Heavy Icebreaker USCGC ‘Polar Star’ Departs Honolulu on Annual Resupply Mission to Antarctica

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star backs and rams through dense ice off the Antarctic coast, Jan. 15, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard Photo

 The United States’ only heavy icebreaker departed Honolulu on Friday bound for Antarctica as part of annual resupply mission for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP).

During the mission, known as Operation Deep Freeze, the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star will establish a channel through 15 miles of ice in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, sometimes up to 10 feet in thickness, to resupply the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole stations.

“Operation Deep Freeze, the U.S. military’s contribution to the National Science Foundation-managed, civilian USAP, is unlike any other U.S. military operation,” said Capt. Michael Davanzo, commanding officer of Polar Star. “It’s one of the most difficult U.S. military peacetime missions due to the harsh environment and extreme remoteness in which it is conducted.”

Polar Star is homeported in Seattle and carries approximately 150 crewmembers, 1.5 million gallons of fuel, and enough food stores to last one year in the ice should it be necessary. Polar Star is 399-feet long, 13,500 tons, 84-feet wide, has a 34-foot draft (same as an aircraft carrier), 75,000 horse power and nine engines (six diesels, three jet-turbines). The ship can break continuously through six feet of ice and can break through up to 21 feet of ice by backing and ramming. The 41-year-old cutter is expected to reach the end of its extended service life by 2023.

Operation Deep Freeze is a joint service, resupply mission to Antarctica in support of the National Science Foundation, the lead organization for Antarctic research.

The channel which the USCG Polar Star will be breaking will later be used by two Military Sealift Command-chartered vessels, a tanker and cargo ship, which will deliver 100% of the fuel and cargo needed for the year to the McMurdo Station ice pier. Military Sealift Command has participated in every mission since the inception of ODF in 1955.

An interesting tidbit, the McMurdo Station ice-pier is literally a pier made out of ice, and in 2012 it had to be re-built due to uncharacteristically high temperatures. Last winter however, the Polar Star had to break through more than 60 miles of ice to reach the Station, far more than the 12 to 13 miles of ice it typically breaks through each year.