Nation’s sole heavy icebreaker returns to Antarctica to resupply American scientists

An icebreaker docked in Dutch Harbor
The Polar Star sits in the Port of Dutch Harbor in January, 2021. The ship is nearly 400 feet long and can break ice up to 21 feet thick (Photo by Hope McKenney/KUCB)

The nation’s sole heavy icebreaker arrived in Antarctica on Monday after a nearly three-month trip from Seattle.

The deployment marks the Polar Star’s 25th journey to the earth’s southernmost continent, supporting Operation Deep Freeze, an annual mission to resupply American scientists doing research near the South Pole, according to a Coast Guard statement.

Each year, the crew maneuvers the nearly 400-foot, 13,000-ton icebreaker to cut a channel to McMurdo Station, the U.S. Antarctic Program’s logistics hub. It carves through miles of ice, sometimes up to 21-feet thick.

This winter, the icebreaker’s 157 crew members spent four weeks breaking ice and grooming the shipping channel to the station, which was established on Ross Island in 1955.

The cleared route will enable two supply vessels to safely offload more than 8 million gallons of fuel and a thousand cargo containers. Together, the two ships carry enough fuel, food and critical supplies to sustain research operations throughout the year. Supply ships will return again during the next austral summer — the season in the Southern Hemisphere that runs from about November to February.

The mission marks the Polar Star’s first return to Antarctica since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Coast Guard statement.

Last winter, instead of going south, the 46-year-old icebreaker conducted an Arctic deployment, and stopped in the Port of Dutch Harbor for the first time since 2013.

It was the ship’s first winter Arctic deployment in nearly four decades.

The Polar Star patrolled Alaska’s Arctic waters, including the maritime boundary line separating the U.S. and Russia, to assert maritime sovereignty and security in the far north and train the next generation of polar sailors.

Last winter’s patrol was the farthest north any American ship has sailed in the winter months.

The Coast Guard has been the sole provider of the nation’s polar icebreaking capability since 1965, according to the statement. Commissioned in 1976, the Polar Star is the United States’ only heavy icebreaker. The Coast Guard is increasing its icebreaking fleet with construction of three new polar security cutters “to ensure persistent national presence and reliable access to the polar regions.”

The construction on the first new icebreaker is expected to be completed in 2024.

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