have reaffirmed the importance of an “active and influential” U.S. presence in Antarctica in support of U.S. leadership in the Antarctic Treaty governance process and as a geopolitical statement of U.S. worldwide interests. The United States is committed to preserving Antarctica exclusively for peaceful purposes, furthering scientific knowledge, and preserving and protecting one of the most pristine environments on the globe.
The U.S. presence in Antarctica is established principally by the year-round occupation of three stations: McMurdo, Palmer, and South Pole. This presence secures the influential role of the United States in the treaty’s decision-making system and maintains the political and legal balance necessary to protect the U.S. position on Antarctic sovereignty. Many view the permanent year-round presence of the United States as a major deterrent to those countries that might otherwise wish to exercise their overlapping territorial claims. Thus, scientific activity in the Antarctic is an instrument of foreign policy.
The U.S. research presence in Antarctica currently relies on shipborne resupply, with the majority of fuel and cargo for the U.S. Antarctic Program delivered to McMurdo Station by tanker and container ship. Fuel and supplies are ferried from McMurdo to the South Pole Station and remote field sites by aircraft or overland traverse. Multiple studies over the years have repeatedly confirmed that the safest and most cost-effective means of transporting the necessary quantities of fuel and cargo to McMurdo Station is by ship.
Presently two ice-strengthened ships chartered by the Military Sealift Command transport cargo and fuel and remove refuse. These ships require icebreakers to open a shipping channel through the shore-fast ice to McMurdo Station, which has been up to 80 miles long, and to provide close escort to and from the ice pier. During the past six years, the break-in through McMurdo Sound has become increasingly more challenging. Until 2006, large icebergs in the Ross Sea blocked wind and currents from clearing the ice from McMurdo Sound, and the blockage increased the amount of harder, thicker, multiyear ice in the sound. The last six seasons have generally required two icebreakers to break and groom the channel and escort transport ships through the channel.
For the past couple of years, because the condition of the POLAR STAR and POLAR SEA has required increased maintenance as they near the end of their service lives, the National Science Foundation contracted the services of the Russian icebreaker KRASIN. Approximately the same age as POLAR STAR, KRASIN assisted the POLAR STAR in 2005 and in early 2006 conducted the break-in alone but broke a propeller blade (which a U.S. Navy diving and salvage team could not repair) before escorting the tanker and container ship through difficult ice conditions. The POLAR STAR was dispatched from Seattle, where it was in standby status. The KRASIN was able to escort the tanker to the pier, and when refueling of the McMurdo tank farm commenced, only five days of fuel remained.1 These events highlight the difficult ice conditions, the aging condition of the two U.S. icebreakers powerful enough to perform the McMurdo break-in, and the condition of icebreakers that can be chartered on the open market. These circumstances make future resupply missions vulnerable to failure.
While there is ongoing discussion of the possibility of
Erick Chiang, National Science Foundation, testimony to the committee.