tice to assist the POLAR SEA in the McMurdo channel clearing. Use of the HEALY in the Antarctic in 2003 reduced the in-port maintenance time between completion of its extensive 2002 science missions and its redeployment for spring 2003 missions. Due to competing interests for science missions in the western and eastern Arctic, the National Science Foundation (NSF) tasked the NATHANIEL B. PALMER to its first Arctic mission in summer 2003 since the reduced ice that year was suitable for its ice strength. It should be noted that this option would likely not have been possible with the heavy 2006 summer ice, where multiyear ice extended south past Barrow, Alaska, in July.

In 2004-2005, unusually heavy ice conditions again necessitated use of two heavy icebreakers. At this time, the POLAR SEA was in dry dock and not mission capable. The NSF contracted the services of the Russian icebreaker KRASIN, operated by the Far East Shipping Company to assist the POLAR STAR.

Concerned about the reliability of POLAR STAR, NSF hired the KRASIN to break the channel to McMurdo Station for the 2005-2006 resupply mission, and the POLAR STAR remained on “standby” in port in Seattle to assist the KRASIN if needed. The KRASIN attempted the break in alone, but broke a propeller blade (which Navy divers could not repair) before successfully escorting the tanker and container ship through difficult ice conditions. The POLAR STAR was dispatched from standby in Seattle and made a direct 23-day transit to McMurdo Sound. When refueling commenced, McMurdo Station had only five days of fuel remaining.1 These events highlight the difficult ice conditions, the aging condition of the only two U.S. icebreakers powerful enough to perform the McMurdo break-in, and the questionable condition of icebreakers that can be chartered on the open market. These conditions make future resupply missions vulnerable to failure.

With the importance of the U.S. interests in Antarctica and the role that physical presence plays in supporting and protecting those interests, logical questions arise. Is there a better logistics site than McMurdo Station to serve the USAP resupply? Perhaps an alternative site could be found that is not routinely surrounded by thick summer sea ice requiring Polar class icebreaking capabilities for access. Guided by the findings from previous in-depth studies and the committee’s own evaluation, the answer is no. While some alternative locations may provide improved support for certain aircraft, or reduction in required icebreaking, they do not provide both. In addition, these alternate sites do not address other vital U.S. criteria, such as support for South Pole Station or specific science activities.

If McMurdo remains the best choice for the foreseeable future, can resupply be intermittent; that is, if McMurdo Sound ice conditions make break-in too difficult, can resupply be skipped for a year? A National Science Foundation advisory subcommittee answered yes to this question. To make it possible to skip one year of resupply, NSF would have to increase fuel reserve tanks on continent, reduce the logistical dependence of the South Pole Station on McMurdo, and reduce USAP personnel at McMurdo and South Pole when appropriate.

Would preparing to skip one annual resupply materially affect the issues being addressed by this committee? The answer is no. Once resupply has been skipped for a year, it is mandatory in the next year, or skeletal staffing (or abandonment) of McMurdo Station, and perhaps the South Pole Station, may become necessary. The latter alternative is not acceptable. Despite these changes in logistics, the NSF subcommittee concluded that shipborne resupply, supported by icebreakers that can reliably break the required channel into McMurdo Station dock, remains the best mode of logistics for the USAP. Thus, the nation must have icebreaker ships that permit break-in any year it is deemed necessary. This reality requires reliably controlled icebreaker capability that can be ensured over decades. Annual charter—commercial or from another nation—provides insufficient assurance of successful resupply for the long term.

The committee concludes that for the purposes of the single mission of McMurdo resupply, the icebreakers do not necessarily need to be operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, but to best meet mission assurance requirements they should be U.S. flagged, U.S. owned, and U.S. operated. Without specific proposals it is difficult to evaluate the cost-effectiveness or the possibility that other nations might partner to invest in a Polar class icebreaker with the United States.

Ice conditions will be increasingly difficult until a considerable portion of the multiyear ice in the sound is removed by natural processes. For the foreseeable future, two polar icebreakers will be needed to support the resupply mission at an acceptable level of risk. U.S. icebreaking assets must be sized to handle the most difficult ice conditions in McMurdo Sound.

Recommendation 2: The United States should continue to project an active and influential presence in the Antarctic to support its interests. The nation should reliably control sufficient icebreaking capability to break a channel into and ensure the maritime resupply of McMurdo Station.


The history of polar research is tied directly to the geopolitical circumstances following World War II and the subsequent Cold War era. In the south this was evidenced by the deployment of nearly 3,000 personnel to Antarctica in the U.S. commitment to the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957-1958. While polar research was seen as important, it also provided a mechanism to project U.S. global


Erick Chiang, National Science Foundation, personal communication, June 1, 2006.

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