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USCGC Polar Star Departs for Antarctica Resupply

The nation's only operational heavy icebreaker is headed back to McMurdo Sound

As the thoughts of children around the world turn expectantly toward happenings at the North Pole this holiday season, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star (WAGB 10) departed to help provide goodies for people at the bottom of the world.

The nation’s sole remaining heavy icebreaker left Seattle Sunday, Nov. 30, to begin a four-month trip as part of Operation Deep Freeze, the annual Joint Task Force – Support Forces Antarctica mission to resupply the United States’ National Science Foundation outpost in Antarctica, according to a Coast Guard news release.

Polar Star had been put in a commissioned but not operational status in 2006, and wasn’t taken in hand for refit, repair, and return to service until her sister ship Polar Sea (WAGB 11) was laid up after a major engine casualty in 2010. Left for some time without any heavy icebreakers, the United States actually had to outsource foreign icebreaker support for the vital annual resupply mission.

Polar Star is returning to Antarctica to support the U.S. Antarctic Program and the National Science Foundation. Once there, Polar Star will have to break through 9 to 12 miles of ice in McMurdo Sound, some of it up to 10 feet thick, in order to reach McMurdo Science Station and open a channel for ships carrying needed fuel and supplies.

Polar Star, HECs

Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, a 399-foot polar class icebreaker, is escorted away from the pier at its homeport of Coast Guard Base Seattle by the tugboat Westrac, Nov. 30, 2014. Polar Star is the only heavy icebreaker owned by the United States. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Katelyn Shearer

Coast Guard icebreakers have been deploying to Antarctica for more than 50 years, but Polar Star’s initial visit in 2013-2014, completed this February, was the first by a Coast Guard cutter since 2006-2007.  Polar Star had been put in a commissioned but not operational status in 2006, and wasn’t taken in hand for refit, repair, and return to service until her sister ship Polar Sea (WAGB 11) was laid up after a major engine casualty in 2010. Left for some time without any heavy icebreakers, the United States actually had to outsource foreign icebreaker support for the vital annual resupply mission. This was only possible because other nations with similar Arctic and Antarctic interests have much more extensive icebreaking capabilities than the United States. Canada, for example, has six heavy icebreakers in commission. Finland and Sweden both have seven, and Russia has approximately 25 icebreakers, several of them nuclear-powered.

At a time when there is a greater need than ever for icebreakers, the Coast Guard is now in the preliminary stages of an acquisition project for a new polar icebreaker, but in today’s budget climate the paramount concern would seem to be where funding will come from for the sea service that traditionally has taken on more missions with less money than any other.

Today, the Coast Guard’s only other operational large icebreaker is the newer, 420-foot Healy. While a very capable ship with excellent scientific facilities, Healy was not designed to break through ice as thick as Polar Star.

The 399-foot Polar Star was commissioned in 1976, and emerged from her $90 million extended refit in late 2013. In December 2013, Polar Star was dispatched to Antarctica for her Operation Deep Freeze mission to break a path through the ice to resupply McMurdo Station.

Polar Star has a crew of 140. The ship can break continuously through 6 feet of ice, and can smash through up to 21 feet of ice by backing and ramming. At a time when there is a greater need than ever for icebreakers, the Coast Guard is now in the preliminary stages of an acquisition project for a new polar icebreaker, but in today’s budget climate the paramount concern would seem to be where funding will come from for the sea service that traditionally has taken on more missions with less money than any other.

If only Santa Claus could deliver a shiny new polar icebreaker…