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Polar Icebreakers in a Changing World: An Assessment of U.S. Needs
presence and power in a manner that served U.S. interests. Construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line radars looking toward the former Soviet Union necessitated a year-round presence, creating a need for a better understanding of the Arctic environment and improvement in our ability to work and live in the extreme cold. The establishment of research facilities in Barrow was an outgrowth of political and military necessities of the time.
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,” leading to society’s widespread discontinuance of the use of chlorofluorocarbons. Understanding how both polar regions affect global ocean circulation affects the understanding of 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 has 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 cryopreservation techniques.
The Arctic and Antarctic are natural laboratories whose extreme, relatively pristine environments and geographically unique settings enable research on fundamental phenomena and processes that is not feasible elsewhere. Today, researchers seek better understanding of how new ocean crusts form, how organisms adapt to the extremes of temperature and seasonality (light conditions), how ice sheets behave, and how the solar wind and the earth interact. Unexplored, subglacial lakes in the Antarctic that have been sealed from the atmosphere for millions of years are soon to be sampled. Beneath the South Pole Station, a cubic kilometer of clear ice is being instrumented with 5,000 detectors to observe high-energy neutrinos that may tell us about phenomena such as supernovae. Pristine ice cores that span centuries give direct data about temperature changes and atmospheric gas concentrations.
As global climate has garnered worldwide attention, the polar regions have been found to react acutely to fluctuations in climate and temperatures. The 40 percent reduction in Arctic sea-ice thickness over the past four decades is one of the most dramatic examples of recent changes. Because ice tends to reflect solar radiation and water absorbs it, melting in the polar regions can exert a strong influence on both atmospheric climate and ocean circulation. Huge reservoirs of water are held in massive ice sheets and glaciers; substantive release would create major climate and social dislocations. Thus, research in these regions that play a pivotal role in global Earth systems is of critical importance. Scientists have declared 2007-2008 the International Polar Year. Multinational collaboration and new polar research activities are planned.
The health and continued vitality of polar research are intimately linked to the availability of the appropriate infrastructure and logistical support to allow scientists to work in these harsh environments. Conducting research in the polar regions is as complex and challenging as conducting research in space. Access to the polar regions is essential if the United States is to continue to be a leader in polar science. To operate reliably and safely in these regions necessitates a national icebreaking capability. Icebreakers enable resupply of the land-based stations and field camps in the south. Lack of availability of polar icebreakers has precluded some research in the Southern Ocean where ice is heavy. Access to the central Arctic Basin is essential to a variety of explorations, including some data collection for UNCLOS claim-related interests. While other assets and platforms such as airplanes and spaceborne sensors are useful technological tools, surface ground-truth and in situ sampling cannot be replaced. There are no land sites in the central Arctic. Only an icebreaker can support a research program of sustained scientific measurement. The availability of adequate icebreaking capabilities will be essential to advancing research in the polar regions.
Recommendation 3: The United States should maintain leadership in polar research. This requires icebreaking capability to provide access to the deep Arcticand the ice-covered waters of the Antarctic.
RENEWAL OF THE NATION’S POLAR ICEBREAKINGFLEET
Projecting an active and influential presence in the polar regions requires that the United States be able to access polar sites at various time of the year, reliably and at will. It is the judgment of this committee that this need is only partially fulfilled by airborne, spaceborne, and submarine assets and that a physical surface presence is necessitated by geopolitics. In recent correspondence to the committee, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security further validated that icebreaking capability is necessary to protect national interests in the polar regions. Assured access to the polar regions is therefore a key tenet: The United States needs to maintain a national capability to break heavy, multiyear ice in the northern and southern polar regions. Based on these broad missions, the committee believes that the core of the icebreaking fleet must be the multimission ships operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, a military organization.
Only polar icebreakers can ensure this vital access, reliably and at will. Since the Second World War, the United States has possessed a capable, world class icebreaker fleet that afforded wide access to the polar regions. The current seagoing U.S. fleet of four ships includes three multimission ships operated by the U.S. Coast Guard and one ship, the PALMER, dedicated to scientific research and appropriately operated by the National Science Foundation. One of the three multimission ships, the HEALY, was commissioned in