Despite Challenges, USCGC Polar Star Arrives in Antarctica

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star breaks ice in McMurdo Sound near Antarctica on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. U.S. Coast Guard Photo

The 150 crewmembers of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star have arrived in Antarctica along with a resupply vessel as part of Operation Deep Freeze, the annual mission to resupply U.S. interests in Antarctica.

The icebreaker’s arrival comes after the crew experienced multiple mechanical issues, including ship-wide power outages, and against the backdrop of the partial government shutdown that has left Coast Guard servicemembers without pay.

Homeported in Seattle, the 42-year-old Coast Guard cutter is the United States’ only operational heavy icebreaker.

This year, the crew is making their sixth deployment in as many years to directly support the resupply of McMurdo Station – the United States’ main logistics hub in Antarctica. Each year, the Polar Star crew creates a navigable path through seasonal and multi-year ice, sometimes as much as 21-feet thick, allowing a resupply vessel to reach McMurdo Station.

The Coast Guard said the 399-foot, 13,000-ton Polar Star arrived last Thursday after completing an 18-mile trip through the ice to McMurdo Sound, where 400 containers will be offloaded from the supply ship Ocean Giant.

Presently, the U.S. Coast Guard maintains two icebreakers – the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is a medium icebreaker, and the Polar Star.

Commissioned in 1976, the Polar Star is showing its age. During this year’s deployment, the Coast Guard reports that one of the ship’s electrical systems began to smoke, causing damage to wiring in an electrical switchboard, and one of the ship’s two evaporators used to make drinkable water failed.

The ship also experienced a leak from the shaft that drives the ship’s propeller, which halted icebreaking operations so divers could repair the seal around the shaft. A hyperbaric chamber on loan from the U.S. Navy aboard the ship allows Coast Guard divers to make external emergency repairs and inspections of the ship’s hull.

The Coast Guard says the Polar Star also experienced ship-wide power outages while breaking ice. During one outage, crew members spent nine hours shutting down the ship’s power plant and rebooting the electrical system in order to remedy the outages.

The Coast Guard has been the sole provider of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability since 1965, and is seeking to increase its icebreaking fleet with six new Polar Security Cutters in order to ensure continued national presence and access to the Polar Regions.

“Protecting national interests in the Polar regions is essential to ensure the Coast Guard’s national defense strategy and search and rescue capabilities are ready for action, but in order to do so, the icebreaker fleet requires modernization,” the Coast Guard said in a press release.

If a catastrophic event were to happen, such as getting stuck in the ice, the Coast Guard would left without a self-rescue capability. By contrast, Russia currently operates more than 40 icebreakers, including several of which are nuclear powered, the Coast Guard noted.

“While we focus our efforts on creating a peaceful and collaborative environment in the Arctic, we’re also responding to the impacts of increased competition in this strategically important region,” said Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. “Our continued presence will enable us to reinforce positive opportunities and mitigate negative consequences today and tomorrow.”

Operation Deep Freeze is a joint military service mission in support of the National Science Foundation – the lead agency for the United States Antarctic Program. Since 1955, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has assisted in providing air and maritime support throughout the Antarctic continent. This year marks the 63rd iteration of the annual operation.