uscgc polar star

McMurdo Resupply Canceled – US’s Only Heavy Icebreaker Will Go North Instead

John Konrad
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November 4, 2020

The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star breaks ice in McMurdo Sound near Antarctica on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. The crew of the Seattle-based Polar Star is on deployment to Antarctica in support of Operation Deep Freeze 2018, the U.S. military’s contribution to the National Science Foundation-managed U.S. Antarctic Program. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen.

This year the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, the nation’s only heavy icebreaker, will not deploy to Antarctica to resupply McMurdo station this year because Operation Deep Freeze was canceled due to COVID. Instead, she will head to the Arctic this winter to “protect the nation’s maritime sovereignty and security in the region”.

Operating close to home might be a safer option for the aging icebreaker. Last year, on her voyage home from McMurdo, the 150 crewmembers of the Polar Star fought a fire that broke out in the ship’s incinerator room about 650 miles north of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.

RELATED BOOK: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing and Nathaniel Philbrick

The U.S. Coast Guard maintains two icebreakers – the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is a medium icebreaker, and the Polar Star, the United States’ only heavy icebreaker. If a catastrophic event, such as getting stuck in the ice, were to happen to the Healy in the Arctic or to the Polar Star near Antarctica, the U.S. Coast Guard is left without a self-rescue capability.

By contrast, Russia currently operates more than 40 icebreakers – several of which are nuclear powered.

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 new polar security cutters in order to ensure continued national presence and access to the Polar Regions.

As the nation’s primary maritime presence in the polar regions, the Coast Guard advances U.S. national interests through a unique blend of polar operational capability, regulatory authority, and international leadership across the full spectrum of maritime governance. In April 2019, the Coast Guard released the Arctic Strategic Outlook, which reaffirms the service’s commitment to the region.

“The Arctic is no longer an emerging frontier, but is instead a region of growing national importance,” said Vice Adm. Linda Fagan, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area. “The Coast Guard is committed to protecting U.S. sovereignty and working with our partners to uphold a safe, secure, and rules-based Arctic.”

Typically, the Polar Star travels to Antarctica each year in support of Operation Deep Freeze, the annual military mission to resupply the United States’ Antarctic stations, in support of the National Science Foundation. This year’s maritime resupply at McMurdo Station was canceled due to COVID safety precautions, and a limited resupply will be conducted via aircraft. However, Operation Deep Freeze is an enduring mission that requires a heavy icebreaker for a full resupply, and the Coast Guard anticipates resuming this critical deployment next year.

RELATED BOOK: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing and Nathaniel Philbrick

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